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Aboriginal footballers' MCG dreaming


In the recent AFL Grand Final, the performance of Aboriginal footballer Cyril Rioli seemed to be not much short of magic. Well, perhaps the spirit world did make a contribution ...

Cyril RioliThe MCG from its very beginnings became one of those places that helped define its city and that city's people in much the same way Notre Dame is emblematic of Paris and Parisians; the way San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute are laid claim to by even the most irreverent of Venetians; the way St Paul's transcends class and denomination to be all things to all Londoners; the way the winged silhouette of the Opera House has replaced the bridge as the emblem for Sydney.

It is in this same way that the MCG is quintessentially Melbourne. The sense of ownership everyone feels about it has made it 'the people's ground'; not that it is ideologically egalitarian — on the contrary, membership of the Melbourne Cricket Club is achieved only after doing time in a very long queue. Nevertheless, it is part of the people's idea of Melbourne.

You can be dismissive of the 'G but it's very difficult to ignore. The MCG is not only physically a part of the city of Melbourne; it has also entered the language and lore.

Modern dictionaries recognise the process whereby language reflects changes in society's perspectives and levels of tolerance. What was once regarded as taboo or unacceptable or sub-literary gains acceptance because it has become part of the collective consciousness. To ignore this would be to overlook significant shifts in the mores and behaviour of the community.

So, in 'Australia's National Dictionary', The Macquarie Dictionary, Third Edition, we find words like 'fair dinkum' (adj., colloquial: true, genuine), 'fuckwitted' (adj., colloquial: foolish, stupid), 'ratshit' (adj., colloquial: useless, broken ...) and many more that usage has raised into common parlance.

In the same way, the MCG has long since gone beyond its status as an ever more significant and versatile sporting stadium. It is now part of the Melbournian and Victorian and Australian mental and imaginative world. It has entered what the Aboriginals would call our 'dreaming'.

It is not just the place where we saw Australia beat the Poms or an interstate team beat Collingwood; or where we attended a papal mass or Billy Graham's massive revivalist show; or where we heard the three tenors warbling effortlessly round the Members Wing.

It is not only the sum of its history since Governor La Trobe permitted the Melbourne Cricket Club to remove trees in the 'Richmond Paddock' to establish a cricket ground. Or even since the tribes of the Kulin Nation gathered in what the white man would eventually call Yarra Park for dance, ceremonial, grievance airing and consultation.

'[L]ong ere the settlement was formed,' wrote a settler, William Thomas, in 1840, 'the spot where Melbourne now stands and the [river Yarra] flat on which we are now camped was the regular rendezvous for the tribes ... twice a year or as often as circumstances and emergencies required ... '

At about the time that John Batman came ashore on the Yarra bank, the Port Phillip district — as the Europeans would call it — was wholly owned and controlled by the Kulin Nation. Five related Aboriginal language groups made up this entity and their sway extended round the bays and north to Euroa.

Two clans in particular — the Wurundjeri-willam and the Wurundjeri-baluk, inhabiting the river flats and the country towards Westernport respectively — were often seen around the edges of early Melbourne and so the settlers came to refer to the local Aborigines as Wurundjeri.

Batman's place for a 'village' was exactly the area where the tribes of the Kulin nation had been regularly gathering for many years before the arrival of the whitefella.

After the invasion, they continued for a time to use their favourite grounds on both sides of the river which the first Europeans called the Freshwater but which the Aboriginals knew as Bay-ray-rung. Batman's surveyor, John Wedge, renamed it the Yarra Yarra in 1835 because he was convinced that was the Aboriginal name for it.

And so, as they had done for generations, the tribes continued to congregate on either side of the Freshwater/Bay-ray-rung/Yarra Yarra. In 1844, for example, a great throng of clans was camped on the site of what became the MCG and Richmond Cricket ground. It was their accustomed and familiar place.

Perhaps, 170 years later, Aboriginal footballers, running down the race for the first time and steeling themselves for the noise, the space, the tension, find instead a great sense of intimacy as their feet hit the grass of the oval, as if it was, instead of the most famous stadium in the land and a place of fearful exposure and achievement or failure, their accustomed and familiar place ...

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Aboriginals, MCG



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Existing comments

Due credit must be given to Brother John Pye MSC a dedicated NT missioner[died 2009] and his encouragement/introduction of AFL among Tiwi aboriginals. Tiwi Islands community Pirlangimpi has produced three Norm Smith Medallists. Brother Pye was especially revered for introducing the game of Australian Rules to the Tiwi people, where he is known as the “Father of Football”. After his death a fine tribute appeared in the Melbourne daily newspaper, “The Age”, praising his significant contribution to the promotion of Australian Rules, and not only in the Northern Territory, for many Aboriginal players from NT went on to successful careers in some of the major teams in the AFL.

Father John George | 15 October 2015  

Or maybe Aboriginal players paraphrase Batman and simply say: "This a great place for a game of footie!". And then play the game with the joy and exuberance and the silky skills it deserves and which AFL purists love.

Uncle Pat | 16 October 2015  

Brian, I loved learning this history and intend sharing it. However, a note of caution: I don't think we white people should ever mention the dreaming. I don't think we have a hope of understanding the complex meaning of it in all its layers. Best left unsaid. Otherwise, I am grateful for the rest.

Pauline Small | 22 October 2015  

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