Love of Country: The Power of Bones

I really have to thank Jennie for sharing her feelings on today’s book, Keelan Mailman’s autobiography The Power of Bones, (Allen and Unwin). It sounds very much as though this book had Jennie seriously reflecting on many issues that are still, to this day, faced by Aboriginal Australians, brought to bear in many ways by Australians (collectively and individually). Nothing brings these challenges to life quite like a real-life story of strength and perseverance.

Thanks Jennie, I look forward to reading this book myself…

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The Power of Bones is Keelan Mailman’s autobiography, a memoir that managed to evoke pretty much every emotion in me as I read it. Now 48 years old, Keelan writes as she speaks, in a broad Australian accent (as I read it), leaving the letter ‘g’ off many words. It takes you straight into her land and her life.

The Power of BonesKeelan’s life has been an extraordinary one. The fourth child of a family of seven, for the first seven years of her life she was raised by her single mother, Betty.

The family lived on the outskirts of a town named Augathella, approximately 750 km West North East of Brisbane, Queensland, with a population of 400. They were the only indigenous family in the area and Keelan and her siblings were subjected to much taunting and racial abuse. It’s clear that this abuse has had a lasting effect on Keelan, especially as she recalls one particular occasion when the mother of a child from school, designated to drive Keelan to an important athletic meeting, refuses to take her. At the time Keelan was twelve years old and an avid runner, and she has never forgotten this missed opportunity.

From the beginning, land, traditional language (or lingo), Indigenous culture and knowledge of bush tucker were an integral part of her life. Her mother, Betty, stressed the importance of the knowledge of the Elders being passed on to each generation. This became a life long passion and commitment for Keelan, who has since spent long periods of time speaking to Elders, learning about Dreamtime, finding beautiful ancient Aboriginal art work in secret caves on Bidjara land – Keelan’s mob.

Keelan remembers a happy childhood where she was accepted as who she was – a tomboy. Forget dresses, dolls and tutus, Keelan loved the slugs, slingshots and marbles. She loved her sport, running and football and hated shoes! Hard work was part of growing up too. Betty worked two jobs and as a result, the children were in charge of household and garden duties. In this community, normally once a child reaches Grade 5 or 6, they are removed from school to work at home and take care of their younger siblings. Keelan recalls proudly that she made it halfway through Year 8 before having the leave school.

Life was fairly ideal for the family until Betty met Elimore and they move in together. Elimore brought alcohol into Betty’s life and unfortunately, from this point on, alcohol dominated her household. The dichotomy between the proud, loving, attentive and caring mother that Keelan spoke so adoringly of, and the mother who spent a lot of her time in a drunken stupor, is obvious and Betty’s new behaviour is extremely destructive to the whole family. From this point the children basically taking care of everything, they have to move into a rented house in town where the racist taunts get worse. Up until this point, the Mailman children had always happily accepted hand-me-down clothes from neighbours but now that they lived in town, they often ran into the previous owners of the clothes. As you can imagine, this meant that the bullying increased and Keelan found no solace in her mother, for obvious reasons.

From the age of eight, Keelan was repeatedly sexually abused by an uncle. He threatened to hurt both her and her family unless she kept his secret and, as a result, the abuse continued for four years. When she was twelve, Keelan finally found the courage to stand up to this man, telling him angrily to leave her alone and to never touch the younger girls in the family. Although the uncle tried again on a couple of occasions, Keelan stood her ground and eventually he left the girls alone.

When Betty was 38 years old, she began experiencing a series of strokes related to her alcoholism. It was at this point that Keelan was required to leave school and care for her mother and younger siblings, the youngest fathered by Elimore. Within months, Elimore left the family.

During this time, spending so much time with Betty, Keelan heard more stories of the days past, of the land of the Bidjara mob, recalling family holidays out at the old Yumba homestead where the Elders used to gather. The Lost City was in this area, a Spiritual place of the Bidjars, where old Aboriginal cave drawings could be found and the spirits of Elders past dwelled. Keelan’s passion for country and Bidjara history and land, the history of her people, was fuelled to a bonfire during this time.

Keelan had her first child, a son named Allan, at the age of 16 and found herself caring for her mother, her siblings and her own child. Fortunately, others stepped up – her elder sister, who is married, an aunt, and an uncle all pitch in. Keelan stresses that this is the way of the blackfella – family look out for family and this is strongly reiterated throughout the book. It is obviously a fact that Keelan is immensely proud of.

Another theme running throughout The Power of Bones is Keelan’s passionate hatred for alcohol and what it had done to her people. She never drinks herself, and has raised her children with a knowledge of the damage she has seen alcohol do. There is a palpable anger against the immense damage alcohol is doing to many young people in the indigenous community, as she experienced both as she was growing up and still today.

Throughout all of the childhood and teenage challenges Keelan faced, there is a constant – her love for country. In her own words she says; “I am this country and it is me.” Within this love is a committed goal to learn from the Elders, ensuring that all they know does not die with them. The protection of sacred Bidjara sites is also part of Keelan’s passion. Thus, when at the age of 30, Keelan is offered the job of managing Mt Tabor, 190,000 hectares of Bidjara country and cattle station, she jumps at the chance – on this station is the ancient indigenous cultural site called Lost City and her beloved homestead Yumba, where she, her mother and siblings spent so many camping holidays.

This is, quite obviously, a huge job. Wiring fences, checking on cattle, putting out feed and ensuring that no site of Bidjara importance is interfered with by pipes or electrical poles. There are several outlying Bidjara sites that she also manages. Of course the community doubts that an indigenous woman can do this work! But, if I learnt anything from reading Keelan’s story, I learnt that she is fearless and a fighter. These cultural sites could not be in better hands.

The Power Of Bones taught me a lot. We hear about Indigenous communities being ravaged by “the drink”, and through Keelan’s eyes I saw the reality and pain it brings her people. I am ashamed to say that Keelan has taught me that White Australia still struggles with the societal position of the Indigenous people. This saddens me greatly, and through personal experience, I know that it’s true.

Keelan also taught me about the power of family and the extreme respect of the Elders in the Indigenous world. What a leaf we could take out of their book!

The love of country means sustainability, living off the land and protection of the sacred past. How beautiful and extraordinary that the Indigenous world is so rich with this!

Keelan Mailman is an incredible woman doing incredible work. She has grown within her important job and achieves several “firsts” for not only an Aborigine, but an Aboriginal woman. I felt pride with each achievement and shed tears during several episodes.

I highly recommend The Power of Bones to anyone who is interested in learning more about Indigenous Australia. To anyone who wants to read the story of a woman who refused to let anything define her or defeat her. To anyone who is prepared to face the fact that perhaps white Australians have a long way to go before they too venerate the country that is our home.

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Find out more about The Power of Bones, by Keelan Mailman’s here…