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Connecting Gippsland through positive storytelling.


Hollie Johnson

Enjoy the following conversation with Hollie Johnson; a driven woman with an exciting future ahead.

Jul 6, 2021

Words: Gippslandia

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Have you heard that fact about icebergs? That 90 per cent of an iceberg sits below the water, leaving only a fraction of it visible to those cruising past?

Hollie Johnson kinda feels like an iceberg.

Because in chatting with Hollie, we kept realising there is so much more to learn. To uncover. We were aware of her passion for First Nations people and the Gunaikurnai language, but not her continued teaching, mentoring, photography, involvement in a clothing brand, a mural… Hollie’s cool projects kept revealing themselves.

Not only that, it feels as though Hollie epitomises a much larger movement, one with a groundswell of support that isn’t always visible either, one that’s pushing for First Nations culture to be more openly celebrated in Australia.

Enjoy the following conversation with Hollie; we hope it fills you with excitement at what this driven woman could possibly accomplish in the future.

“There were only a handful of us, but it certainly ignited something."

Gippslandia: So, who is Hollie Johnson?
Hollie Johnson: I'm a proud Gunaikurnai and Monero Ngarigo woman. I've been fortunate enough to grow up and currently work on my grandparents' Country.

I’m the youngest [child] and only daughter of a family of six and an auntie to an adorable 10-year-old nephew. We have a handsome 13-year-old Jack Russell. We've always been ‘dog people’, ever since I can remember, and even before I was born from all the photos I've seen.

I grew up with my cousins, as they tend to be your first friends, and have a big family on both sides — my Dad has six siblings and Mum has seven siblings. We had a ball growing up.

Always an active kid, whether it's sport at school or outside of it, like Little Athletics, ballet and tap, basketball or gymnastics. I’ve always been creative too, with both sides of the family into their own forms of art: painting, motorbikes or woodcraft. The list goes on.

This is hard to answer…

I'm someone who tries to do right by what I feel is the right thing to do. I tend to put others before myself and do my best in turning up for others, usually forgetting to think of myself. But I'm learning that sometimes I need to [remember about myself], particularly if my body says so, because we can't function at our best if our body isn't.

I’m loyal and supportive to those in my life, while, again, growing and learning to accept myself and the way things are. My family have always been involved in the community: the ones that get stuck in there for others, the quiet achievers who are a part of getting the job done.

Please share the route you’ve taken while learning Gunaikurnai?
In 2008, as a Year 10 high school student, I was asked if I'd be interested in studying language by my aunty, who was working with VACL (Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages) at the time.

It was a VCE subject and I didn't think I could take it on, so I waited until the year after to do the VCE Indigenous Languages of Victoria. I think I was a bit of a guinea pig. My Aunty Lyn was my teacher and I would travel with Mum into her work at GippsTAFE Morwell to learn the local Gunaikurnai language as the program was run out of the Koorie Unit.

There were only a handful of us, but it certainly ignited something. After I graduated, I got offered a Traineeship with VACL. While studying the Certificate III in Australian Languages and Aboriginal Cultures I also got to teach 3–5-year-olds the language at a kindergarten and daycare, while also attending workshops, meetings and forums.

Was there a shift from when this knowledge of traditional language changed from being important to someone else (them teaching you) to being important to you (you wanting to learn more)?
I've always found Indigenous languages important, particularly ours, given that our old people weren't allowed to speak it. Having this opportunity was a great privilege and to be taught by my aunties is very special.

Doing the subject at school, then at TAFE, ignited another passion of wanting this to be taught in all schools, along with history and culture, and I want to be a part of that. I'm hoping that one day soon, I can.

Do you agree with the idea that the language we use frames or influences the way we think? Would you have any personal examples of this?
Yes, both verbal and non-verbal. Indigenous and Aboriginal English. The slang and lingo we use within our communities to communicate
with each other is an immense aspect of the way we think, interact and, most importantly, connect as First Nations People.

I imagine Indigenous people from all over the world share that with their people. It is a huge part of our being, as it connects us to the spirits and the land. We, as First Nations People, are interconnected with the land, and language plays a role in that.

What are the language or traditional knowledge projects that you're involved with now?
At the moment, I work with AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience), and ever since I joined four years ago I wanted to ensure that I incorporate cultural aspects into the program wherever I could.

Currently I’m working on a mural with one of the schools we’re involved with. The mural encapsulates the surrounding environment by presenting the story of Borun the Pelican and Tuk the Musk Duck: the mother and father of the Gunaikurnai People.

I'm heading back to my old high school to talk during their R.E. class (religious education) about culture, history, storytelling and what it's like growing up as a blackfella nowadays.

A personal project (thanks to my work) is that I'm hoping to start running my own program with kids in the local area. Starting off with yarning circles, then branching out to storytelling and learning about the history, culture and language of our people, with hopes of it eventually being incorporated into the curriculum. Also, being a member of the community the kids can confide in, as our young ones have so much going on these days and we need more of this for them.

In Gippsland, what can be done to celebrate our First Nations languages and speakers more?
I'd say first acknowledging, respecting and being open-minded when it comes to First Nations people. To accept that people may speak more than one language and that English may not be their first language. To embrace the diversity that we are all so fortunate to share and for it to be celebrated together.

How does your generation view traditional languages?
From what I've seen, teachers and principals want it to be taught in schools. I think there is still a bit of shame for the younger ones when it comes to learning our culture and languages, as we don't all know where we come from and who we belong to.

With the stereotyping, judgement, bullying and racism that occurs, it is a big part of why our young ones are hesitating and resisting. But by paving the way for the kids coming through and being there for them, we will hopefully help them get there in starting their journey.

The kids thrive off learning anything about culture. When I was teaching the little kids during my studies, it had great results. They even had to put some of the words in the school newsletter so that parents and carers knew what the kids were saying and could share that with them.

My age group want it, love it and shine from excitement any time we are taught or learn a new word or phrase from our language. Getting to share that with each other, and the similarities and realisation of borrowed or shared words, adds even more connection for the First Nations mob.

Can you please share how the clothing company Deadly Wears was started?
My cousin came to me last year and said she had an idea, something that's been stewing away in her head.

As a family, I think we've always wanted to start a business and, as strong knowledge holders, it's great that we are making it happen.

Starting small with Deadly Wears, we're concentrating on caring for Country, putting First Nations people first and encouraging others to ‘wear their ethics’. The apparel the three of us work on spreads messages about looking after ourselves by looking after Country, including ethical materials, packaging and sharing knowledge and storytelling of how we take care of Country.

Again, as First Nations people, this is part of us being one with the land. We look after her and she looks after us, but we need everyone to be a part of doing this. There’s a bigger picture we are working towards, something that the future generations and our community will be a part of too, but we will discuss that further another day.

Hollie, you're also a photographer, which, unlike linguistics, requires no words, but it's a powerful tool of communication. How do you aim to convey the truth or a story via your photography? Do you feel the two interests complement each other?
I've always found (and been told by photographers, such as Wayne Quilliam and Tracey Moffatt, who I've been fortunate enough to meet) that the story is told through the eyes. It presents what is being told and it is up to the viewer how they want to read what is in front of them, whether that is the truth or a story, and I hope that my work conveys both.

Somehow I feel they do interconnect and complement each other, I don't really yet know how. Both share the truth and a story, the many stories of First Nations people, and I look forward to seeing what comes of all that I've learnt and will continue to learn.

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