#SheInspires Keelen Mailman

April 11, 2018

I don’t think you’ll find a woman with the same strength and determination as Keelen Mailman.

As the first indigenous woman to manage a cattle station in Australia, Keelen has had her share of highs and lows.

SheSociety had the honour to chat to her and find out more about what motivates her to achieve what was once thought of as an impossible feat.

After suffering through a childhood of poverty, abuse and racism in her hometown of Augathella, 800km northeast of Brisbane, Keelen moved down into the city wanting to give her children a better chance at an education.

But after 12 and a half years, Keelen had a spiritual calling to go back to Augathella, drawn to the traditional Bidjara country.

“When I did get back out there, I wondered if I needed my head read because I was coming back to a town where I wasn’t even going to be able to get a job,” Keelen said.

But she did find a job after elder leader, Ray Robertson got her one managing the Mt Tabor station, which she stuck to despite the many insults and people predicting she wouldn’t last 6 months.

Not only that. Through hard work and continued grit Keelan established herself in the community and is still at Mt Tabor 20 years later.

The station accommodates up to 1600 to 2000 head of cattle with Keelen pumping boars and putting out supplements, she also has a 84 year old helper, Dave Hagger.

“He’s like a father figure to me, he’s non-indigenous and without his help I’d be buggered. His bush knowledge is worth more than gold,” she said.

Keelen’s motivation comes down to her children, her grandchildren, her family and her ancestors, whom she says keep her safe on a day-to-day basis.

Keelen also fought a court battle to gain custody of her four nieces and a nephew to get them out of a bad situation. She represented herself before the judge in spite of leaving school half way through year eight.

“A lot of times when I’ve felt like I was in a dark place, it was just the love of my kids that gave me the strength to keep on going, along with the spiritual connection to the country and my culture and being here on the property,” she said

Keelen also shares her knowledge about the Bidjara culture at the local schools, taking children out into the country and speaking about the significance of preserving and protecting the land.

“I let them know that you can be anything you want to be if you work hard and set yourself a goal making the point that you’re accountable for your own destiny,” Keelen said.

Keelen also wrote the Power of Bones, a memoir that details her heartbreaking childhood through to her rise to become the first Aboriginal woman to run a cattle station as a single mother at the age of 30.

Keelen’s cousin is Australian actress Deborah Mailman, known for her roles in TV series Offspring and the movie The Sapphires.

Keelen said that Deborah and another Sapphires actress Shari Sebbens came out onto the property before Christmas discussing plans to adapt Keelen’s book The Power of Bones into a movie.

Last month Keelen celebrated 20 years of running the Mt Tabor which is an amazing feat for someone who was only predicted to last six months.

Keelen was a Queensland Australian of the Year finalist back in 2007 as well as the first ever Aboriginal woman to win Barnado’s Australian Mother of the Year award in 2016.

“I always joked that I wanted to go down in history,” Keelen said.

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She Society is a site for the women of Australia to share our stories, our experiences, shared learnings and opportunities to connect.