by Nalini Haynes
I interviewed Keelen Mailman (audio interview) earlier this year about her life and memoir The Power of Bones. RMIT required a nonfiction essay or profile so I wrote mine on Keelen (below), while complying with the brief.
On the cover of her autobiography, The Power of Bones, Keelen Mailman wears a check shirt and akubra bracketing her coffee-with-cream complexion, a slight smile reaching her eyes, wisps of brown hair framing her face. Queensland State Finalist Australian of the Year in 2007, Keelen Mailman is the quintessential Australian Aborigine on the land, much like Deborah Mailman is the quintessential Australian Aborigine on the small screen.
Growing up in Australia, I had a basic understanding of Aborigine history since white settlement from a white perspective. I’d never heard an Aborigine tell their side of the story. I wondered what the view was from the other side of the divide.
On a crisp morning in Melbourne I phoned Keelen who answers, her voice a contralto. Keelen acknowledged the Traditional Owners of Australia in her language then interpreted into English. ‘I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners far and wide, around Melbourne; I spoke in my traditional Bidjara language of my tribal people in Queensland.’
Keelen is forty-eight with three children: Allan, Kristy and Charlee, who have given her four grandchildren. Keelen also fostered her sister’s five children. For the past seventeen years Keelen has lived and worked on Mount Tabor, a cattle station in Bidjara traditional country in far-western Queensland. It takes Keelen two hours to drive to the nearest town, Augathella, and eleven to twelve hours to drive from Mount Tabor to Brisbane.
I said, ‘I’ve heard some funny stories about people overseas saying “while you’re in Brisbane, can you please drop this thing off in Adelaide?” because they just don’t understand how big Australia is.’
Keelen said, ‘It’s the same for my grandkids, mate. They think it’s quite easy for Nanny to just pop around and read them a story, you know? I’m, like, ten hours away from them, as well.’
I said, ‘I have to ask: are you a relative of Deborah Mailman, the actor?’
Keelen replies, ‘The beautiful Deborah Mailman. Yes, I am. Apart from “Hello, how are you, nice to meet you, what’s your name?” the next thing that comes along: “Are you related to Deborah Mailman?” It’s quite beautiful. I got to meet her a couple of times. Very down-to-earth, beautiful person, and a fantastic actress.’
‘I think a lot of people see her as the face of Aborigines on Australian television. You’re the face of Aborigines in the bush, running the station.’
‘On the land,’ Keelen chuckles.
‘Yes,’ I smile. I ask Keelen for an explanation of Aborigine history, of their relationship with the land.
‘Our people were stripped off the land. Forcibly removed off country. And now with Native Title, we’re fighting another battle now. I’m not only talking about my Bidjara people, I’m talking the whole Aboriginal Island people of Australia. My old great-great grandmother and those old people are among [those forcibly removed off country]. They wonder why language and culture and stuff is dying out in areas; that’s not of choice. Then you’re in court and trying to prove your country, your culture, your connection.
‘It’s very hurtful and insulting when they think that [our culture is] dying out in a lot of areas. We didn’t have that choice, did we? I was very lucky. I dedicate my book to my dear old mum who give me the greatest gift of all, life, then the handing down of culture and language, knowledge. I was very lucky that our mum was pretty strong with us learning all that stuff, being able to survive off the land if you’re ever stuck anywhere.
‘It’s so unfair that we’re fighting for [Native Title]. A lot of our old people now have passed on. It just breaks my heart that we’re in court fighting our guts out to try and prove our country and our connection. The courts are not making it any easier for our people.’
To make sure I understood, I said, ‘So, white people came along, forced the Aborigines off and now, in order to get Native Title, you have to prove that you weren’t forced off.’
‘Yeah. An old stockman here, Dave, who’s sort of like a dad to me, he was one of the people here way back in the early 30s or 40s. They got to put their names in a hat but there wasn’t one Aboriginal person who was allowed to put their name in a hat. That’s how they got to get their country. You had to have enough money to pay for the tenement at that time.
‘Then we’re back again as Aboriginal people trying to fight to get access to country. I’ve got to pinpoint the government there for a lot of confusion to the wider community simply because Native Title isn’t all about me being able to go to next door’s property to tell them to get off my country. It’s just giving acknowledgment to traditional owners, allowin’ negotiations and access. Where a lot of them today think if you get Native Title, the blackfellas can kick you off. It should have been explained a lot better.’
To clarify, I asked, ‘My understanding is that Native Title is about allowing people to run cattle on a property at the same time Aborigines can have Native Title so they can do their traditional hunting and visit their sacred sites. Is that right?’
‘That’s absolutely true, that’s absolutely correct. You can’t just lob up on a property. For instance, if I wanted to go to a property next door which is all traditional Bidjara country, there’s respect comes with it all as well. I’ve got to ring the property and see if it’s ok if I can go and visit some cultural sacred burials or art sites or do a bit of fishing or hunting, to be able to practice our culture.
‘That’s why we’re so lucky with Mount Tabor Station. The Indigenous Land Corporation, which is my employer, purchased the property for our people because of the significant burials and cultural significance of the property.’
I said, ‘I remember people getting really worried that they were going to lose their houses under Native Title back when it came in.’
‘It is very sad. It’s taken us a hundred years to get where we are today and with all of that attitude and misinterpretation being put out there, it’s taken us back years. We’ve got some fantastic strong leaders there that fought for our rights and recognition of our people all around Australia to be able to get all this, sort of equal rights and access, our identity. We’re going backwards, it seems like we’re not going forwards, we’re going backwards.
‘I don’t want any confusion. There is a lot of beautiful people out there. I don’t want anyone to be confused that I’m classin’ everyone in the same category but there are a lot of not nice people out there in this big old world of ours as well.’
A very spiritual person, Keelen’s work as an advocate for her people and work to protect cultural sites began after she felt a spiritual calling to move back to her country from Brisbane. Sugar Ray Robinson asked Keelen to manage Mount Tabor Station after she’d already moved back to Augathella. ‘I was given that honour [of looking after sacred sites] a long time back, when the Elders said, “You’re the Keeper of Country”. I just felt such a warm feeling in my heart. Looking after burial sites and art sites that are so old, of your ancestrial* people, is just the most warmest and special feeling, it’s so spiritual. I can feel [the spirits] all around me, looking after me. I do the best job I can, and it is a very special thing to do for your people.’
‘We’ve done a lot of fencing off of cultural burials and art sites and still continuin’ to fence some off. So that’s keeping out the cattle and brumbies (wild horses) because y’know, sandstone’s pretty fragile. You’ve got animals that are rubbing up against art work. Once it’s gone, you can never get it back.
‘I check burial sites. If wallabies or anything have got in and knocked out ancestrial bones and remains, I’ll put them all back in and sort of pack it all back up again so it’s safe again. Just making sure that fences around cultural sites are all up around the boundary area to make sure nothing’s getting in. And it’s not only animals, you’ve got the human vandalism as well that takes place.
‘Those sites are off-bounds. It’s people that I know that are coming, and people that I take there most of the time to let ’em have a look and to share our culture. It’s pretty important to share that sort of stuff with the wider community because you can talk about racism but you can also look at it as ignorance. Ignorance is coming from a lack of awareness of culture and what you’re trying to preserve and protect.’
Keelen is passionate about her people, her heritage and her work. In her memoir Keelen talks about drug abuse among her people. In our conversation, Keelen talked about the need for Aboriginal Health Centres to help her people appropriately rather than treating the symptoms while the causes – poverty, unemployment, hardship – fester. Coming from poverty, Keelen has worked hard to help others. Now, as she faces limited time left in her physically demanding role on Mount Tabor, Keelen calls for greater understanding, compassion and collaboration to work towards a better future.
*‘ancestrial’ is how Keelen pronounces ‘ancestral’.
Allen & Unwin 2014, ‘The Power of Bones’, promotional page for Keelen Mailman’s autobiography, viewed 15 May 2014, http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781743313718.
Australian of the Year, n.d. ‘Honour Roll: State Finalist of the Year 2007, Keelen Mailman’, Australian of the Year, Brisbane, viewed 15 May 2014, http://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/honour-roll/?view=fullView&recipientID=700.
Fidler, R 2012, ‘Conversations with Richard Fidler: Keelen Mailman’, ABC Local, Brisbane, viewed 15 May 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2012/04/27/3490383.htm.
Haynes, N 2014, ‘Keelen Mailman on Power, racism and advocacy’, audio interview of Keelen Mailman, Dark Matter Zine, Melbourne, viewed 29 May 2014, https://www.darkmatterzine.com/keelen-mailman/.
Mailman, K 2014, The Power of Bones, Allen & Unwin, Melbourne.
Olsson, K 2014, ‘The Power of one: Keelen Mailman at Mount Tabor Station’, The Weekend Australian Magazine, Surrey Hills, viewed online 15 May 2014, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/the-power-of-one-keelen-mailman-at-mount-tabor-station/story-e6frg8h6-1226884033642.