Indigenous representation: Navigating community and sport spaces

As elite athletes, players have both the burden and privilege of representing their cultural communities, and their accomplishments and leadership in these spaces mean they are elevated and highly visible.12 For some, it may be a heavy responsibility that they work hard to fulfill, and in some cases, shy away from. For others, success and visibility in professional codes that have come to value some players’ cultural backgrounds (as in rugby and rugby league), is a welcome validation of their (Indigenous Pacific) cultural capital. While it may not be their primary motivation, Pasifika players who can navigate mainstream and Native cultural spaces benefit from what Karlo Mila calls ‘polycultural capital’, or the personal currency that accrues with knowledge and abilities to navigate Pacific-dominated and White-dominated institutions and spaces (Mila-Schaaf and Robinson 2010).

Indigenous athletes and communities navigate representation in settler colonial contexts, even as they contend with institutional structures and biases that erase, minimise, or constrain their presence, or that continue to centre Whiteness (Hokowhitu 2004; 2009). When Indigenous athletes reach the pinnacle of sport success by representing the nation on the global stage, they are still expected to do so in a way that mutes their Indigenous identities. Cathy Freeman, for example, had already made history as the first Aboriginal woman to win gold in the 4 x 100-meter relay in the 1990 Commonwealth Games.Ten years later she won the gold medal in the women’s 400-meter event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, garnering prestige for Australia, the host country. When she held the Aboriginal and Australian flag high in her victory lap, despite being reprimanded for doing so in the past and being directed not to (IOC rules do not recognise the Aboriginal flag), she became for many a symbol of reconciliation in Australia and beyond. Still, many Australian spectators expected her to perform allegiance to the country she was representing as if her athletic identity superseded (or indeed could be disentangled from) any other aspect of her identity. As if somehow in the rarefied context of the track, the color of her skin and the history and ongoing of treatment of Aboriginal people by the Australian state and its settler citizens was not a part of her identity and experience. She refused, and instead was one of many Indigenous athletes continuing to engage in anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-discriminatory participation that not only contests dynamics within sport, but connects sport to wider social contexts.

In the effort to be fully present in the sport space, athletes like Cathy Freeman are increasingly and explicitly bringing their cultural and ethnic identities with them and are less open to checking those aspects of themselves at the gate. This is an historical shift, as there are many examples of Indigenous athletes having to hide or downplay their heritage because of racism and discrimination in sport (Judd 2008; 2015).This change is made possible by public politics around racism and Indigenous rights where outright discrimination is less and less tenable (and likely also social media as an accountability mechanism with local, national, regional, and global reach). At the same time, rising numbers and a critical mass of Indigenous athletes in highly visible sport spaces are also changing the culture of sport. Further, the use of aspects of Native cultures in the branding of certain teams has provided opportunities to challenge the token appropriation of key cultural symbols or performances toward creating space for inclusion. Players and communities continue to navigate how and when to claim space through enactments of embodied sovereignty (Hokowhitu 2014).

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