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AFLW's Indigenous round both empowers and highlights uncomfortable truths

Kirby Fenwick
·4-min read

Striking jumpers offered the clearest sign of the AFLW’s inaugural Indigenous round, a visual representation of connection to country, community and family, and of the journey many women have taken to get to the top of their sport.

On Sunday afternoon the Adelaide Crows and St Kilda stood in two parallel lines in the middle of Norwood Oval. As the players stood arm in arm, wearing their Indigenous guernseys, Tiahna Silvy made an official Welcome to Country.

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“Recognise my people’s language, songs, stories, dances,” Silvy said. “Recognise that we walk on the lands of my ancestors … My friends, let’s walk together in harmony.”

The The sight was not unfamiliar – the Crows have been wearing their Indigenous jumper at away games throughout the season. Forward Danielle Ponter worked with Aboriginal visual artist, Elizabeth Close, to design the jumper which Close says “speaks to the resilience and the fearsomeness and the strength of women”.

Ponter is not the only player to have a hand in the creation of a jumper. Brisbane Lions players Dakota Davidson, Ally Anderson and Courtney Hodder collaborated on the Lions jumper, which features the Totems of the women: The Black Swan, Emu and Turtle. Melbourne’s Krstel Petrevski designed the Demon’s guernsey, which includes former Demon and now Magpie, Aleisha Newman, in its story. Fremantle’s Jasmin Stewart was involved in the design of the Dockers jumper and Kaitlyn Ashmore and Mia King were involved in the creation of the North Melbourne guernsey.

Across the weekend, as cameras captured the women of the AFLW doing their thing, they also captured these jumpers and the stories within them. They are vibrant, powerful and inspiring. They also point to larger issues including racism and discrimination, and to important conversations and to the reality of a very complex history that Australia has still not reckoned with. While we celebrate the stories, it is important we do not shy away from those discussions.

Last year, Super Netball’s Indigenous round was embroiled in controversy when the league’s only Indigenous player, Jemma Mi Mi, who was front and centre in media coverage in the lead-up, was notably left off the court on game day. Netball is one of the most popular sports in Australia for women and girls, but only two Indigenous women have ever played for the national team in Marcia Ella-Duncan and Sharon Finnan-White.

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The fallout from the Super Netball Indigenous round revealed issues with the way the sport supports Indigenous women and girls. In response, Netball Australia committed to breaking down barriers for Indigenous women and girls, not only on the court but off it too, offering opportunities as coaches, administrators and umpires. While a positive outcome, it was also a reminder of a dedicated round’s potential to become an empty symbol: a beautifully designed uniform and platitudes without substance.

Sport can be a powerful driver for social change. It is why rounds like the Pride round and Indigenous round are so important. Yes, they are about celebrating the people, the communities, the culture. But they are also about real and lasting change.

For Jacara Egan, a Muthi-Muthi/Gunditjmara woman, that change is happening in the coach’s box. An assistant coach with the Calder Cannons in the NAB League, the premier youth competition for AFLW hopefuls in Victoria, Egan is the only Indigenous woman coaching in the state-wide competition.

“Women, First Nations, Aboriginal women, we bring such a different perspective and approach to life and a really valuable approach to life and the spheres and spaces that we enter into,” Muthi-Muthi/Gunditjmara told Siren Sport.

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“We’re in such a great time for change [and] we have value and we have so much to offer. And we’re actually doing people – even though some don’t really know it yet – but we’re doing them a disservice by not putting ourselves out there [and] stepping into our power and taking up space in these spaces that haven’t been reserved for us in the past and saying, ‘well, look, this is how we do things. This is how we can add value, and it’s how we can do things differently’.”

Approximately 5% of AFLW players are Indigenous. The number of Indigenous women coaching across the code is not readily available. While there is no publicly published target in terms of participation at the elite level, the AFL is investing in player pathways such as the Woomeras, a national development opportunity for young Indigenous women.

But there is more work to be done, particularly around enacting changes that dismantle discriminatory structures. It is about reckoning with the history of Marngrook and ensuring the AFLW’s Indigenous round has a wider, deeper and long-lasting impact on the game and its people.