• Reconnecting to her language has ignited Leonie McCallum's passion for singing and a connection to her ancestors (youtube)Source: youtube
Leonie McCallum doesn’t consider herself religious but regularly sings at her local church in her traditional language.
Emily Nicol

3 Apr 2019 - 2:17 PM  UPDATED 10 Apr 2019 - 4:23 PM

Like so many others, Ngarrindjeri woman Leonie McCallum (nee Rigney) grew up without her birthright to speak the language of her ancestors. 

Growing up in Raukkan, South Australia, home to the church depicted on the $50 note, Leonie says that there was little to no Indigenous language spoken.

However, she recalls as a young girl, waking in the night and hearing the voices of her ancestors speaking to her. It's something that she believes was a gift given to her.

Another talent Leonie has been gifted is singing. While this was a source of joy and pride for Leonie, she experienced childhood bullying which bruised her confidence to pursue her hobbies. 

"I remember always loving singing," she told NITV.

"However, growing up an Aboriginal in Australia had its ups and downs. From being called a 'coconut' from your own, and 'black' from non-Indigenous people, I felt I wasn’t accepted in both cultures.

"This happens when you have white blood mixed with black. [But] I knew who I was and never lost my Aboriginal culture and my ancestors."

Now a mother and grandmother, it wasn't until four years ago when she moved to Victor Harbour in South Australia she decided to reconnect with her roots. 

"I started attending a language class in my new community that was run by local Aboriginal Elder Phyllis Williams and Maryanne Gale, a linguist.

I love singing in Ngarrindjeri because I see that it touches the hearts of everyone who hears me sing and it helps to bring us all together. 

"Though I'm not what you would call 'fluent' as yet, I love to talk to people about what I'm learning. I've found that both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people share my passion." 

Through her new network of friends, Leonie met the local Catholic Priest, Father Vin who took an interest in her unique language skills. He invited her to start singing in language at the local church.

"I'm not a Catholic or a church-goer, so for me, it was a challenge because I could never see myself in the Catholic Church.

"[However] I thought that this was going to be interesting — it could go either way! So I went to the church and it opened a huge door in my spiritual journey. It was all positive feedback and I’m still receiving positive feedback."

 Since beginning her reconnection to culture and language, McCallum says that hasn't looked back and it is her intention to sing and speak in Ngarrindjeri as fluently as possible.

"I love singing in Ngarrindjeri because I see that it touches the hearts of everyone who hears me sing and it helps to bring us all together. I now stand tall and proud as a Ngarrindjeri Elder, I believe that my ancestors  have chosen me to do this and bring back our culture and for all to enjoy."


New observational series Christians Like Us explores what it means to be Christian in Australia in 2019. Premiering Tonight, 3 April on SBS.