The Long Walk – Philipa Rothfield in conversation with Paul Briggs

Issue #10: The Many & The Few - Assembling the political

"I think it's connected to the history of sport, and the way Aboriginal people have tried to leverage the culture of sport, and the way in which Australian society relates to sport and relates to football in particular. The tribalism of teams, and the embracing of people within those teams. But I think it's got a commodity aspect, an exploitive environment."

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Philipa Rothfield: Can I begin, Paul, by thanking very much for entering into conversation with me. I thought we might begin with just a little bit of personal background. Could you tell me your First Nation’s background?

Paul Briggs: My identity is Yorta Yorta, which is up on the Dhungala, on the Murray River, in and around Barmah, and the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve, that area. And we’re connected to family to Wurndjeri around Melbourne ; Wemba Wemba, which is up in New South Wales; Wongaibon which is upper, higher into New South Wales. Our family connections, our traditional connections, are quite broad, but we’ve been raised with a Yorta Yorta identity, which is my father. My father and my grandmother on the Yorta Yorta side.

Philipa Rothfield: And football?

Paul Briggs: I’ve been connected to football through father to my ancestors really, and through Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve, and the Aboriginal teams that were established in the late 1890s, and operating in the 1920s, which my father played in, and my uncles played in. They were operating off Cummeragunja reserve, where it was one of the mechanisms for having authority to come off the reserve and to access towns. Aboriginal people needed special permission to leave the reserves and to come into the towns. So football was one of the ways to do that. The Cummeragunja teams were very successful teams and they won lots of premierships. Some of the men were professional foot runners, boxers etc. As well as accessing the wider community through the mechanism of sport, they were feeding their families too. They were using athletics to win money and feed their families and stuff like that.

So football, I grew up on the reserve, on Cummeragunja Reserve, and listened to those stories of my elders from my father, and I used sport in a similar way, and used football in a similar way.

Philipa Rothfield: So there’s a kind of social movement, you’ve got mobility beyond the boundaries of the reserve through playing sport.

Paul Briggs: I think it was just trying to pick holes in the fence of exclusion, and trying to find a way to get through. The Aboriginal football teams, they were always a part of what I wanted to do. Here, in Melbourne, in the 70s, playing with an Aboriginal team here called the Fitzroy Stars. I played with Fitzroy Stars in the Northern Metro Football League in the 70’s and Captained the ’77 premiership team, but from that leverage point we organised the Victorian Aboriginal Football teams, and we competed in national competitions against Aboriginal teams from other states. But again, that was as much about our connectedness and connectivity amongst aboriginal people when there was no way, no mechanisms for doing it, and football, the platform of football assisted us to connect.

People like Pat Dodson and Mick Dodson played alongside me in those football teams in the 70s, and we got introduced to people like Michael Mansell because he come across with the Aboriginal teams from Tasmania, and that was our first introduction to the Tasmanian mob, in a contemporary sense. We got to talk to Aboriginal people from Western Australia, and South Australia, and Queensland, through football. We built really strong social networks consisting of very organic conversations. It didn’t have a political agenda, but it drove people’s sense of improving the lives of our mob right around the country. We established Rumbalara, our football club in the 80s, and I’ve been President or Secretary of that club since then. Again, it was like using it as a place to just gather, to gather people who are in a really oppressive cultural environment. It was a place to create a safe place to share and express our identity and culture.

Philipa Rothfield: I hadn’t thought of it in that way but it is already a form of activism.

Paul Briggs: Very much so. It’s following the footsteps of people like Sir Douglas Nicholls who used football too, through playing with Fitzroy, and some of the racial barriers he faced, which are still present, but he used that as a platform to speak against human rights issues as well. So, sport has been a really strong catalyst for people to listen, whereas you might not get it through any other types of political environment.

Philipa Rothfield: The arts doesn’t have that same kind of prominence.

Paul Briggs: Yeah, but I think we’ve used the arts like that too with the son now, Briggs, making his contribution. There’s been a steady improvement in the profiling of indigenous peoples on television and in the performing arts area. The football club, like the Dhungala Children’s Choir, which Deb Cheetham looks after, that again too, is also about improving people’s access in lifting and celebrating culture and identity, as well as providing knowledge and education to the broader community. About affirming the cultural strengths of Aboriginal people that are part of it.

Philipa Rothfield: So, I think what you’re drawing attention to, which I hadn’t thought of so much, is the affirmative side of these kinds of activism. I was thinking of our talk about the Long Walk as saying no to racism in sport, but you’re expressing the ways in which Aboriginal participation in sport is saying yes. Yes to Aboriginal identity, participation, culture and visibility, and presence.

Paul Briggs: I would imagine that Michael Long and Adam Goodes, and others, would be playing for their ancestors, and their culture, and their people as much as for the fans of their respective clubs.

Philipa Rothfield: We haven’t talked about the way in which racism figures in either in the local level or within elite sports.

Paul Briggs: Well, I think it’s linked to the inability of Australia to reach an agreement or a treaty or relationship with indigenous peoples from the moment that the invasion of Aboriginal lands took place in 1788. The resistance to the truth of acquisition, and the denial of the value and the authenticity and the legitimacy of Aboriginal occupation and ownership. I think Australian society has spent a lot of time in justifying the acquisition of Aboriginal lands, and the deconstruction of Aboriginal society. Racism is a part of that, a manifestation of that.

We’re talking now about constitutional reform and the inclusion of Aboriginal people, and the most prominent thing here is that we’ve talked about changing the day of the Australian Day celebrations as a mark of respect. That Australia didn’t start when the first ship sailed in. Looking at that, for people to ponder that, and think: well, that if we’re to look at what Australia might look like over the next generation, what are the sorts of things that we need to address and get agreement on about the inclusion and acknowledgement of the place of tradition and the Aboriginal people in Australia’s psyche of nationhood. I think that just sort of perpetuates notions of racism and ignorance and bigotry.

Philipa Rothfield: And denial.

Paul Briggs: And denial, which is really a huge part of it. People deal with that in every day transactions. Aboriginal people do, with that culture, that behaviour in every day transactions. From accessing shops, to accessing jobs, to trying to establish social engagement, to economic participation, and that shows in the data that looks at life expectancy and quality of life measurements.

What people call the “gap”, the process of closing the gap is more than about economic measures as opposed to acknowledging the value of Aboriginal people, Aboriginal knowledge, and Aboriginal culture in the modern economies. The Rumbalara football/netball club is about well … here’s a cultural life jacket. You hang onto this while we tackle these other issues that are causing the grief that exist in Aboriginal communities. Encouraging mainstream to take ownership and to identify what their role is in the exclusion of Aboriginal people.

So, the football club is a bit like … it’s a beacon in the public space so we’re not fringed. We’re in a public, very public environment where people are forced to acknowledge and take note and be aware of.

Philipa Rothfield: So, an Aboriginal football team has visibility as an Aboriginal, sports entity as an integral piece of our communities’ infrastructure. I suppose then moving on to looking at VFL or AFL Australia football rules, if it’s a mixed entity, the presence of Aboriginal players or participation of Aboriginal players, is on a different footing.

Paul Briggs: I think it’s the relationship of power and influence. You’re an exploitable commodity in team structures, in societal structures. That people will use your talents to achieve an outcome for their goals. I think an Aboriginal football club is different to an Aboriginal player. It has more strength, it has more power, it has more visibility. It’s not as easily exploitable. I think it then starts to tackle institutional racism. I think that there’s a long way to go for AFL or Cricket Australia or Netball Australia or other sports bodies to be able to embrace and to protect the culture and identity of indigenous players.

Philipa Rothfield: I think the institutional thing is key isn’t it?

Paul Briggs: Yeah, yeah, and I think that’s really broad. But I think it really … racial vilification then shows up as an incident that requires an intervention at that time.

Philipa Rothfield: So with Michael Long…

Paul Briggs: He played for the Essendon Football Club.

Philipa Rothfield: Can you say a little bit about him?

Paul Briggs: Well, I think that’s the culture of football too. I’m an Essendon fan, so well aware of Michael’s profile, and we supported him as an Essendon footballer, but as an Aboriginal footballer. There’s a strong relationship between Aboriginal footballers playing across the industry of football, and that is united by culture and identity. He’s a hero of Aboriginal kids playing, kicking the footies around. The platform of football enabled us to support Michael’s endeavours in 2004 to take a message to Prime Minister Howard in Canberra, to speak about the crisis that was in Aboriginal families that were personally attached to my world too, as well as to other Aboriginal families. It was really a moment where he felt he had to do something, and not just talk about it.

Philipa Rothfield: Did you as a group develop the idea together?

Paul Briggs: Michael initiated, he’d already decided he was going to walk. He was sitting in his lounge: “I think I’ll do this. I think I’ll walk to Canberra and talk to the Prime Minister.”

I think that appeared in the papers over the weekend. Alan Thorpe, who had also played AFL, an Aboriginal man, was coaching and playing with us at Rumbalara football/netball club, and he said, “Michael’s walking to Canberra. But he needs support.” So then we got behind him and contacted him on the Sunday in Wallan and said, “Look we’re coming there, just wait there. Wait there, we’ll come down and assist you to get this moving.”

We did that and met with Michael, he didn’t have any resources around him. It was just him and his cousin. They weren’t too sure which road to take. He had to get there, but they knew where they wanted to go. Then I suppose in the space of about 24 hours we organised The Long Walk. At that point it was Michael walking and then after probably within 24-48 hours, it became The Long Walk. We were able to pull resources around from media, from the unions, philanthropic support, etc., to put some strengths around Michael and then it took us eight days to do the walk.

Philipa Rothfield: That’s super quick, Paul, to get it all happening.

Paul Briggs: And by and large, we reacted to the emergency that had emerged , I think we walked nearly 300 kilometres, in 8 days, with 24 hours preparation.

Philipa Rothfield: Crikey. How was your fitness?

Paul Briggs: Pretty ordinary, lots of feet care. By the time we got to Albury, John Howard had agreed to meet with Michael. So we were able to then travel on to Canberra, and walked to Canberra, and have that meeting, which really, it didn’t give us much joy, but at least we achieved the purpose, or Michael achieved the purpose too of carrying his message and putting it on the table in front of the Prime Minister about the plight of indigenous people as he saw it, and to put a request in front of the Prime Minister to address the human rights issues that were around the early deaths of lots of family members.

I think the Rumbalara Football/Netball Club, the structure of footie, the networks of relationships in the football circles, across Aboriginal men in particular, supported Michael’s desire to walk to Canberra. The symbolism of the walk was, I’m not waiting for somebody else to do it. There’s a lot of suffering in Aboriginal communities. I’ll walk, I’ll do the walk, as opposed to get on a plane and carry the message. The request to somebody he thought could make a difference in the Prime Minister to address issues.

But football wrapped around it, and I think if he hadn’t had had the profile of being a legend of the game, and that for the fans of the game also at that time he was very current as a player, or as a profile person, and he used that profile of football to carry the message.

Philipa Rothfield: Yeah, so that is a thing. It’s a kind of an odd, not an odd mixture, but a mixture of differences of indigeneity and sport. Where sport has that kind of status, and indigeneity has a…

Paul Briggs: I think it’s connected to the history of sport, and the way Aboriginal people have tried to leverage the culture of sport, and the way in which Australian society relates to sport and relates to football in particular. The tribalism of teams, and the embracing of people within those teams. But I think it’s got a commodity aspect, an exploitive environment.

The Rumbalara Football/Netball Club campaigned for 15 years to get admitted to a competition, and got rejected for over 15 years until persistence and opportunity came to get us into a competition. Rumba’s resilience and persistence was to eventually support Michael’s campaign to walk, and his capacity to walk. So, we brought the club’s environment, and friendships and that around Michael to actually help his walk.

There’s no football club helping him walk, just Rumbalara football/netball club helping him walk. To stay with and walk with him. Michael’s from Darwin, but he still felt like he was one of our responsibilities really, as Aboriginal people to look after him. And he was making a statement and taking an action that we felt, well, we have to support him in that action. Because that action affects us too.

… as the Walk was occurring, people were coming in, and moving out, coming in, moving out and this was where there was an emotional attachment, or the symbolic attachment to it, or to people who were in their lounge rooms. Either nodding heads in that affirmative action of it … it sort of captured the imaginations of a nation for that period of time. Then after the actual event itself, it was another set of skills to actually maintain the mantra of The Long Walk.

Philipa Rothfield: Now, it’s over a decade since it’s happened, how would you like it to be remembered? And I suppose it will be different to remembered by someone like me, or non-indigenous Australia, and how it will be remembered by your mob.

Paul Briggs: I think it’s been a consistent message since the 1800s about the rights of indigenous peoples. The challenges that indigenous peoples were fighting in Australian society, and that the leadership of the Australian society was being advocated to address.

That was Sir Douglas Nicholls in his time, it was the advocacies in a different form, in a very political context, the submissions to the King George for land and rights of indigenous peoples. Lots of people who marched over the years, especially since the 70s, the walk-offs that occurred in protest, The Cummeragunja walk-off was a 1939 walk-off for rights, and I think Michael was using The Long Walk as another example of an individual making a claim, and putting a request in front of the Australian people. The way in which the networks around Michael, the Rumbalara Football/Netball Club, myself and others, we all galvanized around that. It wasn’t the AFL nor the Essendon FC that reacted to Michael’s needs, it was the Rumbalara Football Club.

I think it’s one of maybe, I don’t know, say it’s one of 100 pieces of propositions to the Australian government about change and the need for change. The need to reach an agreement with indigenous peoples about change.