When Melbourne Football Club changed its name to Naarm for the recent AFL Indigenous round, it made a cultural leap 164 years in the making which in 1858 began with “kickabouts” around Yarra Park in the shadows of gumtrees overlooking the MCG on Kulin nation.

That history dates right back to Tom Wills, who not only founded the club and captained the 1858 side, but also codified the rules of the game based on Marngrook after learning the language and customs of the Djabwurrung as a child.

The name change from Melbourne to Naarm only stood for two weeks during the Sir Doug Nicholls Round, but the symbolism behind it was to prompt a wider discussion of Indigenous origins, claims and existence before colonialism arrived.

Alex Kerr holds the specially designed boomerang for the match during a pre-game ceremony. Photo: AFL Victoria

Hallam Hawks may be a small suburban club located in the south-east of Melbourne, but they were inspired to do the same on hearing the actions of the oldest Australian Rules entity in the land.

While modern Hallam has no direct Aboriginal name since a post office first opened there in 1889, the club adopted the Klu-Roong moniker borrowed from the Boonwurrung people’s word for Hawk.

“We asked around aunties and uncles who know their (Woiwurrung) language and came back with klu-roong,” club senior assistant coach Alex Kerr told AFL Victoria.

The Indigenous round has been two years in the making at Hallam and was set up to pay respect to Traditional Owners during Reconciliation Week.

“The round means everything,” Kerr said.

“This launched as the first official Indigenous Round we have ever done – it is the first step into many in the future.”

The Klu-Roong home game against Dandenong Redlegs featured a traditional smoking ceremony, a didgeridoo performance, a gift exchange, a Welcome to Country and handmade painted boomerangs for the player named best on ground.

A Wurundjeri man and Traditional Owner of the land where the club plays its home games, Kerr also designed the commemorative guernsey with his brother, Ash.

The black design with red and yellow hoops features four totem animals representing spiritual emblems that define the roles and responsibilities of Aboriginality, and their relationships with each other and creation.

“The jumper is the pathway from each animal into the circle in the middle and each pathway represents the individual’s journey,” Kerr said.

“And they all meet up at the Hallam Hawks where we are now.”

The number of Victorian football clubs to throw support behind their own celebrations of Indigenous culture has grown exponentially over the three years between interruptions from the pandemic.

Whitehorse Pioneers reached out to highly-regarded Aboriginal artist and Yuin man Rob Naylor, who was born and raised on Dharawal country, to design the first Indigenous guernsey for the club from Melbourne’s east.

Conversations within the clubroom walls inspired Naylor’s work to mix the design of both the culture and the land of the Pioneers’ home turf.

“After hearing from some of the guys that were part of the club and the input they had regarding their background, I came up with this (guernsey),” he said.

“It incorporates their culture with the totem of their mother’s country, the Yorta Yorta people of the Murray River region (that is represented by blue waters in the design), and their totem which is the turtle.

“Secondly, the Eagle and Crow both represent the land on which the club resides and that’s the Wurundjeri people.

“The dot circles in the club colours represent the coming together of the community to support and watch the club play football.”

Rowville Hawks players show off their club’s Indigenous Jumpers.

Just a short 17km drive down the road from Whitehorse in the same Eastern Football League, the Indigenous design for Rowville Football Club was a family collaboration that originated nearly 4000km away.

The guernsey was the brainchild of Steven Hanning, a proud Arrernte and Anmatyerre man from Central Australia.

Hanning took some advice from his cousin, Jethro Calma-Holt, who currently runs out for Rowville every week despite the pair growing up alongside each other in both Darwin and the Tiwi Islands.

It explains the design combining Central Australian dot painting and Tiwi/Northern cross hatching art styles.

“The two spears are the two teams competing and the two boomerangs represent the captains,” Hanning said.

“The dot paintings in the middle are three key elements of a community football club: the coaches, the playing group and the volunteers, supporters, community.”

Russell’s Creek is the first football club in Victoria’s southwest to wear an Indigenous guernsey.

The landmark event came from Warrnambool District club’s under-15 player Kobi Chatfield.

The simple message Chatfield reasons for the design was “everyone coming together to play and watch a game of football”.

The artwork is based around nearby Hopkins River and represents the eel story, an important part of Aboriginal culture.

Brunswick turned to Yandruwandha-Yawareawarrka artist uncle Les Stanley, who described his guernsey design as showing “the strength and resilience of women and girls and their footprints are forever remaining”.

The club’s trademark purple remained as the dominant colour, but its green yoke was replaced by a trail of green and blue dots forming a spiky echidna chosen for its ability to cover vast distances in all weather.

Two large red dots above the echidna are surrounded by multi-coloured smaller dots to represent women sitting around a waterhole.

Long lines of red and white dots fan out from the waterholes to four gathering places.

The back of the guernsey features a painting of a Balga grass tree set against the red and yellow of the Aboriginal flag in the form of a bush sky.

Portarlington, whose football club is one of the oldest in country Victoria dating back to 1874, enlisted Wiradjuri-Nari Nari man Christopher Delamont, who blended a style of cultural symbolism and modern use of totems to tell the story of the guernsey.

The unique view of his art is an educational pathway to keep culture, language and storytelling alive on the Bellarine Peninsula, near Geelong.

The guernsey design paints a picture of reconciliation and a “journey of truth-telling and acknowledgement”.

North Ballarat star player Josh Chatfield sought his father’s experience to come up with the Roosters’ Indigenous jumper.

It features fishing nets, the sun, goanna, kangaroo and emu tracks, but also includes a war bench, which is traditionally used on shields for combat.

Artists to design Indigenous guernseys for other Victorian community football clubs included Adam Magennis (Tyabb), Nathan Leitch (Macedon Cats juniors), Brianna Wills with Willum Warrain Aboriginal Association (Balnarring juniors), and Kirrae Gunditj Art (Old Eltham Collegians).

  • Story by Andrew Mathieson