She can play: Yulara Women's Carnival Story

She can play: Yulara Women's Carnival Story
Original Article by Jeremy Story Carter (ABC News)

On a luminescent green island floating atop a sea of red dirt, a scene replayed itself as if on loop. Two young women —  ‘Kungkas’ in Pitjantjatjara — shuffled reluctantly toward a ball-up in the centre of the Yulara football ground. Each had travelled hours, in some cases days, to be there.

Yet in that moment, there was a first day of school, don’t-get-caught-trying awkwardness. The night before, dust-coated vans rattled and bounced to the back of a nearby campground. One bore a smashed back window, a casualty of a rogue rock from an unsealed road a few hundred kilometres back. 

Young women emerged, nine or so at a time, weary from the drive but alight with the possibility of what was to come. Baker Boy boomed out a Bluetooth speaker over the hiss of onions and sausages on a trailer barbecue. Uluru stood resolute, watching from the horizon.

“Thank you mob for all coming here. We’ve never had this before,” said Peggy Naylon, a director of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council, who lives nearby in Mutitjulu. 

Gathered before her were groups, soon to become teams, from remote communities stretching across a vast region between the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.   Each team would represent the remote community they call home.

The sort of community that, at that very moment, was being picked apart in national debate by people thousands of kilometres away, who would likely never set foot anywhere near them. That every player was a young First Nations woman was profound. 

“These young women are trailblazers. They didn’t see their mums play footy. They haven’t seen their older sisters play footy,” said Cassie Nugent from the NPY Women’s Council.

The following day, they would have the opportunity to play Australian rules football. A totally unremarkable thing, rendered so remarkable by the context. For the 120 young women from 17 remote communities, distance was by no means the only barrier to playing, but it was nonetheless significant.

The drive from Kiwirrkurra alone, considered one of Australia’s most remote communities, took around 17 hours.

These are communities where houses are often severely overcrowded; where access to clean water, regular healthy meals, healthcare and mental health support is not guaranteed.

They are also places of deep-rooted connection.

“When I’m out bush, my mind is clear. It’s like you’re free,” said Cecily Luckey from Imanpa, two hours east of Uluru. 

“When you’re in town, it’s like you kind of lose everything.”

Sitting under a camp tarp shielded from the heat, the Anangu woman spoke of a beloved home parched of opportunity. 

“Some of these young girls at the moment, they’re not going to school because there’s not much happening. No opportunity, no support,” she said.

Student attendance rates at remote and very remote schools in the Northern Territory are the lowest in the country. 

Something as simple as football can’t fix the underlying causes, but in Luckey’s eyes, it could be enough to tilt some back in the direction of school. 

“In town, a lot of young people start doing things that’s not good, like drinking, stealing, fighting,” she said.

“This could help them maybe get out of town and come back into community... so they can be connected to the land, to the culture and families.”

On the morning of the first game day, footballs were kicked about the campsite compulsively, ricocheting off vans and swags.

“Normally all the fellas are doing training at the ovals, and the girls don’t have anywhere else to kick around,” said Shalaylee Coombes from Imanpa. She said for some women in communities, there can be a sense of shame attached to playing football. In the face of such rare opportunity, that soon ebbed away. 

The Yulara football oval might have a claim to be among the most picturesque in the country, but its surface is an unforgiving, uneven patchwork. 

With the carnival favouring an abridged AFL Nines format, shaving cream from the local IGA was used to mark out goal squares and a jaunty centre circle. None of it mattered. Once play commenced, a thrilling whirl of spins and turns and nonchalant excellence quickly took over.

The carnival might have had a loose and chaotic feel to it, but it was nonetheless years in the making.

“The cultural barriers are breaking down for women and girls to play,” said Cassidy Fitzclarence, the AFL NT’s Indigenous programs and engagement manager.

“I started working about 10 years ago in central Australia and back then, it was like a hard no — ‘we’re not going to play’. 

'I think this is the biggest women and girls-only AFL carnival for remote Indigenous women. It's a significant event'

AFL Northern Territory would like to thank the ABC and Jeremy Story Carter for their coverage of the ground breaking Yulara Women's Carnival, to read the full article see here.