Jenny Munro is a proud Wiradjuri woman from Erambie Mission, Cowra. She has been involved with Aboriginal organisations since she first came to Sydney in 1973. In 1978 she began working at the Aboriginal Children’s Service. She was a member of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) in its early days, and one of its first chairpersons. She is one of the founding grandmothers of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy and an authorised delegate of the 2014 Freedom Summit.
Gaele Sobott: You’ve just celebrated your sixtieth birthday so let’s go back to the beginning. Would you talk about where you were born and describe the family you were born into.
Jenny Munro: I was born in a little town in central NSW called Cowra. I grew up on Erambie Mission, West Cowra, thirty-two acres. We still live there on the mission, our family, all of our mob. I was privileged to be born the daughter of Les and Agnes Coe, who are probably the most important teachers I’ve had in my life.
Teaching us about who we are, where we come from, about our mob. Our father was very good at it. He was a drover by profession so as the children of a drover we had the advantage of being able to travel and move across a lot of our Country. So he taught us a lot about our Country, the rivers, the mountains. I’ve swum in just about every river or creek in the Country of my birth.
GS: What is the Country of your birth?
JM: Wiradjuri. We’re proud and staunch Wiradjuri people. I have a history in my family of political advocates who go back generations, grandparents, great grandparents.
GS: Could you give me a few examples?
JM: My great grandfather, Harry Murray, had to fight the powers that be in the little town of Cowra when he was a young man. In the early 1900s they tried to move us from the Reserve, one of the prime pieces of land in the town that overlooks the river. He stood up and fought them to stop the move. They wanted to move us further out because the town of Cowra was growing and encroaching on the Mission.
GS: Which side of the family was Harry Murray on?
JM: My father’s side. His mother, my grandmother, was a Murray, Edie Murray. Harry Murray was her father. So he was my great grandfather. He fought them in the early 1900s. My grandmother was know by the authorities as a trouble maker because she continuously stood up to the manager of the Mission. She was involved in the Day of Mourning meeting in 1938 here in Sydney and was punished by the manager for her political advocacy for our people. In 1938 for example, within a four-month period she lost her father, her sister and her child. The manager of the mission controlled everything, whether you could marry, whether you could work or travel. So the manager wouldn’t give her rail passes to attend her sister’s funeral in Griffith. Her father was sent from the hospital in Cowra to a hospital in Sydney where he died. She had to deal with the various departments to organise his burial and faced all kinds of problems. Then the doctor in Cowra misdiagnosed her child’s illness and the welfare authorities wouldn’t approve Edie’s rail travel to take the child to Sydney for medical treatment. She finally got the money herself and travelled to Sydney but it was too late and the child died here. So she had problems with the authorities the whole way through that process. When she was at her most vulnerable they attacked like vultures. She maintained her stance and her dignity as a black woman and fought them all the way through. I like to think I have a lot of her fighting spirit in me. My grandmother.
GS: Do you have brothers and sisters?
JM: Yes, I have two sisters and two brothers. I’ve lost both my sisters so it’s just my two brothers and myself left now. We just recently lost our mother. Dad’s been gone for over thirty years but is still very much part of our lives. Teachers like that you never forget.
GS: Your brothers and sisters were fighters in the political struggle as well.
JM: Yes they were all fighters, involved in the political movement here in Sydney. The Aboriginal Legal Service, the Medical Service, the Children’s Service, any community-based organisation that you want to talk about here in Sydney, including this one up the road, the Aboriginal Housing Company. They were involved in establishing and making sure those organisations survived and thrived during that era of the seventies and eighties. My brother Paul was involved very heavily, as was my sister Isabel. It was through them that I got the opportunity to go to Canberra to the first Tent Embassy in 1972. They came through Cowra. We’re just two hours from Canberra, so they came through on the way to Canberra and told my parents to let me go with them. They let me go but the deal was that we all went, my parents, me and my younger siblings too. We all went to Canberra.
GS: How old were you?
JM: Seventeen. I was in my final year of high school. That Tent Embassy experience was a very steep learning curve for me.
GS: What prompted the first Tent Embassy Protest?
JM: Remember that any gains we have won, we fought for. We got out on the streets, on the land and marched and protested for those gains. Land Rights had been discussed, argued, protested for generations but the 1971 court decision gave extra impetus to the Land Rights campaign.
1971 was the first time Aboriginal people took the issue of ownership of land to the courts. The Milirrpum people in the Northern Territory were resisting a bauxite mine opening up on their territory at Gove, the Milirrpum versus Nabalco case. The Supreme Court judge, Blackburn, found that we Aboriginal people didn’t have any rights of ownership of our land under common law, particularly in relation to mining claims. Then on the 25th January 1972, the liberal prime minister at the time, Billy McMahon issued a press statement saying that land rights for our people would never exist. All that we would ever get from any government was a system of perpetual leases on land we already owned and occupied. That court decision and the government’s reaction was the impetus behind the Black Caucus deciding to send the four men to Canberra to set up the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the 26th January 1972. They were messengers for the group here in Sydney. The Northern Territory Land Rights Act was introduced in October 1975 and became law in 1976.
GS: So you were seventeen when you went to Canberra. What path did your life take after that event?
JM: I finished my Higher School Certificate and came to Sydney because there were no jobs in country towns for Aboriginal people. It didn’t matter how well you did in the Higher School Certificate there weren’t any jobs. So I came to Sydney and started my employment in the Aboriginal community-based organisations. The Aboriginal Medical Service, I worked with the Aboriginal Children’s Service from the beginning, establishing that organisation and the national bodies that flowed on from that like the National Childcare Body. I worked with the Aboriginal Legal Service so I’ve been very much a part of the process here in Sydney of asserting our rights, our rights as Aboriginal people being the best providers of services to Aboriginal people. You have to remember that back in that era in Sydney, all of the institutions were very, very overtly racist. You couldn’t walk into a real estate agency here or anywhere else in the country and rent premises for example if you were Aboriginal. They’d just tell you that there was nothing to rent. White people would walk in behind you and they’d offer them something.
GS: Are you talking about the seventies?
JM: Yes and that’s one of the reasons the Aboriginal Housing Company was established because of the racism in the real estate industry.
GS: Did you take part in setting up the Aboriginal Housing Company?
JM: Yes I was one of the original members of the organisation and Lyall (Munro jnr.) was an original board member. The organisation was established, then they actually went to Canberra in ’73 and were successful in getting the money off the Whitlam government. They got the money to purchase this land outright.
GS: So the Aboriginal Housing Company owns this land?
JM: Yes. It’s a charitable organisation and is supposed to be not for profit so as far as I’m concerned a lot of the things that are happening currently are breaches of the constitution. There are a lot of issues of conflict of interest and I am against them employing people who are not Aboriginal. We’re not fighting Aboriginal people currently in our battle for the Block, we’re fighting Housing Company employees who are Tongan. They think they have the right to interfere with Aboriginal political processes. They wouldn’t accept it if we went to Tonga and did that. The same should apply to the people here working for the Housing Company. They’re not Aboriginal people. They should not be allowed to be involved in any of our political discussions or decisions. The Housing Company through the ignorance of Micky Mundine, the CEO, and the lack of political knowledge have let those people think they have the right to do this. They don’t have the right!
GS: When did you start this tent embassy on the Block?
JM: We started on the 26th of May 2014, last year. We chose that date after deliberating over twelve months amongst the women of our community because that was the day that the so-called Apology was given for stealing our children. It was a hypocritical announcement because they are still taking our children and the numbers taken since the Apology have increased. They’ve taken more children from their families over the last fifteen to twenty years than they did during the 100 years of the Protection Act era. When is this attempt at assimilation and genocide going to end? We don’t want to be white. We have no wish to be white. All that has been forced upon our people for 227 years. We are resisting as much today as they did then. We have a culture that we are deeply immersed in, that we are very much proud of. The government will promote our dance and culture for the purposes of tourism but they will not acknowledge that our culture is a deeply imbedded part of this country.
If Aboriginal people in this country think we got justice from Native Title they are fooled because it is just another way for the white system to affirm illegitimate control of our land through their laws. They are legally extinguishing our title to the land, giving precedence to white title that has only existed for a blink of an eye compared to our culture and our law over the land. They have no respect for our law and expect us to follow their law. I will not be teaching any of my children or any Aboriginal people who talk to me any respect for their law.
GS: What do you want to achieve by setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy here on the Block in Redfern?
JM: Well I think the Aboriginal Housing Company has got its plans the wrong way round. They should first be building affordable housing for our people here. It should not be deals done with developers like Deicorp where they get the majority of the benefit. They shouldn’t be building shops here where the shopkeepers will not want a black community across the road from them. You walk up Redfern Street and you don’t see black people working in any of the shops or buying in there. There’s no reason to believe that we would get any employment from the planned shops. This land was bought for a black community, not for white shops and not for student accommodation for Sydney University. Student housing needs should not be imposed on an Aboriginal community that is in crisis as far as housing is concerned. The current management has a very bad management record. It was in the original constitution that the membership be capped at 100 and they have a closed board. The people on the board don’t even come from this community. The Housing Company does not represent the people it is supposedly serving. It doesn’t have our interests at heart. This community has not had a say in the plans for a very long time. We fought them over twenty years ago and that was when they moved to get rid of many members and replace us with people who only support them. They do not allow any alternative points of view. So we are not moving from here until affordable housing for this community is in place. We will stand in front of the bulldozers and do our utmost to stop any building taking place here that is not housing for our people.
Unfortunately many of the members of the Aboriginal community have already been moved out of here, purged and spread all over the place all the way out to Campbelltown. The area is being gentrified with all these new, expensive flats for white people and lots of trendy bars popping up everywhere. The difference in policing is very noticeable at Waterloo. Young people at the new bars can drink, fall over, fight and the police just ignore it all. They go down the bottom there and harass black people. Twenty years ago they wouldn’t have dared.
GS: There is the word sovereignty standing in big letters in front of the Embassy. What do you mean by the word?
JM: It means we have right to this land. It is our land. We never ceded the right to the land, the sea and the air. We have never given that right away. We never told white people in any way that we had given them this country. There are no contracts of any sort, no treaties. It is still our land. White people keep perpetuating nationhood on a lie. They said the country was terra nullius and Mabo was supposed to have knocked that on the head but in every school they still talk about Captain Cook, and explorers discovering country. This year for example, they will celebrate the two- hundred year so-called discovery of the path across the Blue Mountains. They didn’t discover anything. They followed a Blackfella up the path. That was our trading track with the Sydney people, the Eora and Wiradjuri trading track. Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth were not the first people to cross the Blue Mountains. Stop insulting us with these lies. White people didn’t discover anything. From one end of this country to the other, they didn’t discover a thing. We didn’t lose anything and we knew exactly where everything was and what it was used for. We’ve been here for so long occupying and living off this land, for thousands if not millions of years. Science doesn’t even know how long we’ve been here. Yet we have white people driving past the tent embassy here yelling out, “Go home!” They are the first boat people. They have the absolute arrogance to dehumanise and demonise genuine refugees, people fleeing from countries where Australia has sent soldiers to fight. It’s unbelievable. They do not have the right to say those people cannot come here. Look what they’re doing to the refugees on Manus Island. They’re really demonstrating how cold and cruel and callous this country is.
GS: Can you tell me what it is for you that characterises whiteness?
JM: It’s a way of behaving, a way of living, a way of thinking that is very barbaric and depraved. They pretend they are better than everyone else, nobler, but they’re not. Like why do you think I have white blood in me? It’s not because we were willingly part of their culture but because it was forced upon us. They don’t accept that our culture has been here for such a long time. They impose their psychosis on us in terms of their description and understanding of weather patterns and the relation of our animals to the land. They’ve ruined the rivers in our country by damming them. They don’t understand the processes of flooding coming through and washing and cleansing the water systems. Wetlands have become dry because of their dams. They’ve changed the face of the continent with the hard-hoofed animals they brought here and contributed to soil erosion. All our animals have soft paws and don’t do the same damage.
You see whiteness when you walk into a room as an Aboriginal person and white people look around for their bags or physically grab their bags as if we are going to steal them. That’s the mentality of a thief. Thieves will always make sure their stash is safe. Nobody’s going to steal from them what they stole off someone else. Racism, paranoia, psychosis is an entrenched part of whiteness. Whiteness is about justifying theft of the land, rape of the land, murder, massacres, stealing Aboriginal children. It’s a sickness they really need to deal with themselves. We can’t help them with it. They have to identify what is wrong and start treating themselves and other people right. They’ve exported that mentality, that racism around the world for hundreds of years, the slave trade, Apartheid in South Africa, colonisation of indigenous peoples, the police murder of unarmed Black men, women and children in the USA. They consider our people as subhuman, or not quite human, I think they’re the ones who have the problem with dealing with their own humanity.
GS: I’d like to go back to the original Day of Mourning protest your grandmother attended. Could you tell me more about the history and meaning of the day in relation to Australia Day?
JM: The decision to make what white people call ‘Australia Day’, the Day of Mourning was taken by our leaders on the 26th January Sesquicentenary Celebrations in 1938. They stated that the day represented ‘the 150th Anniversary of the Whitemen’s seizure of our country.’ Our people stood in silence at the Town Hall and waited for the parade to pass. Then they marched in silence from the Town Hall to the Australia Hall in Elizabeth Street. That’s where they held a conference and declared the 26th of January the Day of Mourning. They endorsed a manifesto of black rights, which was a ten-point plan drawn up to stop the continuing racism and oppression that generation was experiencing. The Day of Mourning has continued since then but within the last ten or fifteen years it has been diluted by what I consider to be conservative Aboriginal people. Yabun for example, I think is very much a cultural insult to Aboriginal people. The date has always been acknowledged as a day of mourning and not a day of selling trinkets to tourists or making white people feel good about the crimes they’ve committed against our people. I want them to feel guilty every day and every night about the gross breeches of human rights that have been the norm in this country over the last 227 years. The arrogance of people coming here, trying to wipe us out then pretending we didn’t exist is unacceptable. They continue to lie to the world, whitewashing the very violent genesis of this country they now call Australia. Our people have paid a very heavy price with the massacres, the stealing of our children, the suppression of our languages and culture. These are all classic techniques of eugenics.
We are the oldest people on the planet and prior to white people coming here we lived an idyllic life. Why would I give that up to be part of a depraved and barbaric society brought here by the British who sailed around wreaking their violence and havoc on indigenous peoples the world over. They operate on the premise that might is always right, that they can perpetrate violence on which ever peoples they wish and there have been no repercussions for them. They have to be brought to account for the crimes they have committed on a world scale and here in this country.
GS: Public grieving of communities facing deaths caused by severe social, economic and political inequality, and the violence of prison and law enforcement systems, is a very political statement. We can see this by what is taking place in the United States with the Black Lives Matter movement. Could you talk about the place of public grieving in the Aboriginal struggle?
JM: We are suffering from so many and continuing deaths brought about by injustice – deaths in custody, youth suicide, inequality in healthcare provision and the like, and each death compounds with another one and another one so we don’t have a chance to grieve each loss individually. You get to a point where you can’t take any more and many of our people withdraw from interacting with other members of their community because it’s too heartbreaking to watch the deaths that are happening now in such large numbers. The deaths are a result of the oppression we are facing under this system. In 227 years we have gone from the healthiest people on the planet to the sickest people on the planet. Our people thought the 26th of January should be a day of mourning from 1938. White Australians in their denial ignore that history. They ignore the violence that they brought to us, and pretend that it was all a good thing. I mean they have stolen our birthright and consider that to be legitimate. That is one of the most evil things you can do.
GS: Can you talk about the big meeting in Canberra that’s coming up on the 26th January?
JM: We are going to Canberra because we are fighting for our right to self-determination. We will decide who our leaders are rather than Howard and Abbot or anybody else handpicking assimilationist blacks to do the job of the white man, we are going to say who our leaders are. If they don’t want to engage in conversation with our leadership, who really speak for Aboriginal people at a community and grassroots level, then they must stop the pretence. The lackeys and assimilated blacks are well paid to sell our people out. They do it every day of the week, every time they open their mouth. They say what white people want to hear rather than what Aboriginal people need.
We have white Australia tell us everyday that we break their law. Through this system we set up in Canberra, we are going to start telling white Australia how they break Black law everyday. If that means codifying our law, writing it down in simple language so that they understand, that’s what we’ll do. They will see our law and our governments in operation. Aboriginal people are coming from all over the country. We will continue to demand and march and fight for our rights like we always have.
The Recognise Campaign is just another propaganda campaign. Putting the words “prior occupation” in the constitution, which is a racist document to start with, will not give our people any legal redress within this toxic legal system of theirs. We were never involved in the architecture of the constitution.
Our law is the law of this land, not their law. Throw the constitution and white law away because it’s a bad system that only gives justice to the white rich.
So our convergence will begin on the 25th January. On the 26th we will all walk to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy from Garema Place Civic and in the afternoon there is the Isabel Coe Memorial Sovereignty Lecture. On the 27th we will have a sit-in protest and then walk to Capital Hill Parliament House. There will be lots of other events in Canberra and in other cities. We will stay in Canberra for the Grandmothers rally against removal of children, which is on the 13th February. It was grandmothers who set up the tent embassy here on the Block. It’s a women’s camp. It has rules.
GS: With current power structures as they are now, how do you see change happening?
JM: We are committed to this struggle and we will continue. We know we can’t build a fleet of boats to send them back but we will continue to fight for a system that shares this country equally, not a system that makes us beggars in our own land.
White Australia has got nothing to be proud of in their history here. They need to recognise what they have done, the crimes they have committed. Maybe then we could have a genuine dialogue about compensation for the past crimes and it might stop them continuing to commit those crimes in the future.
GS: Do you think a process similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa has a place in this struggle?
JM: Yes because we have only looked at reconciliation in this country. We need to expose the truth. Truth was a vital part of the South African process. We must expose the truth here.
GS: Do you think Australia will do that?
JM: Not willingly.
GS: What will bring Australian society to that point?
JM: The world has to provide solidarity, international action has to happen the same way it did for South Africa. We also have white people here in Australia who support our struggle. That selfless solidarity is very important.
GS: You have just turned sixty. You are a grandmother and you are an Elder. How does it feel?
JM: Well I don’t feel any different. I suppose I’m grateful to get to this age because most of our people die before they get to sixty. About being an Elder, some people think it is an automatic thing. Well it’s not. You become an Elder because you have lived your life in a particular fashion giving service to your community. Your wider group will decide that you’ve reached a milestone and that you are then an Elder. It’s not like, Oh I was a dead bastard for forty years and I thought I’d change for the last five years, no that five years doesn’t make you an Elder. It’s a lifetime of working for your community. Aunty Shirl and other Elders taught me if you don’t know your subject keep your mouth shut. So I wasn’t allowed to talk in the meetings here for ten years. I just had to listen and learn and take that back to the next meeting and listen and learn again. It took me a long time to learn how to speak publically. It was probably a twenty-year process.
So I’m proud to be a strong Aboriginal Elder. My children and their children give me the greatest pride and satisfaction. We have seven children and eighteen grandchildren, one great grandchild and one more grandchild and two more great grandchildren on the way so the clan is growing.
This interview was recorded at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Redfern on 20th January 2015.
Interview with Jenny Munro by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.