The standout piece for me in the 2008 AFL official history was an essay by Adam Goodes.
Goodes’ writing is precise, personal and candid. His essay amounted to an indigenous history of the AFL, but, by way of an introduction, Goodes spelt out exactly who he is and where he’s coming from. He wrote: ”To understand what it means to be indigenous, you need to understand that we come with baggage. Every one of us. And every one of us has a choice as to how we deal with it …”
Part of his baggage, he said, stemmed from the fact that his mother (along with eight of her siblings) was one of the stolen generations. She never saw her parents again. ”Please,” he wrote, ”just think about that.” His mother and her siblings were not kept together, they were scattered. ”Over time, they have all had their traumas dealing with this dislocation in their lives, and none can say they have put it behind them.”
His own childhood, he confessed, was ”not entirely happy”. He witnessed alcoholism and domestic abuse. ”When I was 12 and 13, I used to sneak out the back window and call the cops, just praying they would bring some peace and quiet. It’s why we kept moving.” Then he wrote: ”Plus, I’m a half-caste. My natural father was white, my mum is full blood.” It’s the duality the young Barack Obama faced, only in Obama’s case his mother was white and his father was black.
Goodes was at one time the only black kid in his school and, as such, he copped it. But, he writes: ”I was, and remain, incredibly lucky – I was always the athlete, the tall kid with skills who stood out on the footy field and at some point as a teenager that point of difference seemed to overcome my other point of difference.” At the same time, a couple of his young Aboriginal cousins called him a ”coconut”. ”Trust me,” he wrote, ”I felt that sting many times”. This is bold, revealing material.
The backdrop to Goodes’ essay was that the 2008 AFL official history was being used to promote the view that there was no connection between Aboriginal football and the game we now call AFL. Goodes concluded by quoting observations of marngrook by the early Western District pastoralist James Dawson. Goodes said he didn’t know the exact truth of the history, ”but I believe in the connection. Because I know that when Aborigines play Australian football with a clear mind and total focus, we are born to play it.”
Two years later, on the occasion of the AFL indigenous round, he wrote a piece for The Age, which again showed a strongly individual viewpoint. His concern was that the indigenous round didn’t ”just perpetuate stereotypes about indigenous people”.
He used the example of Cyril Rioli in the 2008 grand final when the Hawthorn star ”found himself on the members’ wing, taking on two Geelong players in Corey Enright and Max Rooke. He tangles with Enright, strips the ball from the Geelong player, then crawls along the ground to get to the next contest with Geelong hard man Rooke. He throws himself at Rooke, lays a heavy tackle and wins the free kick.”
Goodes quoted a commentator remarking, ”You can’t coach that, it’s instinct,” and wrote: ”I disagree. What Rioli displayed in that pivotal moment on football’s biggest stage was a result of hard work, second effort, dogged determination and competitive spirit.”
This week, Goodes had another article published concerning the John Pilger documentary Utopia. The buzz around Utopia, he wrote, had been unprecedented yet little had appeared about it in the mainstream media.
He went on: ”Imagine watching a film that tells the truth about the terrible injustices committed over 225 years against your people, a film that reveals how Europeans, and the governments that have run our country, have raped, killed and stolen from your people for their own benefit.
”Now imagine how it feels when the people who benefited most from those rapes, those killings and that theft – the people in whose name the oppression was done – turn away in disgust when someone seeks to expose it. Frankly, as a proud Adnyamathanha man, I find the silence about Utopia in mainstream Australia disturbing and hurtful. As an Australian, I find it embarrassing.”
It’s a fact that a lot of Australians don’t want to know about Aboriginal Australia, or our shared history, but there’s a solid bloc of people who do.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that because they haven’t commented on John Pilger’s documentary that they have no understanding of the matters described, or that they haven’t, when the opportunity arose, sought connection with Aboriginal people. Pilger is not the first person to speak out on these matters. The list of those who have extends back to James Dawson and beyond.
The question is what to do next. A lot of Australians are waiting for leaders to emerge who will deal authentically and constructively with this issue – Aboriginal leaders, non-Aboriginal leaders and, hopefully, a leader for us all. It could be Adam Goodes we’re waiting for.
Sydney Swans champion Adam Goodes is the Australian of the Year.