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Marn Grook or marngrook, from the Woiwurung language for "ball" or "game", is a collective name given the traditional Indigenous Australian football game played at gatherings and celebrations of sometimes more than 100 players.
Marn Grook featured punt kicking and catching a stuffed ball. It involved large numbers of players, and games were played over an extremely large area. The game was not played tribe versus tribe. All tribes consisted of two halves (moieties) most often represented by the totemic symbols of Black Cockatoo and White Cockatoo. The tribes would therefore merge and divide themselves into the two teams based on the moiety totems. The game was subject to strict behavioural protocols and for instance all players had to be matched for size, gender and skin group relationship. However, to observers the game appeared to lack a team objective, having no real rules, or scoring. A winner could only be declared if one of the sides agreed that the other side had played better. Individual players who consistently exhibited outstanding skills, such as leaping high over others to catch the ball, were often praised, but proficiency in the sport gave them no tribal influence.
Anecdotal evidence supports such games being played all over Australia, including the Djabwurrung and Jardwadjali people and other tribes in the Wimmera, Mallee and Millewa regions of western Victoria (However, according to some accounts, the range extended to the Wurundjeri in the Yarra Valley, the Gunai people of Gippsland, and the Riverina in south-western New South Wales. The Warlpiri tribe of Central Australia played a very similar kicking and catching game with a possum skin ball, and the game was known as pultja.
The earliest accounts emerged decades after the European settlement of Australia, mostly from the colonial Victorian explorers and settlers. The earliest anecdotal account was in 1841, a decade prior to the Victorian gold rush. Although the consensus among historians is that Marn Grook existed before European arrival, it is not clear how long the game had been played in Victoria or elsewhere on the Australian continent.
Some historians claim that Marn Grook had a role in the formation of Australian rules football, which originated in Melbourne in 1858 and was codified the following year by members of the Melbourne Football Club. This connection has become culturally important to many Indigenous Australians, including celebrities and professional footballers from communities in which Australian rules football is highly popular.
Robert Brough Smyth, in an 1878 book, The Aborigines of Victoria, quoted William Thomas, a Protector of Aborigines in Victoria, who stated that in about 1841 he had witnessed Wurundjeri Aborigines east of Melbourne playing the game.
The game was a favourite of the Wurundjeri-william clan and the two teams were sometimes based on the traditional totemic moeties of Bunjil (eagle) and Waang (crow). Robert Brough-Smyth saw the game played at Coranderrk Mission Station, where ngurungaeta (elder) William Barak discouraged the playing of imported games like cricket and encouraged the traditional native game of marn grook.
An 1857 sketch found in 2007 describes an observation by Victorian scientist William Blandowski, of the Latjilatji people playing a football game near Merbein, on his expedition to the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers. The Australian Sports Commission considers this sketch to be depicting the game of Woggabaliri. The image is inscribed:
Historian Greg de Moore comments:
In 1889, anthropologist Alfred Howitt, wrote that the game was played between large groups on a totemic basis — the white cockatoos versus the black cockatoos, for example, which accorded with their skin system. Acclaim and recognition went to the players who could leap or kick the highest. Howitt wrote:
This game of ball-playing was also practised among the Kurnai, the Wolgal (Tumut river people), the Wotjoballuk as well as by the Woiworung, and was probably known to most tribes of south-eastern Australia. The Kurnai made the ball from the scrotum of an "old man kangaroo", the Woiworung made it of tightly rolled up pieces of possum skin. It was called by them "mangurt". In this tribe the two exogamous divisions, Bunjil and Waa, played on opposite sides. The Wotjoballuk also played this game, with Krokitch on one side and Gamutch on the other. The mangurt was sent as a token of friendship from one to another.
The theory hinges on evidence which is circumstantial and anecdotal. Tom Wills was raised in Victoria's Western District. As the only white child in the district, it is said that he was fluent in the languages of the Djab wurrung and frequently played with local Aboriginal children on his father's property, Lexington, outside modern day Moyston. This story has been passed down through the generations of his family.
Col Hutchison, former historian for the AFL, wrote in support of the theory postulated by Flanagan, and his account appears on an official AFL memorial to Tom Wills in Moyston erected in 1998.
|“||While playing as a child with Aboriginal children in this area [Moyston] he [Tom Wills] developed a game which he later utilised in the formation of Australian Football.||”|
|— As written by Col Hutchison on the plaque at Moyston donated by the Australian Football League in 1998.|
Sports historian Gillian Hibbins, who researched the origins of Australian rules football for the Australian Football League's official account of the game's history as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations sternly rejects the theory, stating that while Marn Grook was "definitely" played around Port Fairy and throughout the Melbourne area, there is no evidence that the game was played north of the Grampians or by the Djabwurrung people and the claim that Wills observed and possibly played the game is improbable:
|“||Each side endeavours to keep possession of the ball, which is tossed a short distance by hand, then kicked in any direction. The side which kicks it oftenest and furthest gains the game. The person who sends it the highest is considered the best player, and has the honour of burying it in the ground till required the next day. The sport is concluded with a shout of applause, and the best player is complimented on his skill. The game, which is somewhat similar to the white man's game of football, is very rough...||”|
|— James Dawson in his 1881 book Australian Aborigines.|
In his exhaustive research of the first four decades of Australian rules football, historian Mark Pennings "could not find evidence that those who wrote the first rules were influenced by the indigenous game of Marngrook". Melbourne Cricket Club researcher Trevor Ruddell wrote in 2013 that Marn Grook "has no causal link with, nor any documented influence upon, the early development of Australian football."
Chris Hallinan and Barry Judd describe the historical perspective of the history of Australian Rules as Anglo-centric, having been reluctant to acknowledge the indigenous contribution. They go on to suggest this is an example of white Australians struggling to accept indigenous peoples "as active and intelligent human subjects".
|“||If Tom Wills had have said "Hey, we should have a game of our own more like the football the black fellas play" it would have killed it stone dead before it was even born.||”|
|— Statement by Jim Poulter During 7.30 Report (22nd May 2008).|
Advocates of these theories have drawn comparisons in the catching of the kicked ball (the mark) and the high jumping to catch the ball (the spectacular mark) that have been attributes of both games. However, the connection is speculative. For instance spectacular high marking did not become common in Australian rules football until the 1880s.
Some claim that the origin of the Australian rules term mark, meaning a clean, fair catch of a kicked ball, followed by a free kick, is derived from the Aboriginal word mumarki used in Marn Grook, and meaning "to catch". However, the term "mark" has been used for a catch in both rugby football (the first recorded rule of Rugby football was the "fair catch" or mark rule to protect players) and early Association football in Britain since the 1830s—)—so the claim is almost certainly a false etymology. The term is still used worldwide in Rugby Union in reference to a fair catch by a player who calls "mark" when catching a ball inside their team's 22 metre line. The application of the word "mark" in "foot-ball" (and in many other games) dates to the Elizabethan era and is likely derived from the practice where a player marks the ground to show where a catch had been taken or where the ball should be placed. The use of the word "mark" to indicate an "impression or trace forming a sign" on the ground dates to c1200.
Due to the theories of shared origins, marn grook features heavily in Australian rules football and Indigenous culture.
A documentary titled Marn Grook was first released in 1996.
In 2002, in a game at Stadium Australia, the Sydney Swans and Essendon Football Club began to compete for the Marngrook Trophy, awarded after home-and-away matches each year between the two teams in the Australian Football League. Though it commemorates marn grook, the match is played under normal rules of the AFL, rather than the traditional Aboriginal game.
Marn Grook is the subject of children's books including Neridah McMullin's Kick it to Me! (2012), an account of Tom Wills' upbringing, and Marngrook: The Long Ago Story of Aussie Rules (2012) by Indigenous writer Titta Secombe.