With Anzac Day postponed across Australia. the AFL cancelled one of its biggest fixtures of the year. Yokai Footy looks at the meaning of it to First Nations Australians and delves deeper into the way war and football have provided a voice so that they may be heard.  

IN ONE of the seminal scenes of Richard Franklin's film Harry's War (2000), two Aboriginal diggers and their white mate enter a hotel on the eve of being shipped out to Papua New Guinea.

Harry, played by the late David Ngoombujarra, orders a round of beers. The publican refuses service because of the law at the time disallowing the service of alcohol to 'their kind'. The publican reluctantly serves the diggers after Harry points out the aching hypocrisy of serving the country while being denied a drink in a pub.

They drink the beer then demand another. A fist fight ensues but the violence is not just employed to heighten the drama. It's used to speak to the flashpoint that inequity creates.

The fight is a metaphor to ones right to be free and the struggle required to become so.

The questions that a film like Harry's War raises is why would Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, who until the 1967 Referendum were non-citizens of Australia, chose to join the defence forces when their rights as Australians were unrecognised? What were their motivations to die for the country when the country did not see them as people?

For special guest Gilbert McAdam and co-host Bianca Hunt, Anzac Day is seen differently.

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They recognised on Yokayi Footy that the contributions of the ANZAC soldiers are important in the shaping of our national consciousness, our commemoration of it and the sacrifices made in war.

But McAdam and Hunt felt their engagement is different due to the way history has dealt with the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As co-host Tony Armstrong points out in his opening address it was only last year that the Australian War Memorial unveiled a long overdue monument to that contribution.

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This brings us back to the issue of motivations and the perspective of history. For many First Nations Australians the motivation to join the war effort was to prove their worth in a national crisis to leverage better conditions and opportunities that had not been afforded them.

Many had come from town reserves, missions or from inner-city enclaves that were sub-standard. To join up was to try and seek out better educational and employment opportunities as well as health and housing outcomes for their families and others across the nation.

But the primary motivation was a profound and compelling need to be recognised and accepted. To be understood on their own terms. In this way football was no different.

The connection from a football perspective is the modern-day Anzac Day game that was played for the first time in 1995 between Essendon and Collingwood.

As history shows it was an epic draw that also resulted in the creation of the vilification laws that came in as Rule 30, now Rule 35. During the game Essendon champion Michael Long was abused by Collingwood ruck Damian Monkhorst. Long, upset with the incident and the mediation of it, used his connections, agency and standing as a player to leverage change.

This, as Long said at the time, was for all players, not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. 

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As a consequence, the game has become better for the introduction of the rule. It has enabled clubs to reconsider how they handle and deal with players from different ethnic, cultural and racial backgrounds. It has enabled players to become more questioning and educated while feeling protected from player-to-player abuse as well as that from over the fence.

It has given the AFLW a strong position to deal with gender and sexually related issues as they have arisen. Rule 35 has enabled Australia as a nation to have these types of discussions.

This is not to say that things are completely sorted. The spate of online racism especially directed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players through social media continues.

In a recent interview Nic Natanui said that every time he posts something online, he expects some type of racial response back.

One only has to recall the abuse that Adam Goodes endured that was captured in two documentaries from 2019, The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream, that vigilance, education, understanding and respect are the only real ways of dealing with these issues.

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Having interviewed over 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players for various projects over some 20 years I have often asked them what their motivations were for playing.

I have had many responses that alluded to or directly referenced the fact they were motivated by the need to try and make a different life for themselves their family and the communities they are from.

In many respects the First Nations ANZACS have blazed a trail in the same way players like Sir Doug Nicholls, Polly Farmer and Syd Jackson did. In commemorating the ANZACS and acknowledging their legacy it would seem in these reflective times that the opportunity also presents itself to think more deeply about what these commemorations mean to us and others.

It is in this process the legacy of such institutions will provide for us more nuanced meaning than simply those that served the country they love or played the game they love also. 

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