IT IS NAIDOC Week and today we celebrate the contribution the first Australians have made to our great game of Aussie Rules football.
Many will know of the Cummeragunja mission on the NSW side of the Murray, not far from Echuca, which had many Yorta Yorta living there.
And in the 1800s, its residents wanted to play football.
The mission already fielded a First XI. The Cummeragunja Cricket Club was a dominant force in the 1890s, claiming the 1890 Dobinson trophy against Womboota and it was only natural the players wanted to join a football league.
A club was formed and a team entered into the Aitken Trophy, played against sides from Echuca, East Echuca and Rochester.
Things didn’t go well — the rookie team would lose all its games in that debut season.
But, as was reported in the Riverine Herald of the day, that can mostly be put down to a lack of understanding of the game.
Make no mistake, the athleticism was there.
Once the skills were mastered, they would be a great side.
And that’s exactly what happened.
They won their first game the next year, and won most of their matches in the next few.
By 1894 they were too good for their maiden competition and wanted to move on to bigger and better opponents.
A letter in the Bendigo Advertiser written by Thomas S. James, secretary of the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Football Club, asked the Bendigo District Football Association for help.
It read: “... if there were any kind and generous gentlemen connected with the association and interested in the Aborigines, and who could afford them such facilities as will enable them to go down to Sandhurst and play a few matches in and about the city, or can you recommend a gentleman who will be willing to arrange matches for us, and who will undertake to collect the gate money for us at every match.’’
The letter went on to say the club was willing to provide entertainment in the way of English and native singing, skipping and boomerang throwing.
The Cummeragunja club was willing to do all of this just to play a few games of football.
The BDFA said no, they were too busy.
But the club kept getting better.
Cummeragunja joined the Nathalia District Football Association and went undefeated in 1898 and 1899.
Now invitations were coming to play against bigger teams.
Wins followed against combined association teams from across the region, further growing the name of Cummeragunja.
In following decades, the team just kept getting better.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the team won five flags in six years in the Western Riding and Moira Football Association.
The league’s solution to the dominant side – ban all players over 25 playing for Cummeragunja.
Seems fair, doesn’t it?
The club very quickly left the league.
More invitational games were played then, in 1939, the club was admitted into the Echuca Football League.
In their one and only season, they lost a semi-final to Deniliquin.
But the club wasn’t going to be around for long, because the mission wasn’t around for long.
By February of that year, those on the mission finally had enough of their mistreatment by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board.
The final straw was the arrest on the mission of Jack Patten, an Aboriginal rights activist.
On February 4, 1939, 200 residents walked off the mission, crossed the Murray and entered Victoria.
The mission was no more.
And by the end of the year neither was the football club.
Those who left the mission settled all around Yorta Yorta land, many in Shepparton, ensuring in many ways that Rumbalara Football Club would be its spiritual successor.
Perhaps its most famous alumnus was Fitzroy footballer and South Australian governor Sir Douglas Nicholls, born on the Cummeragunja mission and the first true indigenous star of our great game.
A man whose legacy continues to cast a long shadow to this day, not just for his football prowess but most importantly for his incredible work within the wider community.
There is a great quote from Sir Doug, who once said ‘‘a man can preach his sermon by the way he plays the game’’.
It isn’t quite sermon, but, in many ways Cummeragunja changed perceptions of the way they played.
They used football to change perception of indigenous Australia.
And this legacy remains in its name with representative teams still using it to this day.