First Nations author writes about her fight to get back her ancestors remains

It's a slow process, trying to pry the remains of First Nations people away from governments, dithering scientists and privileged museum curators, but after much begging, arguing and pressure some are being returned to country a few at a time. However, on most occasions, the pussyfooting only ceases when the holders have their arms tied behind their backs.


"You wonder why today, that the Aboriginal people of Australia are fighting so hard for the dignity of their people, their country, it's simply because of stuff like this." Keelen Mailman said about the theft of her ancestors bones from the Carnarvon ranges

A First Nations author from western Queensland has launched her memoir, 'The Power of Bones', which tells of her seven-year struggle to have the bones of her ancestors returned to her people.

Ash Moore with Blythe Moore ABC Western Queensland 6 May 2014

'The Power of Bones' by Keelen Mailman
ISBN: 9781743313718
Published by ALLEN & UNWIN
Online sales - Bookworld
It looked bleak and predictable for little Keelen Mailman: an alcoholic mother, absent father, the horrors of regular sexual and physical assault and the casual racism of a small outback town in the sixties.

But somehow, despite the pain and deprivation, the lost education, she managed to absorb her mother's lessons: her Bidjara language and culture, her obligations to country, and how to fist-fight with the best of them and win.

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 hunt porcupine and snake to survive would one day make history.

At just 30, and a single mother, Keelen became the first Indigenous 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, Keelen pulls no punches as she recalls the startling racism her family endured and the shocking violence of their lives. But this is a story of redemption, shot through with the grandeur of love and endurance and an irresistible humour that has helped her survive, and to achieve a life-long goal: to bring the remains of her people back to their country, and see Mt Tabor returned to its original owners once more.

In the early 1920s, grave robbers took the ancestral remains of the Bidjara people, which were buried at the Carnarvon ranges in the central interior of Queensland ...

It is actions like these that Keelen Mailman, a Bidjara woman, says have caused lasting damage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

"You wonder why today, that the Aboriginal people of Australia are fighting so hard for the dignity of their people, their country, it's simply because of stuff like this," she said.

"It was really wrong what was done."

After seven years of negotiations, the Queensland Museum returned the bodies of five adults and one child to the Bidjara people in 2012.

Ms Mailman's memoir, 'The Power of Bones', documents her journey to get the bones back.

"You can't go into a cemetery today and dig up a grave and take someone's mum or dad, but it was OK for our people to be stripped and taken out of their final resting place," she said.

"They should have been left there but they were stripped and taken away, and it was just fantastic to bring them back."

The bones were returned in cases used by the Queensland Museum but transferred by the Bidjara people to new coffins made from the bark of the budgeroo tree.

The 2012 floods in the region meant that the remains were not returned to country until late in the year.

Ms Mailman kept the bones at her home during that time, which she says was a great honour. Now the location of the remains is a closely guarded secret.

She says bringing the bones back to their rightful place was overwhelming.

"It was the most powerful journey that I was ever on to be bringing our people home," she said.

"There were a lot of tears, such joy and warmth that you could never be able to quite describe."

Ms Mailman says she understands that many more ancestral remains were taken overseas. She would like to see those bones also returned.

"A lot of our people were taken to other countries, I've been told that there are still a lot of our ancestral remains out there," she said.

"Those people should do the right thing and contact the Bidjara traditional owners, the applicants, and return those ancestral remains back to those original people and country."

Ms Mailman is the manager at Mount Tabor Station, near Augathella in western Queensland.

The property, which contains many sites sacred to the Bidjara people, is owned by the Indigenous Land Council and is leased to the Bidjara people.

Bidjara woman Keelen Mailman has been named Mother of the Year in 2016, and she calls for more support to keep Indigenous families together. Keelen was the country's first Indigenous woman to run a cattle station, an author, an abuse survivor and now she's been named Barnardos Mother of the Year.