Real Life

Keelen Mailman is a proud First Nations woman whose life centers around family and love of country

This NAIDOC Week, we celebrate Keelen Mailman, a First Nations woman whose life’s work is healing country.

By Samantha Trenoweth
Keelen Mailman sits on her veranda, watching the sun set behind the vast plains and rocky outcrops of Mount Tabor Station, or Goorathuntha in the local Bidjara language that her mum treasured and taught her.
"I love the late afternoons," she says with that deep, warm, Queensland accent.
"The sun's not as harsh, you've got through your hard day, you're coming towards the dark and you just sit out on the veranda having a cuppa and a smoke and a wind-down, thinking about your kids [she has three] and your grannies [her seven grandchildren] and your work. That's my time that I really love."
Keelen's family has cared for this land for generations, and for the past 24 years, it's been her turn.
As a single mother, at just 30, she became the first Aboriginal woman to manage a commercial cattle station when she was employed first by the Indigenous Land Corporation and then by the local Goorathuntha Traditional Owners, once she'd secured the title to their land.
Those early days, out here on 90,000 hectares in outback Queensland with a salary pegged well below the poverty line and just her children for company, were some of the toughest she's known. And Keelen's known tough times.
She grew up, a couple of hours from here, in an Aboriginal camp on the edge of town, where she survived poverty, racism, abuse, and helped care for her siblings after their mother's stroke.
Keelen has looked after the land for 24 years, land that has been cared for by her family for generations. (Mandy McKeesick/Opal Heart Media)
But there's a lot she's grateful for in her childhood too.
"The greatest gift my mum gave me was life," she says, "and then the handing down of cultural knowledge and language. She always taught us that the most important thing was to learn your culture, learn your land and where you come from. And if you were going to talk language, to pronounce it properly or don't do it at all. She also taught us how to survive off land in case we ever got lost or got into a jam."
Knowledge that came in handy in those early years on the station.
Keelen has earned a Barnados Mother of the Year Award for raising her own three children (Allan, Chris and Charlee) and then her five nieces, when her sister fell on hard times. Now she wants to care for others with a healing centre for young Indigenous people who are struggling in the justice system.
She has also written a book The Power of Bones, been a finalist in the Australian of the Year Awards and become a Member of the Order of Australia.
But most important to her is the respect she's earned from family and community caring for country and bringing her ancestors home.
Keelen has gone to extraordinary lengths to find the bones of the Bidjara (in museums and individual collections) and return them to country.
And those ancestors keep an eye out for her in return.
"A lot of people say, don't you get frightened out there by yourself?" she chuckles. "I say, no I don't. I've got thousands of my ancestors protecting me."
Keelen's book - The Power of Bones (Allen & Unwin)

read more from