In celebration of the 2023 NAIDOC theme, For Our Elders, we sat down for a yarn with Aunty Lyn Johnson, an Elder of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji and Traditional Owner of the Daintree Lowland Rainforest.
Aunty Lyn Johnson is many things; a health worker, Cultural knowledge holder, grandmother, Elder, and community leader.
At the core of it all is a passion for healing, based around her connection to Country.
Aunty Lyn Johnson and Jabalbina Ranger Victor Tayley
The Eastern Kuku Yalanji are the owners of the Daintree National Park and Traditional Owners of the Daintree Lowland Rainforest.
Their Country (Bubu) runs along the east coast of Far North Queensland, and includes land and sea between Port Douglas and just south of Cooktown.
Since its inception four years ago, Rainforest 4 Foundation has worked in partnership with the Eastern Kuku Yalanji’s registered cultural body, the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation, to protect rainforest in the area and ensure ownership and management of land is returned to its Traditional Owners.
For them, connection to Country is of utmost importance.
“Home is where the heart is, where your spirit is, where your wawu is,” she says.
“I’m from Banabilla but all the coast is my country. I consider Australia one of the most beautiful places on Earth because we’ve got the sun, the sea, the surf and the rainforest.
“We’ve got magical mountains and the stories. What more do you want?”
Joshua Paterson and Aunty Lyn Johnson (Jabalbina), and Richard Christian (CEO, Rainforest 4 Foundation) at a historic handover of land to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people in Bloomfield in 2021.
Aunty Lyn remembers running around the Daintree as a young child, swimming in waterholes and learning about her cultural identity and a strong spiritual connection from her grandad Jinabudji (Ayton), a Banabilla Wujal man.
She also grew up hearing the stories of her Elders and ancestors who also called the Daintree home.
And their stories were unique. Her other grandfather, Jimmy Johnson, would have been living in south Jalunwarra near Cape Tribulation, when Europeans came north of the Daintree River for the first time in 1923, and to Kulki (Cape Tribulation) in 1929.
“They used to row out to the ocean and go up to Wujal, and that was when the Masons were around,” Aunty Lyn says.
“That’s where I learnt about language. Growing up they spoke all their language, they were very fluent.
“For me culture has always been strong. Culture is always in your heart, it's in your mind and it's in your spirit and body. So as you grow up you learn the language. You learn about the environment, you learn about where your Bubu is, your Madja (rainforest). And you carry it [on your journey].”
Aunty Lyn Johnson at Mossman Primary School
Her own journey took an unexpected turn, when she was removed from her mother’s care in Mossman in 1969 and sent to Hopevale with an Aunty.
There, she went to Cooktown Primary, then Maryborough Girls High School, before returning to Hopevale to work as a cleaner.
One couple she cleaned for, Gloria and Ray Evans, took her with them to Swan Hill when she was 16.
“That’s where I got the opportunity to work in the nursing career,” she says.
“I had the world at my feet and by jingo, did I use those feet.”
After completing her training in the 70s, and working in health in other parts of Victoria, she felt a pull back to the Daintree.
“The longing to go home was my sense of old people calling me home,” she says.
“They don’t tell you, but they steer you to the right places, right people, right time.”
The time away from Bubu made it tough to come back to Country and reconnect with her Bama (people), but she soon found work at the Mt Kooyong Nursing Home.
Aunty Lyn Johnson during her nursing years
In the early 90s, she began a new position as an Aboriginal health worker.
“It changed my perception of health, because then I started looking at holistic health,” she says.
Guided by her Elders, Aunty Lyn ended up working in the counselling space and along the way her healing career allowed her to be a part of important moments in history.
On February 13, 2008, she was in Canberra for the Apology to the Stolen Generations.
And as she reintegrated into the Yalanji community, she also became involved with the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation.
It led her to a role as Chair of the Board, during which time she was part of a historic moment - the handing over of the title to four national parks to Eastern Kuku Yalanji.
It was a moment that Rainforest 4 Foundation was proud to be a part of too.
“It was an amazing day - I’d been on such a high leading up to it it was like I was flying,” she says.
“You can feel the old people there with you. It was one of the best days of my life I think - I was becoming an Elder then and I should have realised but I didn’t.
“I can honestly say to my grandchildren, nan was part of this.”
She was also chosen to accept the Premier’s Award for Reconciliation in the 2021 Queensland Reconciliation Awards in Townsville.
The awards recognised outstanding initiatives driving reconciliation, and was given in recognition of the unique partnership between Jabalbina Yalanji and Rainforest 4 Foundation – the only formalised, non-Government program which purchases land for conservation to be owned and managed by its Traditional Owners.
Aunty Lyn Johnson (left), accepts the Premier's Award for Reconciliation in 2021.
"That was our award, reward for that work,” she says.
“It was for being on Country, working in collaboration. Never in my life have I thought we would get that for Jabalbina.
“Then the culmination for me was the country given back.”
She has since stepped down from her role as Chair of Jabalbina, but the work continues between Jabalbina and Rainforest 4 Foundation today, with 28 Daintree properties now purchased to be included in the Daintree National Park (CYPAL) and collaborative rainforest restoration projects led by the Jabalbina Rangers.
“You’re blessed that the old people continue to show you what is important,” she says.
“I’ve been doing social and emotional health and wellbeing for so long, the environment - we sit in it. We are it. We become a part of it, and it’s part of healing.
“It’s been a privilege being a part of it.”