So it was no surprise to some that a girl who could hide for a year in her own home to keep her family together, run as fast as Raylene Boyle and catch porcupine and goanna, would one day make history. At just 30, and a single mother, Keelen became the first Aboriginal woman to run a commercial cattle station when she took over Mt Tabor, two hours from Augathella on the black soil plains of western Queensland. This is the heartland of Bidjara country, after all, the place her mother and grandparents and great-grandparents had camped on and cared for, and where their ancestors left their marks on caves and rock walls more than 10,000 years ago.
In this unflinching memoir, the warmth of Keelen's personality, her determination and her irresistible humour shine through as she recalls her extraordinary life.
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About the Author
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The Power of Bones
By Keelen Mailman
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2014 Keelen Mailman and Kris Olsson
All rights reserved.
I AM THIS COUNTRY
My name is Kayleen Maree Mailman, and I was born in Clermont, traditional country to my Bidjara people, on 25 November 1965. Or that's what I thought for the first eighteen years of my life. 'Kayleen', for the young Irish midwife who looked after my mother, who treated her like she was someone. My mother wasn't used to that. But this nurse was kind, my mother said, a beautiful person, colour-blind. My mother told her, if I have a girl, I'll name her after you.
And that's what she did. But Mum didn't see the name written down or any of the official papers. The young midwife filled them in: Keelen Marie Mailman. She had a strong Irish accent; Mum thought she said Kayleen Maree. And that's how I went through my life. Wrong name and, as it turns out, wrong birthday. Out by a year and four days.
When I was a few months old, my mother brought me back to her home at the Augathella Yumba, the Aboriginal camp outside town. To the tin shack with its dirt floor and carbine lights, the beds shared with my older brother and sister. And that's where I grew up, went to school or more often didn't. Kayleen Maree Mailman. That's who I was.
It's November, time of fires. Most of the year I sit here on the verandah after the day's work, and the world is dark. Just the stars splatterin the sky, the point of my cigarette. I like the dark, the full dark. Can't sleep in any kind of light. But these nights with the fires all around — not just here on Mount Tabor but on surrounding places Mount Owen, Attica, Babbiloora — there's a smudge of smoke through the black, and that glow, not orange, not pink, but a colour you might mistake for pretty if you didn't live here.
By starlight my eyes can trace shapes in the garden I've planted and kept alive for seventeen years. Roses and hibiscus, oranges and grapes, tomatoes and gerberas. Out past the fence there are horses, taken now by the dark, all but a white one movin like a pale ghost in the grass, out near the place where my grandparents had their camp all those years ago, and the water pump where my mother was bitten by a brown snake when she was eight years old.
Mount Tabor Station is near Augathella, which is almost 800 kilometres west of Brisbane. My heart is in this country. I am this country, and it is me. It is me and it is my Bidjara people, all those who walked here before me, for thousands of years. This place, Mount Tabor Station, is the essence of that heart. I camped here as a child, close by on Babbiloora and Attica, just as my mother had, and her mother and hers, and so on back to the early times. Now I manage it, for my people. I protect and look after the places that are special to us, the old campsites and burial places, but a cattle station needs other work done: maintaining fences, bores, machinery, animals, roads.
I'm alone here now, but I've looked after myself all my life and now it's second nature: I can change and fix a car tyre, repair a fence, service the bores, pull a cow out of the dam and shoot and skin roos. And if I had to I could find myself a feed on this land. I'd never starve, even if I was lost for a very long time. I'd survive. I've come through lots of tough times, racism, violence, abuse, and I can stand here and say I know how to survive. How to turn things to the best.
That's not how most people saw it when I came here seventeen years ago, a single black woman with a couple of kids and not a scrap of experience. But I've got a gift for learning fast, for perseverance. While those blokes in town were laying bets that I'd fail, I was talking to my uncles, the old stockmen, and learning how to wield a chainsaw, build a fence, use an eight-tie. They only had to show me once, and I had it.
Out here we light fires to prevent fires. At the end of every winter, when the nights are still cold and there's a good frost every morning, we set the fires and let them burn. The cold and the frosts put them out. We keep doin that to get our fire breaks. The home paddocks are the most important; they're the first ones you protect. But it doesn't always go to plan. Last year the muster was late; we were still goin in September and we needed that grass in the home paddocks to feed the stock horses. So we couldn't burn it. And there'd been so much water out here, with floods and the big wet earlier in the year, that the graders got bogged in the mud. So we couldn't use them to cut the breaks either.
Fire has always been important to my people; I've known its significance since I was small. How to use it to care for the country. How a fire at the right time will burn out the rubbish, burn out everything that's dead and rank. Then the rain comes and the seeds pop and everything reshoots. This land is home for my people; they knew it like a child knows a mother. They knew how to care for it so it cared for them, and would keep carin for all the ones still to come. The land fed them and watered them and sheltered them, so they had to care for it in return, know its ways, so they could keep growin strong. Mother Nature is the boss.
They knew the seasons of food, knew that spring was a big eating time, and they made the most of the resources they had around them until the big food season came. That's why our people moved around a lot. And they'd never flog a place out, never take all of something, like every egg or every fish or every tree grub. That way, plants and animals don't die out. That's what our people are trying to do still, and that's what I want to do here, to revive and keep the knowledge. But it gets harder and harder, as all those old ones, the elders, grow old and pass away in other places that aren't their traditional country. All the ones who camped here and loved it; they kept the knowledge that we desperately need. It's getting urgent now.
My old great-grandmothers had the knowledge. Maybe that's why they took one of them away from her family and her country, back in the 1930s. That was old Lucy Long. She was born and raised on the Upper Warrego, and she lived there all her life until the day she was forcibly removed. They took her from Bogarella Station to Cherbourg Mission, hundreds of kilometres away. Why else would they take a grown woman away from her children? She had knowledge. Maybe they wanted to weaken us, segregate us, dilute any power we had. Lucy wasn't allowed to speak her language, look after her children and her country. She was full of sadness and grief.
Old Granny Lucy always spoke in lingo. She only knew a few English words, so when whitefellas were around they could all get confused. That's how we got our name, a mix-up with language. One day at the old Yumba, the town camp near Augathella, some whitefellas from the government came around asking everyone their names, who they were married to, that kind of thing. They said to her, who's your husband, Lucy? She was married to Charlie Mueller, my great-grandfather, who was part German. Charlie carried the mail by horse and dray all around that area, from Augathella right up to the Carnarvons, all through Bidjara country. But that day Lucy was havin trouble saying 'Mueller'. She tried and tried but they couldn't understand her. Finally she said, you know, Charlie, does the mail. Ah, the whitefellas said, that would be Charlie Mailman, then. And that's how it stuck, like glue.
The other great-grandfather was Billy Geebung. He married Nellie Combo, and they had a nice camp on the Upper Warrego not too far from here. Billy Geebung was a drover and stockman, one of the best. He worked the properties around here, and had a camp at a place called Black Springs on Babbiloora, just over there along the boundary with Mount Tabor. When I first came to this place, Dave, the old stockman who still works here, came up to me. He said, you're Dan Mailman's granddaughter. I said, yes, I am. He said, so what's old Billy Geebung to you? Great-grandfather, I said. Dave nodded. Well, he said, I hope you can track as good as he could. He was the best tracker in the country. Even if the grass was six feet high, he could still track cattle.
Later Dave showed me where the big camp was. I'd always known about it, since I was a child, but didn't know where it was. Dave had worked here, too, as a young stockman; he'd visited that camp and he worked with my great-grandfather Billy. He pointed out the old stone fireplace, still there after all these years. I can't describe how I felt when I went there that first time and saw that place. It was like the years disappeared; I could see them all there, cookin their food in the coals, hangin their billy. Now when I'm over that way I always cut through the long grass to that campsite and just sit with them for a while.
Old great-grandfather Billy Geebung and great-granny Nellie had ten children: William junior, Queenie, Sissy, Florence, Venus, Frank, Eclipse, Lillian, Christie and Joyce. Sissy, my grandmother, was born on Caldervale Station, outside of Tambo, in 1915. She married Dan Mailman, the second of Lucy and Charlie Mailman's four sons. Dan was born on Hoganthulla Station, just down the road here, in 1898.
My mother was born to Sissy and Dan in 1941 in Augathella, and called Betty Charlotte, but for as long as I know she was always called Betto. She was their third child. First came my Uncle Bob and Aunty Jano, and after Mum came Aunty Claire.
When Grandfather Dan was workin out here with the horses or the muster, he and Granny Sissy had camps on Babbiloora and Tabor. Grandfather Dan was also the camp cook. There's a campsite up the road at Bawly bore where he set up his cookin fire. One day old Dave said to me, you know your old grandfather was a good cook, and a spotless cook. He owned two sets of clothes — that was very unusual — and each night he would handwash one whole set so he could wear a clean set in the morning. He didn't want to look dusty or grubby when he got up to cook for everyone before they went out. He was a brilliant cook, Dave said.
Later I had a dig at my Uncle Bob, my mother's brother, about it. I said, I could know something about your old father that you don't know. Well, he was surprised. You're right, girl, he said, I've never heard that before; old Dad must have done that before the kids came along. Dave also showed me where my grandfather and grandmother camped out when they had a big mustering camp. Their four kids would be out there with them, even when they were young.
My uncle says Granny was one of the prettiest and best horsewomen you'd ever see. There was a story about her on this particular horse. She was riding it around with her baby, Aunty Jano, in her arms. Then the horse started bucking and pigrooting and trying to buck her off. Granny controlled that horse until it stopped bucking, and kept hold of her baby. Then she passed the baby down, got a switch, and she flogged the fuck out of the horse so it never bucked or pigrooted again.
When they were in town Sissy and Dan sent their children to the Catholic School in Augathella. Mum always talked about the old nuns. They scared her at first; she thought they were ghosts in those funny outfits they wore. They were old bitches, she said. Used the strap. They were harsh even with the little kids. So maybe Mum didn't mind that she only got to about grade three or four at school. I think Uncle Bob got to grade two. None of them finished primary school. By then it was time to go to work to help the family and earn their keep. Uncle Bob was workin when he was eight, tailin out cattle on the back of a horse, makin sure they didn't break away. The family worked hard and never went hungry, but it was tough. My grandparents lost three babies while they were workin the properties, and they're all buried out there. Those little graves make all of us sad.
Mum started off as a domestic when she was about eleven years old, helping in the house and with the kids. Somewhere along the line she ended up a really good cook. But she was most proud of the fact that she got to set the dinner table at the homestead. Once she got to set up and serve for some special guests, people who were regarded as royalty out there. All la-de-da. She just thought it was one of the greatest things, bless her heart. Polished the knives and forks and the glasses until they were all tingly, and dressed up the table. She enjoyed doin all that. Called this work 'learning lessons in life'. It was one of her little phrases. She meant: the more you experience, the more you learn.
In the years her family camped out here, Mount Tabor was owned by the Creevy family. They were a different sort of whitefellas, the Creevys. They loved Aboriginal people, and they especially loved my old grandfather and granny. They didn't judge anyone, they were humble people, that's what my mother said. Everyone was always welcome there for a cuppa, or a feed, but you just had to be ready for a long chat if you stopped there. They treated my old grandparents well, not like some of the others out here. The old people copped a lot of racism, and from what Mum said they could have hated whitefellas, but they didn't.
Mum spoke so fondly of her childhood, especially the time out here. There were kids in the Creevy family and she was really good friends with them. They all seemed to spend a lot of time at a place on the property we call Binalong. It's out there on the boundary, near the top end. Some properties had these places, named separately but still part of the property itself. Binalong was like that; it might have been fenced off from the horses or made into a separate paddock for some reason or other. There's a special place there, too, called Bulla Cliff, and art and burial sites. Anyway, we always called this place Binalong.
There was a little homestead at Binalong where Mum spent some really happy times. A couple of the old Creevy sisters lived there, I think. There were always kids around. They spent their days playin, talking, combin each other's hair. There was a game called Roly-Poly. You get an empty milk tin, stick a hole in each end and fill it up with sand. Then you thread wire through it, and then rope, and it rolls along or you can pull it along. They played that for hours; Mum showed us how to do it. Cost nothin, but it gave them hours of joy. They must have left a mark on all of us, those stories of Mum's childhood, because when I first moved out to Mount Tabor with the kids, and found Binalong homestead here in a bad state, I said to them, I wish we could have our house here. The kids just laughed at me and said, come off it Mum! We're far enough in woop-woop, how much further do you want us in?
The old folks taught my mother and the others their ways. They spent a lot of time huntin, lookin for honey and dhumbun, which is tree grub or witchetty grub, and porcupine (echidna). They'd also go booglyin' (looking for yabbies), ridin bareback to the creek on the brumbies their father broke in. He used to race those horses, too; they were fast. My mother passed on that love of booglies to me, to all of us. I can't get enough of 'em.
My mother and her brother and sisters learned their language and their law, they learned about the land they belonged to. Their parents taught them all the old stories that are important to our people, and when we came along Mum taught the same stories to us. The Dreamtime stories, about how the land was created in the form we see it in now. And stories special to our people from around here.
Like the story of the giant goori goori bird. He roamed around the high ranges, looking for our children. When he found one he'd say, climb on my back and I'll take you for a ride. He'd take 'em for a ride all right — straight back to his nest, to eat them. Parents would never see that child again. But then one little fella, called Wangurd, he was clever. He got on the goori goori bird's back but he realised the bird was taking him in the wrong direction, away from the camp. He told the bird he was really frightened of heights, so the bird flew low and the boy jumped off and hid in the bushes, and then ran back to tell his family and the elders what had happened. The warriors went out with fire sticks to hunt that big bird. And pretty soon they saw a big nest in the highest tree in the whole country. It was on the side of a hill. They waited for the goori goori to return, and when he landed and fell asleep, they lit that tree up with fire. His feathers caught alight and he flew straight out, and the sparks from his feathers made the stars and the smudge of the smoke made the Milky Way.
Excerpted from The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman. Copyright © 2014 Keelen Mailman and Kris Olsson. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 I am This Country,
Chapter 2 Our World Falls Apart,
Chapter 3 Hard Times,
Chapter 4 A Different Person,
Chapter 5 Return to Country,
Chapter 6 Fight for the Children,
Chapter 7 Bidjara Ways,
Chapter 8 Sadness and Joy,
Chapter 9 Leadership Program,
Chapter 10 Taking Back Power,
Chapter 11 Search for my Father,
Chapter 12 Family and Friends,
Chapter 13 Our People Come Home,
Epilogue We are still here,