On 7 August 1858, the first game of Australian Rules Football was played between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College, near the current site of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The game was influenced by the Koorie game Marngrook and Aboriginal people continue to play a huge role in the game.
'Marngrook' is a word from the language of Gunditjmara people and means ‘game ball.’ It is the name of a game played by Aboriginal people across South Eastern Australia. The game has different names in different Koorie languages, but is now generally referred to as Marngrook.
Marngrook is a ball-game played between two teams. In South Western Victoria, it was usually played with a possum skin ball, however in different areas the ball was made from other materials.
Possum skin Marngrook, Koorie Heritage Trust
Marngrook is played with large teams (up to 50 to 100 players per side) with both men and women playing. Each team competes to catch the ball after it's kicked high in the air. One aim is for players to jump the highest and take the best mark. Players that take a mark are then able to have a free kick.
In the past, Marngrook games were usually long and could last up to 2 days. Often the two teams were represented by their totems, for example black cockatoos versus white cockatoos. This shows that Marngrook is not only a fun activity and a way of keeping fit and healthy, but also a social activity that reinforces kinship systems and connection to totems, family and Community. Teams would also travel from different areas to play against different communities, creating a way to connect and develop relationships with different mobs.
There are many historical records that show Marngrook being played across Victoria. For example, the following is a description from the ‘Assistant Protector of Aborigines’ in Victoria, William Thomas, in 1858:
The ball is kicked into the air not along the ground, there is a general scramble at the ball…When caught it is again kicked up in the air with great force and ascends as straight up and as high as when thrown by hand. (Source: Meanjin)
Through the devastation of colonisation, Marngrook was still played on reserves and missions, and many of our mob are reviving the game today.
Image of a game of Marngrook between Dhudhura and Murrinh-Path young people in Bright (Vic) in 2013. Photos from the day were captured by the Narooma News.
Tom Wills and the origins of Aussie Rules Football
The connection between Marngrook and Aussie Rules goes back to the story of Tom Wills. He was born near Canberra in 1835 and spent 6 years of his childhood living on Djab Wurrung Country near Gariwerd (the Grampians) where his family had a large property.
Tom was the only European child living in the area and he grew up playing with Djab Wurrung children and spoke their language. Oral histories and written historical records show that Marngrook was played in this area and Tom Wills would have seen the game played and most likely played himself as a child.
Tom Wills grew up to be a rugby and cricket player and in 1858 he wrote a famous letter where he called for a football club to be formed to help keep cricketers fit during the winter. This prompted some informal football games to occur before the first official match between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch on in August 1858, which Wills umpired. This game led to the formation of the first football clubs in Melbourne and Wills was influential in drafting the first rules of the new game.
Although Wills never stated that this new type of football was influenced by Marngrook, there are some strong similarities between the two games. For example, both games are free-flowing, focused on marking the ball, reward leaping high to mark and players get a free kick after they mark the ball. The influence of Marngrook can also be seen in the aim of keeping the ball off the ground, as the ground was much harder in Melbourne than in the rugby pitches of England where Wills played.
"Marngrook Footy" - Video from Behind the News
Watch this video to learn more about the link between Marngrook and Aussie Rules footy.
The AFL Players Association has developed a map of where players in the men’s and women’s AFL come from.
Aboriginal people and Aussie Rules
Aboriginal players have had huge impacts on Aussie Rules throughout its history. Currently Aboriginal people make up 10% of players in the men’s AFL.
Aboriginal players from across the country have been some of the greats of the game. Many have also been Community leaders and have influenced the league and different clubs to be more respectful of Aboriginal people and culture. Some of the important Aboriginal players and leaders in the history of Aussie Rules Footy include:
Sir Pastor Doug Nicholls (Yorta Yorta)
Growing up on Cummeragunja mission on the Murray River, Pastor Doug Nicholls grew up playing footy. Following a move to Melbourne, he played at a range of clubs in the 1920s and 1930s, including in the Fitzroy Football Club in the Victorian Football League (the precursor to the AFL). Prior to playing at Fitzroy he trained with Carlton, but left the club after experiencing racist treatment. In 2016, the Carlton Football Club made a formal apology to his descendants for their actions at this time.
Although being shorter than your average footballer, he was known for being extremely fast on the field. Following his footy career, Pastor Doug Nicholls became a strong leader for Aboriginal people in Victoria. He was strongly involved in the early years of the Aboriginal Advancement League, attended the Day of Mourning protest in Sydney in 1938, was a religious leader, supported social and housing services for the Fitzroy Community and much more. The AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round is named in his honour.
Nicky Winmar (Noongar)
Nicky Winmar is a Noongar man from Western Australia who played for St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs between 1987 and 1999. He was famous for standing up to racism directed at him during his career. In one famous moment during a game in 1993 when he received racist taunts from the opposition’s crowd, he lifted his shirt to point at his skin, saying “I’m Black and I’m proud.”
Michael Long is a legendary player for Essendon who played from 1989 to 2001. He won the Norm Smith Medal for being the best on ground in the 1993 Grand Final, among many other achievements. In 1995, he reported racist and offensive language directed at him during a game to the AFL, prompting the League to create new rules aimed at stopping racist vilification occurring during games. After retiring from football, he led ‘the Long Walk’ from Melbourne to Canberra to speak with then Prime Minister John Howard about injustices facing Aboriginal people.
Adam Goodes (Adnyamathanha)
Originally from South Australia, Adam Goodes played for Sydney from 1999 to 2015. He was a highly successful player, winning 2 Brownlow medals and playing in 2 premiership sides. He is a vocal leader and role model in his Community, doing a range of work with young people and the Aboriginal Community, as well as contributing to campaigns about family violence and mental health. He famously stood up to racism he experienced on the field and was recognised for his leadership in football and the community by being awarded Australian of the Year in 2014.
Neville Jetta (Balardong and Willman)
A current player for the Melbourne Football Club, Neville Jetta was the 2018 winner of the Jim Stynes Community Leadership Award at the Brownlow. The defender was recognised for his community work supporting Aboriginal young people through school programs. He is also an ambassador for Red Cross and Headspace.
The Marngrook Footy Show is a panel TV program on NITV during the footy season that gives and Indigenous take on all things footy.
Before colonisation, Marngrook was played by both men and women. Although women have been excluded from playing Aussie Rules Football in a professional competition in the past, the creation of the AFLW league for women in 2017 also gives Aboriginal women a chance to play the game like their ancestors. Some of the emerging talents of the AFLW include:
Natarsha Bamblett (Yorta Yorta)
After success in Victorian and Koorie football competitions, Natarsha Bamblett has been drafted to the Richmond Football Club for their first season in the VFLW in 2018 (Richmond will join the AFLW in 2020). She has become a strong young leader in her Community, winning the Miss NAIDOC title in 2016 and being a mentor in the Wirrpanda Foundation’s Deadly Sista Girlz program.
Natalie Plane (Kamilaroi)
A current AFLW player for Carlton, Natalie Plane is also a cricket player and labourer. She has experience coaching and being a role model for young people.
Aliesha Newman (Ningy Ningy)
A fast and exciting half-forward for the Melbourne Demons, Aleisha Newman played her first game in 2017 after previously playing soccer. She is known for making the most of scoring opportunities, often by running into goal from long distances. She contributed to the design of the Melbourne Indigenous round jumper in 2018.
Gemma Houghton (Yindjibarndi)
A Yindjibarndi woman from the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Gemma Houghton played her first season for the Fremantle Dockers in 2017. She plays half-back and previously played basketball. She has also done some work to promote health and fitness for the Community.
Sources used in writing this article
- Marngrook Footy, Behind the News (ABC)
- Marngrook (possum skin football), Culture Victoria
- Indigenous Community page, Australian Football League
- Marngrook, Tom Wills and the Continuing Denial of Indigenous History, Jenny Hocking and Nell Reidy, Meanjin
- Nicholls, Sir Douglas Ralph (Doug) (1906–1988), Australian Dictionary of Biography
- 'I'm black and I'm proud to be black': Nicky Winmar's gesture 25 years on, Adam Manovic, NITV
- Michael Long, Civics and Citizenship Education
- Adam Goodes, Australian of the Year Awards
- Indigenous youth supporter wins Jim Stynes award, Australian Football League
- Getting to Know Natarsha Bamblett – An Interview with Richmond’s Newest Tiger, The Footy Almanac
- Triple Threat – Natalie Plane, AFL Players
- Newman Gives Credit to her Mentors, Melbourne Football Club
- Player Profile - Gemma Houghton, Fremantle Football Club.