Elverina Johnson (Bunya Badjil – good woman) is a Gunganji Gurugulu woman of Yarrabah from her grandfather’s lineage and of Yidindji Gimuy from her grandmother’s lineage. She is a direct descendant of King Menmuny of the Gunganji Nation of Yarrabah and King Yinnie of Cairns.
Elverina has been involved in the arts and creative industries for over twenty-five years as an artist in visual and performing arts. She has also been a manager of various projects within and outside her community. As a performing artist in her own right, she has performed as a singer for various major projects including ‘Yarrabah the Musical’ by Opera Australia, the Yarrabah Brass Band Festival by the Queensland Music Festival, and numerous community and performance events. She has been particularly instrumental in bringing to life the history of the Yarrabah Brass Bands, which became a major exhibition for the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane. ‘Blow ’Im: The Yarrabah Brass Band Story’ was also written as a play by Elverina and toured Queensland schools for a record of four years.
Elverina Johnson is a recipient of major civic awards, such as the Rona Tranby Trust Award for her work recording and preserving the oral histories of Australian Indigenous elders, and the state of Queensland’s Smart Women/Smart State Award for Community Innovation. She has been a strong advocate for her community and for the rights of Indigenous people and over the years has streamed her advocacy through her various art forms.
Mission Bay shoreline at Yarrabah
The Yarrabah Aboriginal community has a multi-faceted history that mirrors the colonial experiences of many Indigenous peoples in the Far North Queensland region. It is approximately sixty kilometres southeast of Cairns at Mission Bay near Cape Grafton and is situated between the rainforests of the Murray Prior Range and the beaches, reefs and islands of the Coral Sea.
Yarrabah is located in the historical homeland of the Gunganji (Gungandji, Gundggandji) people, who had lived in the area for millennia. Anglican missionary Ernest Gribble campaigned to establish a mission in the early 1890s, albeit with strong opposition from European settlers and businesses at nearby Cairns. They were determined to dispossess all Indigenous peoples of their lands and livelihoods so as to expand agriculture, logging and sugar cane plantations.
This followed on from the colonisers’ widespread policy that encouraged the ‘dispersal’ of Aboriginal people. Either directly through violence and massacres or more indirectly via resource destruction, starvation or epidemics triggered by introduced diseases. In 1893, Gribble was able to convince the Aboriginal leader Menmuny to move with his people to the mission, which became known eventually as Yarrabah. Over the following decades other Aboriginal people settled there too as did some Australian South Sea Islanders and Torres Strait Islanders.
The community has often been proactive in fighting for better conditions. However, when the Anglican Church controlled the community those agitating for change could be expelled and some were forced to leave. Eventually, the Queensland government assumed control from the Anglican Church in 1960 and Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) land tenure was approved in 1986. Consequently, a level of self-government was established under the auspices of an Aboriginal Community Council. In 2005 the Council attained the authority of a legal local government body known as the Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council.
The current population of Yarrabah is over three thousand people and the community provides services for its residents such as a primary school, library, store and art centre. Music and music events have always been of particular importance to the Yarrabah community. These include a recent successful revival of the brass bands of the mission era and collaborations with the Queensland Opera and the Queensland Music Festival. Most recently, the internationally famous children’s group, the Wiggles, recorded a version of their song ‘Rock-a-Bye Your Bear’ in the Gunganji language with local school children and musicians including Elverina Johnson.