Jenny's Story

Author
Sylvia Baker and Nola Austin

Down through the tracks opposite the cemetery and into the forest at Moonacullah she led us, dodging the fallen branches and clumps of saltbush, winding in and out of the beautiful red gums, wattle and box trees. It had to be close.her Dad had known exactly its location. He had told them so many stories under its branches. The dreamtime story of Murrupmaginny the evil spirit of the river and forest, who lives here and comes out and about at night, making this area its home. Not many folk ventured so deep within its bounds. Today the spirit of Ngutha, the good spirit who watched over children, was about and would guide us safely.

So we explored, and after a few false starts, came upon this giant of the forest, the tallest and most majestic of the Red Gum Eucalypts. Soaring into the sky, its aged limbs and battered trunk telling its own story of the huge canoe carved from its sturdy trunk long, long ago. A legend in its own right, here it stands, a silent witness to a bygone era, not in the least perturbed by the hands now exploring the rugged bark of the scar inflicted in the far-off past. Eighteen feet long it was, hacked from the bark with stone axes aeons ago. So large a canoe must surely have been used to carry a large family on a journey now part of history.

Jeanette (Jenny) caressed the scar and told us, as her Dad had told her, some of the dreamtime stories of the past and of her own journey to and from Moonacullah. Born in Swan Hill in 1952, Jenny was the third child of Laura and Neil Ross. Neil, affectionately known as Rusty, was a shearer who moved about the country following the work as shearers do. He was of the Wamba Wamba people from the area round Swan Hill and Moulamein, and Laura one of the Mutti Mutti from around Balranald. Rusty, Laura and their family came to settle at Moonacullah in Rusty's country when Jenny was four years old. Moonacullah Mission, or simply 'The Mission' as it is known, is 25 miles northwest of Deniliquin on the Edward River, opposite 'Old Morago Station' , in the Murray Shire in NSW. A parcel of land set aside for Aboriginal use under the jurisdiction of the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board, Moonacullah Mission housed some 12 to 14 families.

Jenny spent her younger years there with her brothers and sisters, attending school and cavorting in the forest, swimming and fishing in the river, free as the birds and animals they befriended. The one-teacher school set up by the Board was conducted by a teacher who for one pound extra per week was also the manager of the Mission.

Some five years after Jenny came to live at Moonacullah, the community was moved to Deniliquin to live in houses built on their land on the outskirts of the town. One of the stated objects for this was to enable the children to attend primary and high schools in the town. "The day of the move was quite exciting for us", Jenny said. "My brother actually got to ride in a trailer with the dogs! Mr Lou Page, who came on Sundays to preach and teach Sunday School, carried all of the children in his trailer and I was one: it was great fun".

It was here at school in Deniliquin that Jenny faced racism for the first time. "Kids beating us, calling us names, throwing stones. We were different. We were black!" Puzzled, but not thwarted by this, Jenny, a good student, worked hard and encouraged all of her people in sporting activities, where they excelled.

At high school in year 8, Jenny won a trophy for being the most improved student. She was also awarded a bursary from the local newsagent and the Lions Club of Deniliquin for accommodation at a special state high school in Narrandera. Jenny said: "Towards the end of my time there, the Vocational Guidance people thought I would be better off if I left school and worked in a shop, because although my mental arithmetic was excellent, they didn't think I could do anything else! Eventually I went to Sydney to my first job, later leaving to have my first child. In those days once a woman had a child she couldn't get a job in an office. When my son was about 10 months old I returned to my family in Deniliquin and later had two more children".

"Back at home an Aboriginal Co-operative was formed, and I became secretary to it. A playgroup and homework centre followed. We were all good at sport, so I helped put together and played in the first all-black women's basketball team. I also helped to set up an all-black men's team. In all we ended up with six of these teams in the local competition, with one of them often winning the premiership each season".

In 1976 Jenny came to the Central Murray Regional Council for Social Development as administrative assistant and liaison officer, based in Deniliquin. With the Community Development Officer she travelled about the region, which covered an area from Corowa in the east, along the Murray River to Wentworth in the west, and on to the South Australian border. Travelling around the region she became absorbed in the pre-history of her people, making contact with them throughout the area. At this time she began studying archaeology, at first attending summer schools in Victoria and subsequently enrolling at the University of New England to continue by correspondence.

A job opportunity came up with the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1978. After her application was successful, she moved to Sydney again with her children. Beginning initially as a typist, she then became the female Aboriginal Site Officer with the National Parks Service. "In 1982 I worked in an administrative position with the Department of Lands, and did a three months study tour in France to look at rock art conservation techniques. The Public Service Board awarded me a prestigious award for this study. Just before I left for France I was nominated by the Deniliquin Municipal Council for Citizen of the Year in recognition of my work in the Deniliquin community. I didn't win, but I received a Civic Award".

Taking three years' leave without pay in 1983, Jenny gained a position with the Deniliquin local Aboriginal Lands Council. Within a month of taking up that position, her mother passed away and she took over the custody of the three children that had been in her mother's care. Her work with the Lands Council involved administration and the training of others. She served on the Deniliquin TAFE Committee, coordinated a community course there, and served on the Aboriginal Advisory Committee to the National Museum in Canberra.

Returning to the Service in 1987, she was appointed to the Joint Ministerial Task Force on Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management in NSW. In 1989 she won the position of Case Manager in Aboriginal Land Claims Investigations in the Department of Land and Water Conservation. Next, in 1991, she accepted a nine month secondment to the Department of Minerals and Energy as Executive Officer in the Corporate Management Division; and in 1995 took a seven months secondment to the University of New England as the Director of the Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place. Then in 1997 she was seconded for a further year to the National Parks and Wildlife Service as the Women's Heritage Officer, returning to her position of Case Manager at the Department of Land and Water Conservation in July 1998. In 1999, after wining a position in the Funding Unit, she filled the position of Aboriginal Natural Resource Officer at the Department.

On a personal note, Jenny remarks: "Outside work I like sewing, gardening, meeting new people, and reading. The advice I would give is not to accept limits placed on you by others. Always look for avenues to extend the limits you might have placed on yourself. Seek training, education and experiences in areas that interest you".

Still 'walking about' in her capacity as the Aboriginal Resources Officer, she now moves over an area east of Albury, right along the length of the Murray River valley to just west of Swan Hill, and the Lower Murray region to the South Australian border; always returning to her homeland at Deniliquin. Coming full circle, she has returned from her journey to the land of her people, bringing with her the expertise acquired over many years of experience. Jenny and her husband David Crew have a small farm in close proximity to Moonacullah.

In the shadow of the giant Red Gum from which the canoe was carved so many years ago, she laughs as she shares the dreamtime stories of her ancestors. Her laughter echoes through the forests among the red gum and wattle where the river meanders close by Moonacullah, where she grew up. Did that canoe and its people return, as she has, from its pre-destined journey? Did it too come full circle? Perhaps their spirits have joined with Murrupmaginny and Ngutha dwelling in the forest to become part of the dreamtime. They live on in the legends of their time and place at Moonacullah. Will Jenny's journey eventually join with theirs and become part of dreamtime legends for future generations?

Since returning to her home country Jenny continues her community development with her own people and is currently Chairperson of the local Aboriginal Land Council and facilitates the 'gatherings' of all indigenous groups within the Murray Valley, covering huge distances. As well she serves as a Board Member on the Regional Social Development Group (Inc.) based in Deniliquin and continues to work tirelessly for reconciliation.

Contact
sylvia@ozsky.net