June Murray has expressed her commitment to improving outcomes for Aboriginal Victorians through engagement in welfare, housing, health and aged care services. Although not an outspoken leader, she has used her life experience and practical wisdom to nurture and strengthen a number of community controlled services for Aboriginal Victorians.
A Wiradjuri Elder, June and her five siblings grew up on Erambie Mission in New South Wales. As a child she was not conscious of the restrictions the mission placed on her community. Residents lived in tin huts which were cold in winter and sweltering in summer. Although the Elders often spoke Wiradjuri language, they did not feel comfortable passing it on to the children. June left school after grade six. She had no opportunity of gaining a secondary education and was sent to work as a domestic servant in nearby Cowra.
Growing up, June had strong role models in her life. Her grandmother, Jane Murray, was midwife to the community. June’s father, who was ordered to leave the mission abruptly when he arrived home late from work one evening, chose to move his entire family away from the mission. They settled in Griffith where June worked picking fruit. June later moved to Shepparton where she met and married Dan Atkinson, a shearer who had been born at Cummeragunja Reserve. The couple had four children and moved first to Swan Hill and later to Horsham in western Victoria.
June had an increasing interest in the growing movement for Aboriginal rights and self-determination. The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (later Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) was formed to unite existing Aboriginal rights organisations in the late 1950s. June ‘never missed’ the annual FCAATSI meetings held in Canberra throughout the 1960s to achieve equal rights and access to better education, health services, housing and employment.
Building the confidence of young people
June and her family moved to Melbourne as the movement towards creating Aboriginal community-controlled organisations was taking shape. She began working at the Aborigines Advancement League’s Gladys Nichols Hostel in Northcote. The hostel offered safe and affordable accommodation for young Aboriginal people in Melbourne for work or study.
June was invited by Reg Worthy, then Director of Aboriginal Affairs, to be the first matron of the Lionel Rose Hostel which opened in Morwell in 1970. The hostel accommodated Aboriginal teenagers and young adults undergoing education or training in the La Trobe Valley. After four years in Morwell June returned to the Gladys Nicholls Hostel as matron for eight years. She then moved on to work at the Bert Williams Hostel for young Aboriginal offenders, a demanding role that required her to gain formal welfare qualifications.
In her many years working in Aboriginal hostels, June was known as a ‘quiet achiever’ who got on with the work without seeking accolades. She tried to build the confidence of the young people in her care, encouraging them when they faced obstacles. Lacking a formal education herself, she understood the importance of opportunities for young Aboriginal people. June was invited to be matron in charge of the first female refuge for Aboriginal women in Melbourne, now known as Elizabeth Morgan House. She recognised that the issue of family violence was not talked about in the Aboriginal community and the refuge provided a response to the problem. June applied the lessons she learned in her many years in Aboriginal hostels when she moved on to other arenas. She was appointed by the Commonwealth Government to the Board of Aboriginal Hostels Limited. The company was stablished in the 1970s to meet the need for moderately priced, short-term accommodation for Aboriginal people across Australia. June also served the wider Victorian Aboriginal community as a member of the Aboriginal Housing Board of Victoria, established in 1980 to enable Aboriginal people to be directly involved in the management and administration of Aboriginal housing. June was elected as a representative of the Murray-Goulburn region, serving on the board between 1984 and 1993.
Supporting families in crisis, aged members of the community and young people
In the 1980s June moved back to Shepparton, taking on a director’s role at Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative, an Aboriginal health, housing and community service established in 1978. She went on to serve as a community development officer at Rumbalara. June supported families in crisis, aged members of the community and young people.
June was unafraid to tackle problems that were often not openly acknowledged by the broader Aboriginal community. Alarmed by the high numbers of suicides amongst young Aboriginal people, including that of her own grandson, she helped to introduce culturally appropriate mental health counselling and services at Rumbalara. This was despite the resistance to these services by some community members.
Recognising that many young Aboriginal women in the community were hesitant to use mainstream antenatal services at the local hospital, she advocated for the Rumbalara Health Service to introduce supports for the young women.
June also applied her accumulated wisdom when she was appointed by the Commonwealth Minister of Health to the Older Australians Advisory Committee and the National Elders Committee. Reporting to the Minister, June highlighted the specific needs of elderly Aboriginal people entering aged care services.
After her retirement from Rumbalara, June worked as manager of the Aborigines Advancement League’s Maloga Aged Care Home in Nathalia for four years before moving back to her own country in Griffith to lend her support to her own people. After several years she returned to Shepparton and continued to contribute to community as a director of Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative. As chairperson of the Rumbalara women’s group she helped to provide funds to erect a children’s playground at the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club’s sports ground.
June is guided by a belief in the importance of strong family and community ties for Aboriginal well-being. Always conscious of how hard her people fought for equal rights, she continues to remind younger generations to seize and make the most of the opportunities won for them through hard-fought struggle.
Reviewed 26 September 2019