Warlpiri Warriors – Australian Rules football in Central Australia

Posted on March 31st, by Liam in Blog, Writing, Yuendumu. Comments Off on Warlpiri Warriors – Australian Rules football in Central Australia

Warlpiri Warriors – Australian Rules football in Central Australia

Football is a part of everyday life for almost every Aboriginal kid who grows up in the Northern Territory. From childhood, as toddlers, we played without shoes, real footballs or even goal posts. We would roll up our socks into solid balls to make a football, and use our shirts to mark goal posts if there were no handy trees. Then we would play in our ‘skins’ (without shirts). – Michael Long[1]

The introduction of football

Football is a part of every young Warlpiri man’s life. Kasman Jungarrayi Spencer’s (one of Yuendumu’s best players of recent years) early memories of growing up in Yuendumu are of playing football with the other kids, including his younger brother Sherman:

As kids we always had a football. We used to make goal posts and play a game. We would play at school every lunch time. If we were traveling and stopped somewhere – the old people might go hunting – we would kick the football by the side of the road.

Football is a constant in the lives of young men in Yuendumu. They joke about football as a new ‘ceremony’, and are as passionate about the game as any one-eyed supporter in Melbourne. Discussion about football occurs daily at Yuendumu, and is one way that Whitefella visitors (such as us) find common ground with local people.

When discussing the origins and introduction of Australian Rules football in Yuendumu, the older men will often reminisce about a game called ‘Purlja’ that they used to play when they were kids. It involved a round ball of emu feathers bound together with hairstring. They would divide themselves into two teams along the ‘Ngawu-kurlangu’ and ‘Ngurrju-kurlangu’ division of Warlpiri society, or in anthropological terms, two ‘moieties’. ‘Ngawu-kurlangu’ refers to those people in the opposite moiety, ‘Ngurrju-kurlangu’ to those in the same moiety. These divisions, also referred to as ‘nyurrpu’, are occasionally used by boys today when playing football amongst themselves, but are not used for more formal games.

Tommy Kngwarraye Thompson, outlined the rules of the two games that Kaytetye people used to play in his book, Growing up Kaytetye. The young men would play, and sometimes the middle-aged men would join in, and the old men would watch. Two old men, one from each ‘moiety’, would referee. They would mark the ground with a stone or a stick to keep score. Thompson said that Kaytetye people played two games: ‘Peltye’ and ‘Pweltye’. ‘Peltye’ was played with a small ball of animal fur and/or hairstring.  The players from the two teams would ‘man up’ on each other and try to keep the ball away from the other team, like the game of ‘keepings off’ played by school children. ‘Pweltye’ was played with a bigger ball, usually made of hairstring, and the object was to kick the ball over the other team’s heads. Thompson explained:

…the teams have to stop the people in the middle getting the ball as well.  Some of the team stand in the middle, some at the ends, some at the south side, like that. You have to keep the ball off the other team… Some people stand in the middle and face outwards, towards the others, while others on the edges face inwards. Each team has a separate part of the field.[2]

When Yuendumu was established in 1946, Warlpiri were camped together in large numbers, which led to a lot of fighting within the community, as anthropologist M.J. Meggitt (1962: 29) wrote:

Old feuds soon came to life and a long series of quarrels split the settlement into armed factions.[3]

Cobra Japangardi Poulson remembered resident Baptist missionary Tom Fleming responding to the conflict in the community by organising informal football games as a diversion over the summer period in the late 1950s at Four Mile Bore. However, Ted Egan (then DAA Superintendent in Yuendumu and later Administrator of the Northern Territory) is generally acknowledged as formally introducing Australian Rules to Yuendumu in 1958.[4] Ted recalled that at the time, the team wore a white singlet with ‘Yuendumu’ within a boomerang on the front, and that they adopted the black and white at a later date. Cobra recalled that the team wore white singlets, and suggested that Tom had at one time attempted to introduce the VFL Fitzroy Lions colours. Crocodile Japangardi Johnson said that when football was introduced, it was not uncommon for community fights to spill out on to the field.

Johnny Japangardi Williams was one of the men who played then. He said they didn’t have to train because they were already fit and strong from their work, and that the young men enjoyed it as an opportunity to prove themselves as warriors. Long-term President of the club, Eddie Jampijinpa Robertson, recalled how the team traveled to play in Darwin and beat all the other teams except for the dominant St Marys:

‘It was rough football in those days.  Not like today.  You would run with the ball and knock people down and keep running, bounce the ball and then kick it.  We were a tough team.’

Yuendumu Sports Weekend

The first inter-community games were against Hermannsburg and Ali Curung (Warrabri) in 1960.[5] The Yuendumu team then wore black shorts and white singlets.  In 1962, they had written to the Collingwood Football Club in Melbourne and requested support for uniforms in their colours. Collingwood sent jumpers, shorts and boots, and the Yuendumu Magpies have had an affinity with them ever since. In 1963, Yuendumu Sports Weekend officially began as a football carnival between Areyonga, Hermannsburg and Yuendumu.[6]

Yuendumu Sports Weekend soon developed into a major sports carnival with football, softball, basketball and athletics. There were also ‘cultural’ events like fire making and boomerang and spear throwing. Women competed in races carrying buckets of sand balanced on their heads and men climbed greasy poles to win a bag of flour attached to the top. Older people would also perform ‘purlapa’ (public ceremonies). In 1970, over 1200 people attended the Saturday night concert and Yuendumu Sports Weekend became known as the ‘Aboriginal Olympics’. At the opening ceremony, men and women dressed in team colours and marched behind flags representing their respective communities and countries. As always, Yuendumu was in black and white.

Today, football is more popular than ever in Central Australia and nearly every community has its own annual sports weekend, but the Yuendumu Sports Weekend continues to be one of the largest, with its competitive football and softball competitions, gospel nights and infamous ‘Battle of the Bands’. It regularly attracts media attention for the way sports weekends are also gatherings that reflect ceremonies, as referred to in this newspaper article:

As Lindsay Williams, president of the Yuendumu Community Government Council, which represents the local Warlpiri people, said: ‘It’s a modern-day corroboree.’ In the old days, groups living hundreds of kilometres apart in the vast Central Australian deserts met for ceremonies, cultural officer Simon Fisher said. Current generations have given that tradition a cross-cultural twist…[7]

At Yuendumu Sports Weekend, visitors from other communities camp with their extended families or ‘outside’ in ‘the bush’, relative to their country and their communities. This reflects the way in which Warlpiri camped around the ‘settlement’ when it was established in the 1940s. No Warlpiri lived in the houses then, just the Whitefellas, and Warlpiri would only come in during the day to work and to eat at the community kitchen.  All the people who were from the north, from places like Purturlu and Pirtipirti would camp to the north of the settlement.  So, today visitors from Papunya will camp in the south during Sports Weekend, and their team’s supporters line the southern end of the oval at football games (Papunya is to the south of Yuendumu).

Cobra described Yuendumu Sports Weekend as ‘not only a gathering for sports, it’s sort of a family gathering at the same time’. This can also mean it’s an opportunity for old arguments to flare up, and occasionally Sports Weekend is the time when ‘payback’ occurs, or when the police take advantage of the situation to arrest people with outstanding warrants. Sports Weekends also provide a stage for the expression of inter-tribal and inter-community rivalry. Visitors often protest that home teams bend the rules at sports weekends, particularly when it comes to the game draw and the final score (there is generally no visible scoreboard). Reflecting on his time playing with the Papunya football team, Neil Murray wrote:

Aussie Rules, like all football codes, is a substitute for tribal warfare.  Whether it’s the big teams competing in the cities with their legions of obsessed supporters or our little town and district against others of similar size, essentially the contest is the same.  It is an arena where you prove yourself both individually and as a team.[8]

At a sports weekend, the ‘team’ is also (literally) a community, and the Grand Final is the much anticipated and often highly contested climax where community rivalry is the most tense. As such, and despite often being paid, it can take a long time to find anyone courageous enough to umpire the game. The delay in starting the game also allows unsuccessful teams time to mount a challenge over their loss, and there is intense pressure on the convenors to start the grand final match as soon as possible in order to avoid this.

At a recent Yuendumu Sports Weekend, the grand final between Warlpiri rivals Yuendumu and Lajamanu was played over two days. With the light fading, Lajamanu had just played two games in a row and had made it into the grand final with Yuendumu. The convenors were keen to get the game played with the available light, but the Lajamanu supporters considered it unfair that their team should play three games in a row without a rest. In the end, they conceded and with 30 seconds to go in the second half, Yuendumu were leading when a controversial decision stopped play and Lajamanu left the field. The oval was now almost in total darkness except for the headlights of cars lining the oval. The Lajamanu supporters argued for continuing the game the next day.  After some lengthy negotiation, it was decided it would be unfair to play only 30 seconds the next day, so it was agreed to accept the day’s play as two quarters and to play a further two quarters the next day.  Both teams played well the next day and it was a close game. In the end, Yuendumu won by two points and the Warlpiri countrymen from both teams shook hands and congratulated each other on a good game.

Playing in Alice Springs

According to the Warlpiri, they have always been a dominant cultural group in Central Australia. Today this dominance is reflected on the football field, where ‘Warlpiri Warriors’ prove themselves against their traditional rivals. The Yuendumu Magpies have developed a reputation as one of the most competitive and successful football teams in the region. Barry Judd has explored Collingwood’s adoption of the battle tune of the Boer War for their theme song and their selection of black and white jumpers, referencing Britannia and Empire origins.[9] If Collingwood are one of the oldest and strongest clubs in the AFL, Yuendumu are their Central Australian equivalent (in terms of their dominance and large supporter base, not just their team colours). However, if the Collingwood Football club produce secular feelings of passion in their supporters for the black and white, Yuendumu takes this one step further. It is not uncommon to hear people praying for the football team at ‘gospel nights’, and the team regularly prays before each game. In 2005, in scenes reminiscent of American football movies, club Captain Kasman Spencer prayed for the team before a grand final, asking ‘Wapirra’ (the Warlpiri name for God) to help them, and to break any ‘spell’ that the opposing team’s ‘witch doctors’ might have placed on them. Martin Flanagan referred to Warlpiri Christians and the 2003 AFL grand final:

When Collingwood played Brisbane in the grand final a few months earlier, the Yuendumu team sat and watched the game in their black and white guernseys. Some of those not in the team “painted up” in black and white while those with a Christian orientation went to church and prayed for a Magpie victory. The final climactic moments of that game, when Brisbane finally overpowered the Pies, were too painful. The television in the community centre was switched off.[10]

In Alice Springs, Yuendumu played in AFL Central Australia’s (AFLCA aka CAFL) ‘Community’ football competition before it was amalgamated with the ‘Town’ competition in 2008. They were banned for a year after their loss in the preliminary final in 2001, because of the unruly behaviour of their supporters. Following the ban, a debate about revenues and alcohol sales at games also flared up, calling attention to ongoing problems associated with the sustainability of community football:

Football in Alice Springs has been ridden with the problems of anti-social behaviour for years… Propping the CAFL up is the sale of alcohol of a Saturday and to a lesser extent, Sunday. The consumption of full strength beer, in the full glare of the sun, while watching a game that conjures up emotions, is a recipe for disaster…[11]

As it is for many male dominated sports throughout the world, alcohol is often also associated with team bonding and celebrations after a football game in Central Australia. Up until relatively recently, AFLCA sold full-strength alcohol at Alice Springs games, and football in ‘town’ became linked to drinking for some of the team’s supporters. In recent years, the NT government has given grants to AFLCA to cover the cost of lost revenues in exchange for agreeing to restrictions on alcohol sales at Alice Springs venues, including introducing a ‘no alcohol’ policy at ‘community’ games and low-alcohol beer sales at ‘town’ games. The two competitions have since merged and now the greater concern to Yuendumu’s elders are the post-match celebrations, followed by the 300km return trip to the community, 100km of which is a corrugated, dirt road that has been the scene of many car fatalities over the years.

After a year’s suspension, and with alcohol sales limited, Yuendumu came back to win the Alice Springs premiership three years in a row in 2003-2005. Stan Coombs and Stewart O’Connell, the CAAMA radio commentators at the 2004 ‘Community’ grand final, made reference to the AFL ‘Community’ competition as one of the healthiest in Australia, noting that it continues to grow and grow.

Black and White and Proud

The Yuendumu players joke that they are ‘Black and White and Proud’. During the finals, supporters cover their car bonnets in large ‘Yuendumu Magpies’ stickers and spray paint their back windows and doors with players’ names and numbers. The football bus is often graffitied with similar slogans.

With the introduction of the Austar satellite pay television service in 2004, many people in Yuendumu acquired access to AFL games 24 hours a day. It added a further layer to the passion and saturation of football in the Warlpiri community. At the heart of this community obsession, the Yuendumu football team represents a ‘black and white’ cocoon that nurtures young Warlpiri men from an early age, and resists creating individual stars. Football at its most basic level is about something to do that is enjoyable. But it is also a game that alleviates boredom and feelings of isolation, encourages players to maintain a healthy body, and introduces an element of discipline to those who have to work hard to make the team.

Warlpiri boys play football from an early age. As they get older, they play in school competitions then progress through the ranks to play with the ‘under 17’ team and finally with the ‘senior’ team. The more talented players will occasionally be selected to play for the Central Australian, Northern Territory or ‘Aboriginal All Stars’ teams. Some will travel north to play in the Darwin Football Competition, and recently Liam Jurrah became the first Warlpiri player to play at the VFL and AFL level. As evidenced by the popularity of community sports weekends and local football competitions, football also plays another important role in the Warlpiri community in bringing people together. It is in this sense that football can be interpreted as ‘ceremony’, where young men have centre stage. Footballers are performers, and commentators often make the connection between football and ceremonial dance:

It was at Yuendumu that I was first told about the connection between football, ceremony and dance in Aboriginal culture…[12]

There is a further connection that is made between being a young Warlpiri footballer and a warrior or hunter. There is an attitude in the community that you have to be a ‘man’ to play with the other men. Young men often wear their football jumpers and boots around the community, even if they aren’t playing. Admittance into the team has become a badge of honour, an expression of manhood, and accords a level of social prestige. Reflecting the role of Warlpiri men when they lived a nomadic existence in the Tanami Desert, young footballers are playing out the modern version of the role of hunter. It is also the reason why the community has embraced the idea of role modeling and leadership development through football, the Jaru Pirrjirdi youth program, and relationships with groups like the Collingwood Industrial Magpies.[13]

The Local Competition

The Yuendumu summer football competition is the ‘grass roots’ of Warlpiri football. The football teams are formed along spatial boundaries or family groups. For example, ‘Norths’ for those who live in ‘North camp’, or whose traditional country lies to the north of Yuendumu; or, the ‘Allies’, who are a family team. There is usually a game played every afternoon. At this time of year, most men are on holidays and juggling competing interests like hunting, family obligations and men’s ceremonies, so some of the uninitiated teenage boys get to play. However, during the competition they grow increasingly restless. They know that they might be ‘taken’ this year to be initiated. This could happen at any time. Perhaps when they are at the disco, resting at home, or even playing football. According to the old men, in the ‘early days’, boys would sometimes be taken when playing the Warlpiri game of ‘purlja’. Women and children often watch the games in the afternoon. They sit on the boundary line or in their cars. They barrack for their husband’s or sons’ teams, and children often play their own games outside the boundary fence. Some of the older boys hope that they might be asked to join the men in the main game if the team doesn’t have enough players.

The Grand Final is a greatly anticipated community event and can be played over a number of days until a clear winner is established. People drive from neighbouring communities and Alice Springs to attend. Warlpiri Media often film the game and broadcast it live on local television. It usually coincides with men’s ceremonies, and is itself imbued with a certain level of prestige for the organisers and participants, reflecting the roles of those participating in the ceremonies. There is much at stake for the two teams in the Grand Final, and everything is open to debate: umpiring decisions, the score, and the number of quarters. In a way that most AFL supporters don’t experience, this is more than just a football game. It is an opportunity for inter-family rivalries to be contested, and what happens off the field can influence the result. It is also a bonding experience for the players on each team, where Warlpiri social relations can affect the play. For example, a player might choose to kick the ball to his brother-in-law, regardless of his ability or position on the field. Pre-existing arguments between family groups can reignite on the field, and escalate off the field. Community politics come to the fore and this might delay the game until it is resolved. However, with the final result declared (and eventually accepted), the winning team will celebrate with their families. Over the next few weeks, players will watch the game over and over on the local television broadcast.

The local football competition reflects how football plays a role, or provides a stage, for the ongoing exploration of community dynamics. Spatial and political boundaries are explored. Football games become a time and a place for family relationships to be affirmed or contested, in an event that brings the community together and provides a home stage for the expression of manhood. It is openly acknowledged as a companion event to men’s ceremonies, or as a way to get young men back to the community. It is a way to get the young men to participate in ceremonies, but for some families is also so their sons will return home for Christmas. On the one hand, it is a distraction; on the other, it fulfils a social function, supporting a strong community. Cobra Poulson explained football as ‘kuruwarri-piya’ (like Jukurrpa or Dreaming):

Football is Dreaming these days.  We love it.  You know, like you see ‘em in AFL. Everybody shouting for their teams and where they’re all painted up.  Well, same with us.

For further info on Warlpiri football, see this previous post.

This is an excerpt of a paper by Liam Campbell and Bruce Hearn-Mackinnon published in 2012 in Sport in Society and Indigenous People, Race Relations and Australian Sport. It was written in late 2010. Unfortunately, the Yuendumu Magpies have not fielded a team in the AFL CA competition in 2011 or 2012 due to internal community issues. We hope to see them back in the future. To access a copy of the full article please visit Taylor & Francis Online.


  1. [1]Long, M. ‘Introduction’, in Marlow, J. Centre Bounce: Football from Australia’s Heart. South Yarra: Hardie Grant Books, 2003, p.9.
  2. [2]Thompson, T. ‘Peltye: Football Kaytetye way’, in Growing up Kaytetye: Stories by Tommy Kngwarraye Thomspon, ed. M. Turpin. Alice Springs: Jukurrpa Books, 2003: 82, 76-90.
  3. [3]Meggitt, M.J. Desert People. Melbourne: Angus and Robertson, 1962: 29.
  4. [4]Ted Egan TS676, interviewed by Francis Good 1991, NT Archives Service.
  5. [5]Annual Report 1959/60, Northern Territory Administration, Welfare Branch, p.47.
  6. [6]Yuendumu Tjaru (1970) a Yuendumu magazine, published by the Yuendumu Social Club for Yuendumu Community, 1970: 31.
  7. [7]Jopson, D. ‘Sport kicks in to give corroboree a new twist’, The Age, 4/8/03.
  8. [8]Murray, N. ‘Desert Footy’, in Marlow, J. Centre Bounce: Football from Australia’s Heart. South Yarra: Hardie Grant Books, 2003: 13.
  9. [9]From a paper delivered by Barry Judd at ‘Dialogue Across Cultures’ conference, Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies, Monash University, 11th-14th November, 2004.
  10. [10]Flanagan, M. ‘Raw passion for black and white’, The Age, 29/03/03.
  11. [11]‘Aussie Rules in Disarray’, Alice Springs News, 03/10/01.
  12. [12]‘Raw passion for black and white’, Martin Flanagan, The Age, 29/3/03.
  13. [13]The ‘Collingwood Industrial Magpies’ all have some professional relationship with one another; they work in the areas of human resource management, industrial relations, trade unionism, law, and academia. They came together with the aim of adding a further dimension to being Collingwood supporters, and to further the cause of reconciliation. Their aims reflect Bourdieu’s assertion that sport has been glorified as the ‘training-ground of character’ since Victorian times. It is an example of the way that sport is being used by Warlpiri to establish links and engage with people outside their community. See Bourdieu, P. ‘How can one be a sports fan?’ in During, S. (ed.) The Cultural Studies Reader, Second Edition, London: Routledge, 1993: 431-434.

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