Picking an Aboriginal today can be a difficult task.
Last week I was introduced to a high profile footballer who had played first grade for two multiple premiership-winning NRL clubs. During our conversation I asked him where he was born and who his people were. His friend who knows me said, ”Stephen, he isn’t a Murri”.
Uncomfortably, the footballer joining in on the conversation inquired, “Who me … an Aborigine?”
Trying to break the tension, I tried to turn an innocent question about his mob, into a joke by using a regular throwaway line. “You better check the name of the milkman mate because you certainly look like an Aborigine.” Then, out of the blue he said, “Mum told me a long time ago that she thought her grandmother might have a bit of Aborigine in her”, in a flippant attempt to dismiss any possible connection to his matrilineal bloodline.
By this stage, my usually pleasant 24C office had become noticeably chillier and I changed the conversation onto a less threatening topic of the recent NRL grand final.
After my visitors had left, I thought of two former international rugby league captains whom I once assumed were Indigenous, Mal Meninga and Gordon Tallis, but got terribly wrong.
Meninga said in his book, Meninga from Superstar to Super League - The Life and Turmoil of Mal Meninga:
At school I was aware of racists. There were plenty of times I got into fights because of my colour. People thought of me as an Aborigine but I am not an Aborigine, I am a South Sea Islander.
Gordon Tallis, in his book, Raging Bull, says:
People ask me about my ethnic background. Newspapers pick me in their “fantasy” Indigenous and Aboriginal sides. To tell the honest truth, I haven’t worried too much about it. An auntie of mine did some research and she found that my great-grandfather came from North Western Ambrym in Vanuatu and my great-grandmother was from Loh Island in the Torres Strait. All we were ever told in my family was that we were Australians. My dad was born in Townsville and his dad was born in Bowen, so that makes us Australian and we’re proud of it. I have played in one Indigenous side though, the Redfern All Blacks, who won the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tournament in 1992. That was some side. We had Choc Mundine who was about 17, Tricky Trindall who was 25, and Wes Patten who was 19. People might have read a bit into me playing in that tournament but to me it was just a chance to play some footy with my mate.
From a different identity standpoint, Samantha Riley, Olympic swimming champion, discovered her Aboriginal ancestry towards the end of her illustrious career.
Lin Riley speaks of her daughter in The Life of Riley:
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