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Media release

27 February 2019

It is with great sadness that we can confirm that one of our trusted advisors on Dharawal cultural heritage, Les Bursill OAM, passed away suddenly following illness.

Les collaborated with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) for many years as an impassioned advocate for the recognition of indigenous cultural heritage, and more recently, was a key advisor to the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility Taskforce.

“We were very sad to learn the news about our colleague and supporter Les Bursill,” said ANSTO CEO Dr Adi Paterson.

“Les frequently performed the welcome to country address at our events, and advised us on special projects like the Dharawal mural at ANSTO, among many other things. The selection of the Dharawal word ‘nandin’ meaning “meeting place” was a recommendation from Les. The new facility is now strengthening relationships between ANSTO and local industry. ANSTO has lost too many good friends this year.”

Les was committed to capturing the history of Dharawal people in the Southern Sydney area and working with other indigenous custodians to record the cultural record in rock art and artefacts.

He was an historian, archaeologist, anthropologist and publisher.

Adnyamathanha elder, Tiger McKenzie, met Les when he visited ANSTO, and was pleased to host him last year when Les came to see Tiger’s country.

“I would like to thank Les for sharing his culture and taking us around his country, and telling his traditional stories when we visited ANSTO. It made us feel very special and it was great to see his heritage and spiritual connection. He left a cultural legacy that will live on forever for his tribe, people and all Australians,” Tiger said.

Bruce Wilson from the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science said that Les made an enormous contribution in the time that he worked with the radioactive waste management team.

“The radioactive waste management team were saddened to learn of the passing of Les. Les was a man of great tolerance, compassion and love for his people and culture. He gave us the gifts of knowledge, understanding and insight, and will be sorely missed.”

Les was a co-author of a publication, “The Story of the Dharawal speaking people of Southern Sydney” published by the Department of Communications, Information technology and the Arts with the cooperation of the Kurranulla Aboriginal Corporation.

As a speaker of Dharawal, Les was keen to ensure the longevity of the language. His mother and her forebears came from the area between Kangaroo Valley and the coast near Nowra.

Les would often say that he was born just over the hill so he “belonged’ to this area really and truly.

Les produced a collection of Dharawal words, phrases, tree ferns and tree names.

He was a former lecturer in mental health and counselling at the University of Sydney and an adjunct lecturer at Charles Sturt University.

Les was awarded a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of letters in History and Archaeology at the University of New England.

Although he worked in various careers in his life, his passion and dedication to Dharawal culture and commitment to assisting indigenous person in custody drove him to make lifelong contributions.

He was also a great facilitator in reconciling Australians with indigenous peoples.

“There is nothing he enjoyed more than a walk out into his country to try and find evidence of Dharawal culture,” said ANSTO’s Karen Wolfe, who knew Les for many years.

“His spirit will remain in those places he helped preserve, including our mural,” said Wolfe.

A funeral was held for Les on Tuesday 26 February at Woronora Memorial Park Cemetery.

*friend in Dharawal

Media contact 

Philip McCall

0438 619 987