Inspiring South Australian women: Alice (Alitya) Rigney

Cultural Heart People of Adelaide

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Throughout the state's history, South Australia, and indeed Adelaide itself, has been home to truly inspirational women - trailblazers across politics, social reform, the arts, food, wine and so much more.

As a tribute to these pioneers, last year, historian Carolyn Collins and journalist Roy Eccleston penned the book Trailblazers - shining a light on the lives of 100 extraordinary South Australian women.

Among them is Alice (Alitya) Rigney - was an innovative and inspiring leader and Australia’s first female Aboriginal school principalIn this edited extract from Trailblazers, learn about Alice's life, achievements, and legacy. 

From her early years growing up on the Point Pearce Aboriginal Mission in the 1940s, as a young woman demanding entry to teachers’ college, and later as an innovative school principal and administrator, Alice Rigney fought hard for greater opportunities in education all her life.

When her youngest child’s kindergarten lacked teachers, she stepped into the breach, an act that set her on a path to becoming a qualified teacher, Australia’s first female Aboriginal school principal and the first Aboriginal person to join the professional ranks of the South Australian Department of Education.

Trailblazers p 226 Alice Rigney was an innovative and inspiring teacher and principal 1998

Alice Rigney was an innovative and inspiring teacher and principal, 1998. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ADVERTISER LIBRARY

Along the way, she preached the power of education in transforming lives and changing destinies, in the process opening doors for others, including for her own children. She also made a major contribution to the preservation of Indigenous culture, introducing the teaching of the Kaurna language into the curriculum when she was principal at the Kaurna Plains School in Elizabeth.

Her first teaching appointment was at Taperoo Primary School, where she found her class was a ‘United Nations’ of students from all different backgrounds. She was ‘absolutely terrified’, wondering what the white parents would think of an Aboriginal person teaching their kids. But she had found her vocation. ‘I absolutely loved it. I loved teaching. I loved imparting knowledge into those little brains,’ she said.

"‘I absolutely loved it. I loved teaching. I loved imparting knowledge into those little brains."

After six years teaching, she joined the professional ranks of the South Australian Education Department. In 1983, when the nation’s first Indigenous school, Kaurna Plains School, was being set up at Elizabeth, Rigney played a major role in gaining community support and she became its principal in 1986, a position she held for the next 13 years.

An innovative and inspiring leader, she introduced the first Indigenous language curriculum. The Kaurna language had been ‘sleeping’, since the death of the last known native speaker in the 1920s. But the discovery of letters written by Kaurna children from an Adelaide mission to German missionaries in the 1840s, brought the language back to life.

Rigney decided that, since her school was on Kaurna land, that should be the language taught, although before teaching the students, she and the staff had to learn the language themselves. The students were also introduced to the idea of cultural as well as conventional school discipline. An Elder of the Kaurna and Narungga Aboriginal nations, Rigney taught more than 5000 Aboriginal students during her lifetime and mentored and inspired many more.

Rigney’s pioneering work was recognised by many awards during her lifetime, including a Public Service Medal in 1991 and the state’s NAIDOC Elder of the Year award in 1997. The following year, the University of South Australia awarded her an honorary doctorate for her services to Aboriginal education.

After teaching, she also took on a significant role in South Australia’s Guardianship Board and the Aboriginal Education, Training and Advisory Committee, while nationally she was ambassador for the Commonwealth government’s National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy strategy.

Trailblazers p 228 Laura Knowles Janice Rigney and Alice Rigney for Sorry Day announcement February 2008 Photo Calum Robertson courtesy of the Advertiser

Laura Knowles, Janice Rigney and Alice Rigney for Sorry Day Announcement, February 2008. PHOTO: CALLUM ROBERTSON, COURTESY OF THE ADVERTISER

Her family also benefited from her huge educational legacy, with all three of her children involved in education.

Alice Rigney died suddenly in May 2017, aged 74, less than 24 hours after her husband Lester, and was buried at Point Pearce. Her death was widely mourned; at the University of South Australia, flags were flown at half-mast to honour her life.

Trailblazers 100 inspiring South Australian women by Carolyn Collins, Roy Eccleston

This is an edited extract from Trailblazers: 100 Inspiring South Australian Women by Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston, published by Wakefield Press. Read Alitya's full story and discover more stories of other inspiring South Australian women in the book: Trailblazers by Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston - published through Wakefield Press