Australian rules football is helping to bridge the cultural divide for Aboriginal people in a Western Australian community thrust into the national spotlight three years ago by shocking racially charged violence.
Racial tensions in the gold mining hub of Kalgoorlie reached boiling point in 2016 when 14-year-old Elijah Doughty — himself a talented junior footballer — was killed in a vehicle collision while riding a motorbike.
As the AFL celebrates its annual Indigenous round three years on, Aboriginal players have spoken about how the game they love unites the community, and the importance of being part of a team.
In Kalgoorlie and the nearby nickel mining town of Kambalda, the local Goldfields Football League (GFL) draws most players from the mining industry.
“When we are out in the community sometimes we have been divided a bit from Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal,” said Aboriginal footballer Vic Smith.
“But when we are playing footy or any sport it just brings us all together and we are all one team, we are all one mob.”
Mr Smith’s leadership goes beyond the football field. He spoke at a public rally last year protesting the release of the man who ran down the Elijah Doughty.
He said the football club was like a “second home” having played more than 100 league games over 15 years, including the past two league premierships.
A growing football legacy
This weekend, the GFL is embracing the Indigenous round with all five clubs in the small competition to emulate the big league by wearing specially-designed, Indigenous-themed guernseys.
GFL chairman Glenn Wilson said sport had helped the community heal following the traumatic events of recent years.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, everyone gets together on the football field, the ball gets passed around, you could almost call the ball the peacekeeper,” Mr Wilson said.
The mining industry keeps all five of the GFL clubs on the field, providing the bulk of sponsorship through cash and the promise of jobs so clubs can bring in new recruits from out of town.
PHOTO: David Stubbs, a veteran player for Railways Panthers, is the nephew of the team’s Indigenous guernsey designer. (ABC Goldfields: Andrew Tyndall)
Aboriginal players Bouyden Champion and Laurence Reid designed last season’s guernsey to celebrate the club’s 120th anniversary and they are both ecstatic other clubs have followed their lead.
“Hopefully it will continue for 100 years or even more,” said Mr Champion, who helped with its design.
“It feels good to see all the other clubs join in with us.”
“It makes me proud seeing [the players] walk around with my artwork on them and what that story means to me,” Mr Reid said.
“A lot of effort went into that and I was proud to see a lot of different cultures wearing it. It lifted me up, my spirit and that.”
‘Training is one of the best things you could do’
Mines Rovers can claim one of the more unusual nicknames in Australian football.
They are known as the Diorites, a type of hard rock found on Kalgoorlie’s world-famous Golden Mile, once considered the richest square mile on earth.
PHOTO: The Goldfields Football League draws most of its players from the local mining industry. (ABC Goldfields: Sam Tomlin)
The rest of the GFL has more mainstream monikers, such as the Tigers, Panthers, Kangaroos and the Kambalda Eagles.
Kalgoorlie-born mine worker, local footballer and Aboriginal man David Stubbs said the fact all five GFL clubs have embraced the concept is a step towards healing.
Mr Stubbs is a former premiership captain and 273-game veteran for Railways Panthers, and is the nephew of the designer of the team’s Indigenous round guernsey.
“The concept of a heritage jumper wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago,” he said.
“I think people are learning more about Aboriginal culture and it’s heading in the right direction.”
Mr Stubbs said football clubs in regional areas provided a safe environment for young men to grow.
“You get to release all your frustrations.
“Training is one of the best things you could do,” he said.