Story: Dr Alice Rigney
This inspiring Elder of the Kaurna and Narungga nations was also our first female Aboriginal school principal. Deadly Vibe pays respect.
Aboriginal Elder Dr Alice Rigney is a 30-year veteran of education in South Australia. Starting out as a teachers’ aide in 1967, Alice retired as principal of Kaurna Plains School in 1997 with an honorary doctorate from the University of South Australia and a string of awards and achievements to her name.
Alice grew up in a mission on the Yorke Peninsula during the 1940s and remembers being enamoured of school at a very young age. “I was the oldest of about 14 kids and I had total responsibility for them, which was hard. When it got too difficult, I’d just run away to school. From early on I saw education as a form of escape and I knew I’d never succeed if I didn’t have an education behind me.”
Still, education was not easy to come by in those days if you were Aboriginal. Once Alice and her classmates had finished their schooling at the mission, there was no chance of them being able to attend the local high school – it was for Whites only.
“Fortunately, our principal arranged for 12 of us to finish our secondary schooling at Unley Girls Technical High School in Adelaide. We lived in a hostel nearby and walked across to Unley every day. Some of us were homesick, but we all looked after each other. It was an excellent time for me.”
Having completed high school, Alice set about thinking what she might do for a career. Surprisingly, teaching hadn’t even occurred to her. “I wanted to be a doctor, but my school counsellor didn’t think an Aboriginal female would be able to achieve in that area at the time. I had role models who were nurses, though – people like Lowitja O’Donoghue and Audrey Kinnear. So I became a nurse.”
After nursing for a while, Alice returned to her community and had her first child. This is when she began working as a teachers’ aide in mission schools around the area. Realising she had what it took to be a teacher, Alice obtained a Diploma of Education from the University of South Australia and was quickly snapped up by a mainstream primary school.
In 1985 Alice became the first Aboriginal person to join the professional ranks of the South Australian Department of Education. The following year she became the first female Aboriginal principal in Australia when she was appointed head of Kaurna Plains School.
Since then, Alice has been teaching, mentoring and, most importantly, inspiring young minds on the traditional lands of her people, and beyond. While she officially retired from teaching in 1997, in reality she is more active than ever: South Australia’s Guardianship Board and Aboriginal Education, Training and Advisory Committee are just two bodies lucky enough to have her as part of their team.
Most recently, Alice signed up to become an Ambassador for the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science & Training’s National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy. She is proud to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of May O’Brien, Ashley Anderson, Naomi Anstess and her nephew, footballer Michael O’Loughlin.
Add to that a carers group she’s actively involved in, her three children, nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild due in October, and you could be forgiven for thinking Auntie Alice just wants to sit down and rest her weary feet. But you’d be wrong. Not when she still has so much to offer young people.
“I’m looking forward to being an Ambassador and seeing what support I can give,” she says. “What I want for Aboriginal kids is what most of their parents want, I think, and that is for them to be academically successful and strong in their Aboriginal identity. I’m just happy to be a part of their walk through the system.”