Four years ago, during a bonding session with the NSW Country team, Indigenous players Brian Kelly and Tyrone Roberts sprung to their feet and busted out a traditional shake-a-leg dance.
Cody Walker, though, remained bolted to his seat. His brothers had performed the dance at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but he hadn’t done it since he was a boy.
So he didn’t get up.
“The shake-a-leg is a celebration dance — that’s our thing,” the South Sydney five-eighth said ahead of Thursday night’s Indigenous Round match against St George Illawarra at Jubilee Stadium . “It’s a sign of respect but it’s something that I was ashamed about because I didn’t know how to do it. The next morning, I regretted it. I thought, ‘I should’ve got up and had a crack. Next time there’s a chance to do it, I will’.”
As it turned out, Walker’s eldest son, Kian, 9, got in first.
When Walker and his partner, Nellie, heard Kian would be dancing at the Redfern Community Centre, they had to see it to believe it. A shy kid, it wasn’t in Kian’s nature to be front and centre of any stage.
But here he was, facing the crowd, busting out the shake-a-leg that his father wasn’t confident enough to do.
“It was so powerful seeing someone of Kian’s nature so proud to be in that moment, to honour his people, honour his family, honour me,” Walker said. “My son’s a very shy kid. If you know him, you wouldn’t expect him to do that in front of anyone. My youngest, Kade, is different: he’s out there. But this meant so much to Kian. I was beaming with pride.”
These are relevant stories to tell this week as the NRL celebrates Indigenous Round. Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, the messaging has rarely been so significant.
Walker was cautious about the tone of this story, given the vicious backlash he and others often generate when they calmly speak about issues important to Indigenous people.
He’s not looking to confront and agitate. He’d rather push for education and understanding, something that fits snugly into the theme of this year’s round: “Pass back, move forward”.
“Our school curriculum doesn’t teach it the way that it was; the harsh reality of what it is,” Walker said. “The dark history of our country was horrific. You see a lot of people saying, ‘Get over it’. But the history of what my father and others before him went through didn’t just have an effect on him and his childhood, but on the way he parented.
“If people can understand what happened, then they can have a greater sense of empathy instead of just saying, ‘Get over it, it happened years ago, we’re not part of that’. We’re not asking for that. Just understand that there’s a loss of identity, of cultural practices, the languages that we’ve lost … All that’s been lost to us.”
Walker, 30, is a proud Bundjalung-Yuin man.
The Bundjalung Nation, from where his father Bernie hails, stretches from the NSW far North Coast to the south-eastern coast of Queensland. His beloved late mother Lou came from the vast Yuin Nation, which represents the people of the South Coast.
Walker’s other family is South Sydney, the club with the proudest history of Indigenous players.
The club’s spiritual home, Redfern Oval, remains a lightning rod for the community. When Latrell Mitchell signed earlier this year, the media conference held under the grandstand to announce his arrival was abuzz with young Indigenous kids with beaming smiles.
“We’ll train at the famous Redfern Oval and I can guarantee if you go down there this afternoon, after school, there will be 20 or more kids playing footy and the majority of them will be Aboriginal,” Walker said. “Rugby league is so important in our community because it’s every kid’s happy place.
“Before I came to Souths, I didn’t understand the true history of the club. I didn’t know a lot of Aboriginal people supported Souths until I got here. But now I feel deeply connected to the club. The off-field community work the club does with Souths Cares is out of this world. It’s amazing to be part of such a club that does these things in our communities. It feels like home.”
Indeed, his teammates already practice the “pass backwards, move forward” mantra.
“Damien Cook’s a big one,” Walker said of the Australian and NSW hooker. “He’ll come up and ask questions about certain things relating to our culture. He asks some great questions and we talk. He learns from it. I’m still learning, too.”
He’s also dancing.
Earlier this year, on January 26, Walker and other rugby league players, including Souths teammates Mitchell and James Roberts, took part in the Invasion Day protest march in Sydney.
At one point, Mitchell jumped into a celebratory dance in the middle of George Street. Here it was: Walker’s moment of truth.
“So I just jumped in and did it,” he said.
“We’re now at a point when we can express ourselves, speak our language and not ashamed to do so. My kids bust it out wherever they are. It’s become normal behaviour.”
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Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.