Contributed by: Wesley Hull
Jack Banister from The Guardian has written an amazing story which plumbs the depths of how important football is to the people of the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin. Built around the Tiwi Bombers club, playing in the NTFL, the story shows how sport can transcend into something far greater and noble than a mere contest. Sport has the capacity to change people and their lives in profound and far-reaching ways.
There is no word for suicide
The words are scrawled across the bottom of a whiteboard in the Tiwi Bombers’ changing rooms at Norbuilt Oval, 30km south of Darwin. The underdogs are preparing to play the second-placed Southern Crocs.
Overhead, rusty fans aren’t coping with the heavy January air. The benches creak, the showers leak. A small speaker pumps out upbeat saltwater R&B by a seven-piece outfit called B2M, which stands for Bathurst to Melville, the two main islands that make up the Tiwis.
While the rest of the country fixates on tennis and cricket, Territorians fixate on footy. The Northern Territory Football League (NTFL) runs through the wet season, from October to March, and the Bombers’ finals aspirations are in the balance. They have to win today, and again next week against top-placed Nightcliff, to be a realistic chance.
The Bombers’ coach, Brenton Toy, cuts the music and the players gather around. Short, bald and spirited, he picks out the words scattered across the board, most drawn from regular footy parlance. Attitude. Effort. Discipline. Spread. Structure. Then he taps his marker on the words that matter most – “US MOB”.
“No other club comes close to what we have,” he says. “The whole experience of this club – embrace it … we have a unique environment, and unique relationships.”
He randomly points at players. “My brother, my cuz, my nephew, my cuz, my brother, my nephew…” Football clubs frequently speak of themselves as families. Here, it’s no metaphor.
On today’s team-sheet, there are two Tipungwutis, three Puruntatameris, and two Munkaras. That’s just the brothers. The coach, Toy, the captain, Paddy Heenan, the veteran, Shane “Tippa” Tipuamantmirri, and the team’s newly recruited runner, four-time Hawthorn premiership player Cyril Rioli Jnr, are all related via their grandmothers.
The Tiwi Bombers were the first all-Indigenous team to play in a major competition when they debuted in the NTFL in 2006, and rarely play more than a trio of whitefellas. Most players live out on the islands, which float in the Arafura Sea 80km north of Darwin.
The island’s population is only around 2,500, which makes the Bombers tightknit and special. That sense of closeness is also what made the events that led to the club’s formation so painful.
In the islander’s language, Tiwi means one people. The word for Australian rules football is yiloga (pronounced yilowa). There is no word for suicide. The first death recorded as such on the islands was in 1989.
Then, between 1989 and 2008, 44 Tiwi Islanders died by suicide, an analysis by the Indigenous health researcher Leonore Hanssens of Charles Darwin University revealed. After reviewing all the coronial reports, Hanssens presented her findings to a Northern Territory Senate inquiry in 2009. She found that 24 of those suicides occurred between 2002 and 2006, many of them in small clusters that left the Tiwi Islands with one of the world’s worst rates of suicide per head of capita. The Sistagirls, a group of transgender Tiwi women, were particularly affected, but the majority of the deaths were of men aged between 18 and 40.
The death rate fell in 2007 and 2008, with one suicide in each of those years. That decline aligns with a broad community response to the emergency that began in 2006, which was documented by the Healing Foundation, an Indigenous health organisation that helps communities deal with trauma. Its report, Stories from Community, released late last year, drew insights from more than 80 community members. Music and sport, especially via B2M and the Bombers, were recognised by the foundation as important threads in the Tiwi narrative of recovery, because of their usefulness as tools for “engaging young people in stronger lifestyles and choices”.
Nationally, the Indigenous suicide rate has risen from 17.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2008, to 25.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017. Earlier this month, a coronial inquest began probing the deaths of 13 Indigenous youths in the Kimberley region within a four-year period concluded. Five of those youths were children aged between 10 and 14, three were aged 16 or 17 and five were aged between 18 and 24. The Western Australian state coroner, Ros Fogliani, said the “profoundly tragic” deaths were “shaped by the crushing effects of intergenerational trauma and poverty upon entire communities”.
Senator Pat Dodson told Guardian Australia that Fogliani’s report “must lead a paradigm shift that leads to community-led solutions that address the clear sense of suffering, hopelessness and disillusionment that is being felt”. The release of the inquest findings closely followed a report from a Senate inquiry last December, which concluded that Indigenous suicide was at crisis levels, and that the history of dispossession, along with the social and economic conditions in which Indigenous people live, were key causes of suicide. In this context, and with emphasis being placed on the need for community determined and driven solutions, the Tiwi story – and the place of the Bombers within it – becomes instructive.
The Tiwi connection to the game began in 1941, when Brother John Pye introduced it to the islands. Later, he likened its significance to that of a “religion”. The small population produces eight teams for its local league, and two junior girls’ sides which compete in Darwin under the Bombers’ name. Several famous Tiwi have also dazzled crowds in the AFL.
To read the rest of Jack Banister’s incredible story, follow the following link to The Guardian story in its entirety: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/mar/03/in-tiwi-the-word-for-football-is-yiloga-there-is-no-word-for-suicide
(Photo Credit: Jack Banister - The Guardian)
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