NAIDOC Week celebrated in local footy

Lang Lang and Longwarry footballers and netballers taking part in the smoking ceremony. (Stewart Chambers: 417440)

By Jonty Ralphsmith and Marcus Uhe

Longwarry Football Netball Club hosted Lang Lang for an Indigenous game in the Ellinbank and District Football League to mark NAIDOC Week on Saturday.

An Australian observance from 7 to 14 July designed to celebrate the culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the club used the week to hold Indigenous games prior to Covid-19.

Saturday’s game was the club’s first Indigenous game in five years, allowing Longwarry to honour its long and proud connection to Indigenous culture.

Both clubs wore Indigenous guernseys and took part in a smoking ceremony, while the football and netball games were played with Indigenous balls.

Kungarakan man Bernie Wells, the father of players Jason and Casey Wells, designed the guernsey, paying homage to the local Kurnai tribe.

The illustration is centred around Jacksons Track, which was the centre piece of a prominent Aboriginal community near Labertouche on Kurnai country.

The orange line represents Jacksons Track, while the blue line represents a waterway that previously snaked alongside the track.

A blue wren is depicted as it is the Kurnai Tribe’s totem – all Aboriginal tribes have an inherited spiritual emblem.

The footprints highlight the traffic that used to frequent Jacksons Track, walking as far north as the Jindivick Store and south to Sand Road, Longwarry.

Small crows on the guernsey are symbolic of embers from the 2019 Black Summer bushfires which impacted Kurnai Country.

The meeting place represents the football netball club, with the six seating areas portraying the six Indigenous club people at the time of the design in 2019.

There are now seven Indigenous people playing at the club: footballers Paul Williams, Tyler Van Der Heyden, Will Van Der Heyden and netballers Holly Stephens and Taylah Stephens, all from Kurnai Country.

Meanwhile, reserves coach Ben Cuckson, and Jason and Casey Wells are from the Kungarakan tribe in Northern Territory.

As well as donning Indigenous paraphernalia on Saturday, Longwarry used the round to educate players.

During the Crows’ Thursday night training run, players were educated on Indigenous culture via NAIDOC-related trivia in yarning circles, and a cultural awareness video was played to the squad.

“It’s a conversation starter about things they didn’t know,” said Indigenous committee member Tracey Stephens, who organised the round.

“If everyone takes home one thing they didn’t know, then we’ve done our job.

“I feel like everyone is better educated this year so hopefully this is something we can do every year because I do think Indigenous days for clubs are awesome, but I think education is the most important for Aboriginal families to feel part of Australia.”

Stephens is proud of the club’s cultural sensitivity and embrace of Indigenous culture.

“I am passionate about Aboriginal culture and history so I want people to learn more and understand Aboriginal culture isn’t just about welcome to countries and there is meaning behind it,” she said.

“We’ve had a lot of Aboriginal people come to our club and stay which is something I’m really proud of.

“It shows Longwarry is a safe space to be in so hopefully we have more Aboriginal players that come to our club.”

Longwarry president Annie Van Der Heyden, also from the Kurnai tribe, highlighted the significance of meaningful education rather than tokenism.

“So many people play in an Indigenous jumper – but do people know why?” she said.

“We wanted to make sure there were learnings about it, and ensure people knew what they were playing for and the stories about it.

“Several families told stories of the ridicule they would face when they would go into town, where people would not want to talk to them or sit next to them.

“It was so well received and we got such great feedback.”

Officer coach Daniel Charles, a member of the Wemba Wemba tribe, also used the week to reflect on the progression of Aboriginal acceptance and the sport’s inclusivity.

Charles’ tribe has origins in northern Victoria and southern New South Wales, but his father and grandfather were raised on Aboriginal missions, the grim and bleak institutions created in an effort to separate indigenous people from their culture and families.

Charles was raised in Doveton and coached the Doves, a club with a proud history of celebrating indigenous culture, to a premiership in 2019.

He said the acceptance of indigenous culture has come “a hell of a long way” in his life time, from heartbreaking experiences as a kid, such as being told at school by a teacher that his family’s indigenous history was a lie, to learning of his father’s attempt to book a hotel room for his family when Charles was a child, being denied on the basis of being Aboriginal.

Charles’ son Zach has the Aboriginal flag painted on his wrist tape every week, and his children and family practice the ritual of passing Dreamtime stories down through the generations.

In the lead up to Outer East Football Netball’s First Nation’s round last week, Charles described football as a ‘leveller’, and having played a major role in the acceptance and understanding of indigenous culture into the mainstream.

“It’s always been somewhere indigenous people have been accepted, in local footy clubs,” Charles said.

“You go into a sports club and you create a brotherhood/sisterhood and they’re the people that have got your back, show that love and respect and acceptance.

“Even though there’s some racism that has gone along with playing football, it’s always been somewhere where, I know when my dad first moved down to Doveton…the first thing my grandfather did was brought them in to the local football and netball club.

“My grandfather, to play football back in the day and go to work, had to have a certificate of exemption that allowed him to leave the aboriginal mission, just to go to work and play football.

“We’ve come a long way since then and it’s great that football clubs and leagues are pushing that change and acceptance.”

Despite the growth in acceptance and celebration of the culture, racism remains far from eradicated in this country, with Charles calling on non-indigenous people to play their role in stamping it out.

“It’s a hard fight when it’s only the indigenous people fighting, but if you’ve got non-indigenous calling people out for saying racial or derogatory remarks, then we’re going to see proper change.

“There are some people that will change because of the education, and there’s some that won’t, just because that’s the way they are.

“Some people say racist things out of ignorance rather than malice, but it’s when they are educated and they understand, then you can say ‘if you want to keep doing it, then you are racist.’

“Some people say it just out of ignorance but once they’re educated, they know better.

“Call someone out and speak up. That’s the only way.”