Aunty Lillian Burke has lived in almost every state and territory in Australia – but it wasn’t until she arrived in Gympie in south-east Queensland in 2004 that the Aboriginal elder truly felt at home.
“I always felt there was something missing in me until I came to Gympie,” says the Butchulla woman, who has since discovered that she shares heritage with the Gympie region’s Gubbi Gubbi people. “I feel now that it was my destiny to come here.”
Energised by the discovery that her biological grandmother was a Gubbi Gubbi woman and with a newly completed Diploma in Community Services under her belt, the mother of four threw herself into volunteering in Gympie and across south-east Queensland. In the past 15 years, Aunty Lillian estimates she has volunteered for up to 100 advisory boards, committees and consultancy groups.
She says: “Anything and everything to do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, everybody calls me. ‘Ring Aunty Lil’, they say.”
She’s most active in Gympie, where she is the president of Cooloola Aboriginal Services and runs the annual NAIDOC celebrations and Sorry Day. But she is also a key member of the Indigenous Advisory Committee on Fraser Island, the ancestral homeland of the Butchulla people. The Butchulla were forcibly removed from Fraser Island around 1900.
Aunty Lillian was dispossessed as a child when she was removed from her family in Cherbourg and forced to live in a girls’ institution. “We were forbidden to talk language and culture,” she says.
Her volunteer work today is as much about discovering and absorbing Indigenous culture herself as it is about supporting and educating other First Australians. “I am proud to be an Aboriginal person,” she says. “I’m proud of my culture. I never get tired of knowing about it.”
In recent years, she has become active at Gympie State High School, where she has been named the school’s adopted elder. “She’s a great role model and a great mentor for a lot of our kids,” says Ray Gibb, community education counsellor at the school. “Some of our kids are in care, they don’t have a family network, they don’t know where they’re from. Aunty Lillian provides that identity for them, making them feel like they belong to a culture.” She adds: “Every student here knows Aunty Lillian. She’s a trooper.”
Aunty Lillian’s service to the community has lately been recognised three times over: she received Volunteering Queensland’s Lifetime Contribution to Volunteering Award in 2016, was named an Honorary Senior Fellow of the University of the Sunshine Coast in 2018 and was nominated for the Queensland Senior Australian of the Year Award in 2019.
Not that she went looking for the recognition. “I’m a very quiet person,” she says. “I don’t like being in the spotlight. I don’t expect recognition and I don’t expect things back.”
She says her biggest dream is that Australia will one day achieve true reconciliation. “I hope that we can all be together and everybody is friendly with each other,” she says. “All I look for is for people to acknowledge the past, to understand where we come from, the pain and suffering that we still carry today and how it has affected our kids.”