My Indigenous Round – Love and Pain and the Whole Damned Thing

Monday morning on the train to work I generally read the thoughts of Craig Little (the artist formerly known as the People’s Elbow) on the weekend’s AFL games in the Guardian. While the responsibilities of mainstream journalism have turned our Hunter S Thompson into Laurie Oakes (light) – his wide-ranging perspectives are always worth reading.


His thoughtful piece on the AFL Indigenous Round ended with a scathing indictment of the Collingwood of old (some habits never change). What really caught my eye was the quote from then Magpie President Alan McAlister at the time of the now landmark (then contentious) Winmar skin pointing defiance at Victoria Park in 1993:

As long as they conduct themselves like white people off the field, everyone will admire and respect them.”


My blood boiled reading those words. At the time, I thought McAlister’s words were clumsy, but I forgave them with an unthinking “I know that he meant well”. My anger at reading them today was as much about my own shared ignorance and culpability back then.


I bought into a lie. The lie of well meaning, if paternalistic, decency in the purpose if not the methods of the Stolen Generation.


Like most Australians, I consider myself tolerant and accepting of different races and cultures. I get frustrated by the street drinking and drugging and family neglect that I see among indigenous people, but I shrug that it’s a more visible epidemic because of indigenous street culture and homelessness. From my work I know that the problems are as widespread, if not as visible, in white middle class society.


But until last week I had never had deep conversations with indigenous people about their life experience. By chance the AFL’s Indigenous “Round” coincided with my own.


There was a casual acquaintance over several years with a kindly, gentle indigenous lady in her 70s where we sometimes shared meetings over a common cause. A friend said she was struggling so we met for a coffee and her pain came tumbling out.


I knew about the Stolen Generations and this lady was taken from her parents at age 10. What I didn’t know about was the intersection of the Stolen Generations issue and the confronting stories we have all heard from the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse.


This dignified lady had lived Australia’s shameful version of the sort of WW2 torture visited by the Japanese Army on captive “comfort women”. Her story shook me to my core and left me wondering why I had not understood the systematic abuse that often accompanied “Christian” missions. Her tormentors were now facing justice – 60 years too late – but it meant reliving pain for her.


A few days later a colleague asked me to “have a chat” with a young man who was struggling. I didn’t know he was indigenous until me met, and his story was both inspiring and sad. He and his brothers were abandoned by their mother at a young age, but he found sanctuary with an indigenous foster care “mum” (the only one he’d known) for over 20 years. His deep love for her and the life values she instilled were rare in any young man. Sadly, she died last year after a long battle with cancer, and he had given up his job to support her through the illness.


Now he was just left with anger and confusion. In the unthinking way of bureaucracies the public housing authorities had moved all the brothers out of the family home they had shared into units scattered across Perth suburbia. They now each had a roof but had lost their common home and all sense of family and belonging.


The loss of family was all the more profound because it was the second time he’d had to deal with it in a young life, and the pain and confusion had brought him to the brink.


By the weekend I needed footy for the distraction and shared connection that it always brings. I vaguely knew that it was “Indigenous Round” but I’m not much for the AFL’s self-congratulatory social engineering.


This weekend felt different. Whenever I turned on a match – Burgoyne, Franklin, Garlett, Ryder, Betts, Motlop – all seemed to be dazzling with their creativity and skill. I don’t know if it was the AFL recognition or the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum on legal and voting rights, but every indigenous player seemed to be showcasing their best.


As someone often guilty of typecasting some indigenous players as “brilliant but flakey” this was a jolt. One that extended to Subiaco on Sunday when my Eagles lined up with 3 indigenous players in Lewis Jetta, Josh Hill and first gamer Malcolm Karpany. We have always played second fiddle to the Dockers when it comes to indigenous representation. Had we ever played 3 at a time before? Maybe Wirrpanda and the two Materas, but the unspoken rule seemed to be “one or two for brilliance, but not too many for toughness”.


At quarter time they were my 3 best players as we led the talented young Giants by 14 points. Hill and Karpany faded, but Jetta and our “surrogate blackfella” Jeremy McGovern shone and were clearly our 2 best in a brilliant game of football. The McGovern brothers played all their early football among indigenous desert kids when their father Andrew worked for the Clontarf Indigenous Academy in Warburton and Kalgoorlie. Jeremy credits his anticipation and marking skills to those early experiences competing with indigenous kids.


Lewis Jetta played the game of his stuttering career at the Eagles. And “played” seems the right word – both his high level of competitive performance and the casual brilliance with which he gathered and dodged and despatched the ball. Child’s play for someone grounded in the indigenous game. Footy Jim – but not as we know it.


I loved the game. My Eagles lost – but so what. The opposition were elite. Our effort was there after “phoning it in” last week. And the spectacle of hard running, contested marking and clever disposal was light years away from what I have seen in most Eagles games this year. Most of our wins – over St Kilda, the Dockers, Port and the Dogs – were scrappy and hard fought. Only a mother could love ’em.


The Giants contributed with their youth and talent. But I wondered how much the injection of indigenous “play” contributed to our own willingness to take the game on. Why is “play” and risk and chance more prevalent in the style and psyche of indigenous players? Is it the awareness that life is short and uncertain so moments are to be relished and explored whenever they present? What the Buddhists call the acceptance of life’s impermanence, that is a key to a happy life whatever our circumstances.


Jetta took risks and broke lines with running and precise kicking. In coachspeak Adam Simpson said Jetta had “over 600 metres gained”. I guess that’s good. It was certainly thrilling to watch his skill, daring and effort.


Each week I count McClangers. The number of times Jeremy McGovern looks up quickly from a mark and kicks riskily to an opponent. This week there was only one – in the second quarter – for an easy goal to the Giants. But without risk there is no opportunity and few rewards. His 9 marks and 11 one percenters were game highs for both teams and like Jetta the thrills are a parcel with the spills they outweigh.


Jetta and McGovern are “in the moment” in a way that most talented but rigidly coached non-indigenous players aren’t. Artists not engineers – as Dips put it last week. The ghosts in the machine that make it hum when most grind. “In the moment” that allows them to be “before the moment” in the way that they instinctively anticipate what the “good ordinary” opponent will do so they can beat him for time and space.


Fierce competitors who play with a careless joy that enthrals, no matter who you support. Was it innocent joy that those joyless priests and teachers were trying to steal for themselves back on the missions?


As for the Giants – their depth of talent is immense. With 8 out of their nominal “best 22” they did not miss a beat. When one Van Gogh’s down, another Monet steps up.


How have they done it, when the Suns exemplify that there is nothing more common than squandered talent?


Grandpa Kevin seemed to understand that money, licence and celebrity are a heady temptation for young men. The hand that moulded Long, Rioli and Kickett into confident young men also matured Watson, Hird and Salmon’s precocious talent into flag winners. Grandpa brought in fathers Cornes, Power and Brogan as constant reminders of the value of persistence, work and the fleeting nature of opportunity.


While Suns partied on the Gold Coast, the Giants shared dormitory digs and the common growing pains of young men in a ruthless world. It has bonded them beyond football and they display a loyalty and commitment far beyond their natural talent.


It takes a village to raise a child.  And a tribe to raise a champion team.



  1. Les Currie says

    A really good read, Peter.

  2. Ben Footner says

    Really enjoyed that Peter. The indigenous round has become a real highlight for me over the past couple of years. The AFC do an excellent pre-match, and of course Eddie Betts kicked his goals of the year in the last two years during this round.

    Digressing a little further – I hope that the government has the sense to act in some way on the ‘Statement from the Heart’. It is powerful and constructive and could be a real turning point if the government will come to the table.

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great piece, PB.
    McAlister’s words were hurtful in 1993 and they still hurt in 2017. Our awareness seems to have improved with time thanks to Long, Goodes and the iconic image of Nicky Winmar. May Indigenous Round live long and prosper.

  4. Rod Oaten says

    What a great read Peter,fills me with sadness and guilt.
    We boat people sure have a lot to answer for, and I’m afraid we don’t seem to be learning very much.

  5. E.regnans says

    Important stuff, PB, well raised.
    I’m not one for a weekly scathing, castigating, scorn-pouring, rant.

    But while anyone can wag a finger at an historical figure whose historical public views are now well out of step with societal expectations*, it’s fair to recognise that we (society) are tracking in a progressive direction. Much to be done, of course. And how long this spirit lasts when times become hard is another question. But a lot has already changed in 25 years.

    “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
    – Socrates

    *yes, The views in this case were racist even for the time. The point stands.

  6. John Butler says

    Jeez PB, a fair bit in that one.

    The big thing I take out of that is dialogue. Listening and understanding.

    I think our failures in regard to indigenous people are due to our history being a litany of whitefellas telling blackfellas what’s good for them. On our terms.

    Hopefully the Uluru statements can be a way forward. But I fear the usual suspects will drag everything down into the whole tedious culture war mire once again. I hope I’m wrong.

  7. PB

    As ever, thoughtful, honest, reflective and funny. Great views all round.

    I too feel like I am tolerant, but am continually shocked and embarrassed by what I discover and what I wasn’t aware of in our past.

    I can’t do anything about the past, but I hoe that I can influence the future, through my actions and my kids.

    Thanks for the piece


  8. PB- thanks for this. Much to ponder here. At work I’ve been engaging with the concept of sociological imagination as “the awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society.” This seems to fit your post perfectly.

    “When one Van Gogh’s down, another Monet steps up.” Love this. The Giants have got the entire Louvre in their dressing rooms.

  9. PB – plenty to ponder. I really hate the AFL’s “cause” rounds. Its so patronising and pathetically symbolic. They only do it to capture a market. Or, should I say, another market. And all their causes are just so celebrity. Yuck..

    Except the Indigenous Round. They’ve got this one nearly right. I actually look forward to it. And I asked myself why? I think its because, by and large, the AFL stays pretty much out of it. It is a round of football that celebrates a culture. A very old culture. Australia’s first culture. But, perhaps more importantly (at least for me), it is a round that gives hope to an often desperate people. I watch these delightful footballers getting marks and kicks and playing the game, and I wonder if the future is just a little bit brighter for that. Every little bit helps. The challenge will be to keep the politics out of it.

  10. Luke Reynolds says

    Superb piece PB. While we’ve come a long way, it seems there’s still a long way to go.

    For all his crazy ideas, Grandpa Kevin got so much right.

  11. Sean Gorman says

    Always was Always will be.

  12. Keiran Croker says

    Great piece Pete. We are all on a journey to raise our awareness of indigenous matters. Much listening and understanding required.

  13. This is terrific — thanks for the nod PB, but more to the point, thanks for everything after it…

  14. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Only just got to this weeks later PB …

    I wonder whether the sense of ‘play’ you saw in the Indigenous players had something to do with a feeling of self determination, promoted by the banner of the Indigenous Round. Self determination seems to be at the heart of everything for mine.
    When Goodes played under Eade, his talent was strangled by the leash. Roosy gave out a licence and look what we got. When Lance came north, he seemed to be suffocated by the rigidity and imposition of the famous Bloods culture. Post hiatus, he’s found his own way up here now and look what we are getting! There are clues here, work here.

    These stories you share are sensitively and meaningfully told. Thank you.

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