Why Indigenous All Stars see a Kiwi light in Australia Day debate

Leading Indigenous rugby league figures believe New Zealand’s approach to Maori culture can serve as a blueprint for advancing Aboriginal issues and the nation’s Australia Day debate.

The Indigenous All Stars have been treated to emotional receptions all week in the All Stars’ maiden visit to Rotorua, New Zealand’s first bilingual city, where street and public signs are displayed in both Te Reo Māori and English.

The Indigenous All Stars were treated to a spinetingling Pohiri – a Maori welcome ceremony – when they arrived in Rotorua this week.Credit:NRL Photos

Ron Griffiths’ side also landed in Auckland on Waitangi Day, a public holiday since 1974 in commemoration of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document.

Like January 26, the day has divided opinion over the years, attracting protests and international headlines, most notably when senior politician Steven Joyce was struck in the face with a rubber sex toy thrown by a protester in 2016.

But senior Indigenous player Ryan James, who detailed the pain his own family experiences on Australia Day recently with the Herald, spoke for many of his teammates who have marvelled all week at the everyday presence of Maori culture in Kiwi society.

“To be welcomed into New Zealand like we were the other day, and see how embedded the [Maori] culture is here in New Zealand is something we need to strive to do in Australia,” James said.

James Fisher-Harris and Ryan James share a traditional Maori greeting.Credit:NRL Photos

“We’ve got a lot to learn from here and a lot to take home. It’s part of their DNA. You feel a little bit sad [about the situation in Australia] but then I feel so proud to see a culture able to do that in a place like this… You can see what Waitangi Day means here too.

“Obviously a Treaty helped, and we’re still fighting for that. You can go on forever about it, but it’s just about education. Figuring out what it means and what it’s done to our people.”

Indigenous mentors Greg Inglis and Dean Widders offered similar observations as cultural engagements for players have been stepped up significantly across the past two Indigenous camps.

The NRL’s support of the Uluru Statement, seeking to enshrine a First Nations voice in the constitution, will see youth campaigners join the men’s and women’s teams ahead of Saturday’s match as Widders also pointed New Zealand’s approach as one he’d like to see replicated in Australian society.

“You drive around here and the Maccas has a Maori welcome sign,” Widders said.

“The language is taught in the schools and the culture’s really embedded here.

“We’re getting stopped everywhere with people coming up to us and telling us how much they respect our culture. That attitude – in Australia we’ve got to keep working towards that as a country. We’re on the path.

“And we did see on January 26 in Australia this year, it was totally different to what it was two or three years ago. And it’ll be totally different in two or three years time again.”

Issac Luke, Greg Inglis and Dean Widders during All Stars week.Credit:NRL Photos

Inglis especially has been a hit with Kiwi audiences all week as he helps mentor the Indigenous men’s and women’s sides.

With the 1973 Aboriginal All Stars joining the current teams in camp, Tuesday’s traditional Pohiri welcoming ceremony held special significance for the Queensland great.

“It’s remarkable what we’re seeing here. It’s very different to Australia and of course there’s a language barrier there,” Inglis said.

“There’s a bit of a push now for people to pick up our languages again, and there are hundreds of them. But if we didn’t lose them in the beginning then we wouldn’t be playing catch up.

“The welcome we had, that’ll go down in history. And we might not realise it now, but it was a historic moment.

“We’ve got the older generation that was here with us 50 years ago, and they still talk about when they first came here as a mob. Fifty years from now, hopefully we’re talking about this trip in the same way.”

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