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Dreamtime umpires’ special Indigenous tribute

FOR AFL Umpires’ Aboriginal Ambassador Joshua James and his fellow First Nations people, the Sir Doug Nicholls Round is so much more than a celebration of what they have contributed to the game.

“It’s a spiritual connection, it’s The Long Walk which Michael Long engages himself in, it’s a proud moment on a big day for our people which provides us the opportunity to proudly celebrate where we’re from and who we are,” he said.

Originally from south-west Western Australia, James now calls Victoria home as he pursues his dream to become an AFL umpire.

He’s already well on the way, having been a VFL goal umpire since 2016 and a field and goal umpire for the past 22 seasons, notching up over 380 senior games. He’s umpired across Australia, including the WAFL and NEAFL (now part of the VFL).

James, a proud Noongar Wardandi man, designed an Indigenous pair of boots to mark Sir Doug Nicholls Round – something he’s done for many years.

This year, however, was different.

A boot that AFL Umpires Aboriginal Ambassador Joshua James painted for Sir Doug Nicholls Round. Picture: AFL Photos

James put the call out to his fellow VFL umpires to see if they would also like their boots painted, and finished up painting eight pairs.

He then spoke to David Dixon – AFL goal umpires head coach – offering to paint the boots of the goal umpires for the Dreamtime at the ‘G game. Of course, both goal umpires Steven Piperno and Sam Walsh jumped at the opportunity.

James got to work, finding out what he could about both umpires before telling their story through his visual artistry.

The boots were presented to Walsh and Piperno in the pre-game before the round 10 blockbuster between Richmond and Essendon.

AFL Umpires Aboriginal Ambassador Joshua James presents goal umpire Sam Walsh with handpainted Indigenous boots before the round 10, 2022 Dreamtime at the ‘G match. Picture: AFL Photos

Walsh’s boot design had five major circles which represented the number of years he’s spent on the AFL umpires list, one yarning circle which represented the VFL Grand Final he was a part of, and green to represent the Eastern Ranges where he began his umpire journey.

Piperno’s boot design featured eight major circles which represented his eight years as an AFL umpire, while two yarning circles represented his two VFL Grand Final appearances.

The boots also featured dark and light blue water ­– the dark blue is Port Phillip Bay and the light blue represents Yarra River, where he started umpiring in the VAFA.

AFL Umpires Aboriginal Ambassador Joshua James presents goal umpire Steven Piperno with handpainted Indigenous boots before the round 10, 2022 Dreamtime at the ‘G match. Picture: AFL Photos

James spoke with pride as he discussed what Sir Doug Nicholls Round meant to him.

“It’s the contribution to the game that we have had, no matter if you’re from a remote community or living in the big city,” James said.

“As a footballer, coach, administrator, or umpire it is just about being involved and is an important acknowledgement that the AFL and clubs are giving to First Nations people.”

Whilst he said there is a long way to go in the journey to reconciliation and acknowledgement of First Nations people, James was happy to see it trending in the right direction. 

“It offers a great exposure to what our culture actually means, when we do our war cry and dance, that is who we are and how we celebrate as a culture, and it opens up to people who may not see that very often.”

James’ duties don’t stop there. He also runs an umpiring program at Worowa – an Indigenous girls school in Healesville.

Coincidentally, this year’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round umpire shirts were designed by Worowa students, Kyanna and Kylinda.

Eight of the school’s students also umpired the Auskick half-time matches at the Dreamtime game in front of more than 70,000 people.

“For them it’s all about the exposure to umpiring and after receiving their Level 1 Umpiring Accreditation we try to get them into local football and boost the participation rate of Aboriginal numbers umpiring at the local level,” he said.

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