The gift NRL gave JT that changed his life

It took me until I was 27 years of age before I really understood my identity as an Indigenous Australian from Gunggari country.

I always knew I was Aboriginal and celebrated NAIDOC Week but I didn’t know too much more about my family history and our culture.

READ MORE: What JT’s beautiful gesture really meant

Rugby league gave me my moment of awakening during a camp as part of the Indigenous All Stars team in 2010.

Johnathan Thurston after the 2010 All Stars game. (Getty)

As part of that camp Dr. Chris Sarra, an Aboriginal educator who was active in rugby league, did an exercise with us where he said ‘If you know much about your family history and culture stand at this end of the room. If you don’t know much stand at that end of the room and you just find where you see fit to sit in.’ There were a few boys that were really strong culturally, very aware of what has gone on, and then I was down at the other end of the room.

That really made me think and I decided I wanted to get to know my family history and find out more about myself. I rang Mum and she said ‘That’s men’s business.’ So I asked her, ‘I want to go and find out where you grew up and spend a weekend out there.’ I had to ring my grandfather and my uncles and a dozen of my cousins and we hired a bus and drove out from Brisbane maybe eight hours west, to a little town called Mitchell.

We did some traditional dancing, they took us to the Maranoa River, which runs through the middle of the town. They took us to the little watering holes and we all got dressed up and painted up with the ochre from the Gunggari country and did some traditional dancing, met the elders out there on my grandfather’s side, and it had a really calming influence on me.

I rang Mum when we arrived and I told her, ‘I’ve got this calming feeling, it’s like I’ve been here before.’ And I’d never been there and Mum said ‘Yeah, I took you out there when you were a baby.’ So that must have just been the affect it had on me.

That just blew my mind when Mum said that because it certainly had an influence on me. That’s how I started to educate myself a little bit more about the culture and my family history.

It’s so important in Aboriginal culture to understand where you come from and how that land connects you with your ancestors.

Going out to country like that gave me that sense of identity. But there are many Indigenous people who have had that piece of themselves taken from them by generations of displacement and mistreatment.

Our Turn to Shine – Indigenous Round Luke Carroll

What my uncles and aunties have gone through is quite traumatic and that’s very common in our culture because of the stolen generation. They had to sit at the back of the bus because they were indigenous. And they were only allowed to go to certain parks and pubs and RSLs and all this sort of stuff. But it was alright for them to sign up and fight in the wars alongside their fellow Australians only to get segregated again once they came back from war.

They’re all traumatic experiences our culture has been through, so there’s a lot of pain there.

Over the years Aboriginal people have started to fight back and do things to try to reclaim our identity and make a better life for our people. My mother marched for land rights in the 60s and 70s and I see that as a great platform for the next generation to do something.

There’s a lot of great opportunities available for the next generation of our culture and I was a beneficiary of the people who marched for land rights, Mabo Day, Native Title and the 2008 apology from the Prime Minister. They’re all landmark decisions that make this country a better place but for myself now it’s about providing opportunities for our culture. And using the platform I have through rugby league to try to educate people about the history of our nation and the history of our culture.

That’s what makes the NRL’s Indigenous Round so important. It’s an opportunity for rugby league to give its Indigenous representatives a platform to educate Australians about our history and our culture and help the healing process.

Rugby league is doing a great job at leading that but there is still a long, long way to go.

Johnathan Thurston embracing Quaden Bayles. (Getty)

I was one of the lucky ones, I can’t remember getting racially abused by another player. I can’t remember getting racially abused by a fan in the stands or in the crowd but that doesn’t mean it never happens.

We may not have had anything like the disgraceful treatment of Adam Goodes in the AFL but just look at what Latrell Mitchell has been through in his short career. He almost quit the game because small-minded people can hide behind their keyboards and attack him because of his race.

I’m very proud of what the likes of Latrell is doing to stand against racism. He, Cody Walker and others have really stood up and put that message at the forefront, that there’s no place for racism in this country.

Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell starred in last night’s Indigenous Round opener. (Nine)

They’ve obviously been racially vilified so for them to stand up against these keyboard warriors, I’m proud that this generation has taken a stance on that.

We’ve still got a long way to go to educate the people about the history of this country.

A lot of Australians, most Australians, nearly all Australians are compassionate people, they’ve got a good heart and I think once they understand the devastation that our ancestors had to go through; what the country, the government put our grandparents, our great grandparents through since colonisation, the healing process will continue.

I think people need to be educated about the history of this country and that certainly starts in the classroom and from the mums and dads all around the country and to understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a connection to this land and that we’ve been around for 60,000 years and will be around for 60,000 more.

As time marches on we reach milestones that show that progress is being made. That happens throughout society but it arguably happens quicker in rugby league.

One example of that is the 2015 NRL grand final, when I was captain of the Cowboys and Justin Hodges was captain of the Broncos.

That’s the first time in the history of the game that there’s been two indigenous captains on grand final day.

I’m very proud of what Hodgo’s been able to achieve in his career and what we’ve both been able to achieve but we’ve both stood up for what we believed was right for indigenous issues and led the way in that forum. To be the first ever indigenous captains on grand final day brings a smile to my face and hopefully over the coming years we’ll start seeing a lot more indigenous leaders in the game and captains of clubs.

Justin Hodges and Johnathan Thurston after the 2015 Grand F (AAP)

Another example is the NRL’s Indigenous Leadership Committee of players, which was brought in to make sure our voice was heard at the top of the sport. I was part of that with Sammy Thaiday and George Rose and Preston Campbell and Dean Widders was on it as well.

I think the game of rugby league and the NRL should be commended for recognising its ability to make change in that area and to be forward thinking and have awareness of the issues that are raised around the country.

I’m very proud of where the game is at and where the game is going but certainly we are still seeing some small instances of racism, like the Latrell instances, and hopefully we can stamp that out. Hopefully no other NRL or AFL player or any other sportsman has to go through what the great Adam Goodes went through.

**Stan Grant’s special ‘Our Stories’ feature presentations for NRL Indigenous Round will continue on Friday night, on Nine’s live coverage of Broncos vs Sharks from 7.30pm AEST. Tonight’s interviewee is Johnathan Thurston with more on his journey of cultural discovery.

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