Friday, October 5, 2012

In Celebration of Dianne Johnson (1947-2012)

It is with much sadness that I report on the passing of Dr Dianne Johnson (1947-2012).  Dianne was a staunch advocate for Aboriginal rights and wrote the definitive book on Aboriginal Astronomy in 1998, entitled "Nights Skies of Aboriginal Australia: a Noctuary".

I first met Dianne at the AIATSIS Symposium on Australian Indigenous Astronomy in Canberra on 27 November 2009.  She gave a phenomenal talk on the Pleiades in Aboriginal cultures and we had a nice chat.  We met again at the Oxford IX symposium on Archaeoastronomy & Astronomy in Culture in Lima, Peru in January 2011.  Over coffees, cooked llama, and the occasional deep-fried guinea pig, we chatted about cultural astronomy, her experiences writing her book, and her ideas about forming dark-sky reserves in Australia.  She was enthusiastic and engaging.  It was a shock when I heard she passed, but I feel we should celebrate her life and her efforts to improve the state of Aboriginal affairs in Australia and for her amazing contribution to the field of Aboriginal Astronomy.

RIP Dianne - you will be missed but your legacy lives on.

The following is an obituary written by Malcolm Brown for the Sydney Morning Herald:

Dianne Johnson's restless intellect could have taken her anywhere, but so did her social conscience and her inclination to draw closer to indigenous people.

A social anthropologist by training, a world traveller, an educator, artist and writer, Johnson drew close to the history and culture of the Aboriginal people, especially of the Blue Mountains where she spent the latter period of her life. It was not just about justice and land rights, though she contributed to that debate, but quite unusual aspects, such as Aboriginal astronomy, in the publication Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia: A Noctuary. She wrote critically about injustice to the indigenous people in the law, and a historical work about the French explorer Bruny d'Entrecasteaux and his encounters with the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Cultural Campaigner
Dianne Johnson fought for the rights of Indigenous Australians

Dianne Dorothy Johnson was born on January 11, 1947, daughter of an agronomist, Austin Johnson, and Margery (nee Ashton), the eldest of three daughters. She attended Newcastle Girls High and the Sydney Kindergarten Teachers College, and decided then, in 1968, to take up a position as the director of a preschool in Port Moresby. That began a love affair with Papua New Guinea and inspired her to enrol in anthropology at Sydney University.

She did archaeological fieldwork on the Murray and the Nullarbor, and for a time was torn between anthropology and social archaeology. Completing her honours year in anthropology in 1971, she met an up-and-coming lawyer, George Zdenkowski. Graduating with first-class honours, she and Zdenkowski went to Paris in 1973 and returned the following year to take up residence in inner Sydney. She resumed her connection with PNG, choosing as her PhD the role of powerful women in government in that country after it gained independence.

Johnson went with Zdenkowski to England, where he was doing six months' study leave at the University of Sheffield. She gave birth to a son, Sasha, in 1977, went to PNG in 1980-81 to do fieldwork for her thesis, and had a daughter, Sophie, in 1983, marrying the next year. Despite her heavy workload, which included lecturing in anthropology at Sydney University, and at the Sydney Kindergarten Teachers College, as well as home duties, she completed her thesis and in 1988 moved to the Blue Mountains.

Johnson became a director of Katoomba-Leura PreSchool. She joined the staff of the Blue Mountains TAFE and the CWA evening group. But she also resumed her interest in indigenous affairs and worked with members of the Darug and Gundungurra Nations, the traditional landowners in the mountains. She wrote a volume of poetry, The Jewel Box.

With Bob Brown in early 2012

She criss-crossed the nation to write Lighting the Way: Reconciliation Stories. Johnson also wrote an extensive report for the Gundungurra native title claim, and another that led to part of the Blue Mountains being declared "The Gully", as an Aboriginal Place, the largest such area in NSW. Her biography of Darug nation elder, the late Aunty Joan Cooper, Through the Front Door  helped in Aunty Joan being made an officer of the Order of Australia. With Zdenkowski, she wrote a book on the injustice of mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory. She was also a book reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald. She wrote about tenosynovitis and, for the Journal of Garden History, an article on geraniums, and became involved in the Azaria Chamberlain case.

Johnson's landmark book, Sacred Waters: The Story of the Blue Mountains Gully Traditional Owners won the NSW Premier's History Prize in 2008. But she was not prepared to rest on accolades. Zdenkowski said: ''When she was writing a book on indigenous astronomies - inspired by her encounter with Halley's Comet - she decided to immerse herself in an astrophysics course at Sydney University and casually considered doing a post-doc on the subject until wiser counsel, being myself, prevailed. For her article on geraniums - and her determination to ensure once and for all that the confusion with pelargoniums must cease - she travelled widely. I think it is the only article that links, in a footnote, the bad press that geraniums have had over the years with the scene in the woodshed in D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.''

Dianne in Tasmania

Johnson's penultimate book, Hut in the Wild, included for research purposes a trip to Dixon's Hut in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park in Tasmania. The book spoke powerfully and lyrically about her love of huts and the wilderness. In her last years, though suffering serious health problems, Johnson completed the study of Bruny d'Entrecasteaux, the book launched in Hobart by Bob Brown and by former minister Neal Blewett earlier this year. Dianne Johnson died of a heart attack on May 3. Her funeral was at Leura on May 9. She is survived by her husband, George Zdenkowski, son Sasha, daughter Sophie, son-in-law Fotis and sister Barbara. Her youngest sister, Helen, predeceased her.


  1. Hi Duane,

    Sorry to hear of Dianne's passing. Life is so short! May we all follow her example and make the beauty that we love the work we do.


  2. Oh, I am also sorry to hear of this (quite late too, as it's now December). I have her book 'Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia'.