Lying in her hospital bed after a kidney transplant was a good time for Kelli Owen to contemplate her future. As a person of drive and determination, she wanted to turn her improving health into an opportunity.
“I had ICU visits for dialysis where I actually thought I was going to die,” she says today from her home in South Australia. “When they told me I would be having the transplant, I felt so lucky. The operation actually happened on May 26, Sorry Day. I called it my Thank You Day.”
Indeed, the decision Owen soon made came from her heartfelt connection to her people and her Aboriginal culture. With her new kidney slowly giving her more energy, she decided she wanted to the teach Aboriginal children from her community their traditional language, Ngarrindjeri.
Before the arrival of Europeans, Ngarrindjeri had been spoken by a number of groups in the coastal areas south of Adelaide, and was one of 250 Aboriginal languages spoken across Australia at the time. Today barely 60 are still considered ‘alive’.
More than many, perhaps, Owen has a strong sense of the importance of communication and being able to speak from the heart. When she was just 13 her father took his own life, an event that still reverberates through her family. “I think about his era, that he didn’t have the support systems that I have,” she says. “That he couldn’t communicate his thoughts and feelings.”
The lesson she took for this, and she’s passed it on to her own children, is don’t take anything for granted, it could be gone tomorrow. This has seen Owen grab every opportunity to work and learn that has come her way. She knew she would bring that same energy to teaching her traditional language.
Her starting point was already strong. For more than 20 years Owen had been a primary school teacher working all round Australia from Dubbo, New South Wales, to Darwin in the Northern Territory and Bunbury in Western Australia. Owen knew teaching, and she knew bringing a language to life in a classroom would need high level skills and insights.
“The course was just an amazing experience. It reignited the love of language and the fire.”
“I had been already taught indigenous language and been involved in language conferences,” says Owen. “But they really kind of push the internet and apps. The reality is, a lot of our pupils are heading out on country without internet connection. So how do you teach in those places?”
An opportunity to answer that question appeared at a language conference that Owen attended soon after she was well enough to go back to work. “There were Aboriginal linguists there and I realised programs were happening around the nation,” she says. “There was a flyer in one of the conference bags about the Masters of Indigenous Languages Education at the University of Sydney.”
Not long after, Owen had enrolled. Though there was an obvious first problem: Owen lived and worked full time in Murray Bridge, South Australia, but the program required six, one-week trips to Sydney for course intensives.
Owen knew she could deal with the heavy workload, but there would be a strain on her finances.
Searching online, she discovered the Steglick Indigenous Women's Scholarship, which was established by economics alumnus, Mark Steglick and his family, to support Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women, with the goal of educating educators.
Grabbing the opportunity, Owen applied and was thrilled to be successful. The scholarship covered most of the extra transport and living expenses of coming to Sydney and allowed her to upgrade her laptop, which was a huge benefit in an intense study environment.
“The course was just an amazing experience. It reignited the love of language and the fire,” she says, still energised by the memory. “I basically flew in, did nothing but eat and sleep and study. Totally exhausted, I’d fly home the following weekend and go back to work.”
The benefits that Owen took from the course and her scholarship, soon turned into benefits for the Aboriginal children of her community. These were children who had never used the language of their own people.
“Our kids have been missing that connection between language and culture; you can't have one without the other,” says Owen. “Speaking their own language makes them walk around ten feet tall instead of two.
“When I walk into a class and they say ‘Nankeri nanggi ngatju Keliyari’, you know, ‘Good morning Auntie Kelli,’ oh my goodness. It’s like goose bumps.”