There was a sense of pride that acting captain Alex Pearce felt when leading the Fremantle players out onto the field in Sir Doug Nicholls Round, and it’s a feeling that upon reflection can lead back to the days prior to colonisation for the Palawa people.
Pearce has captained Fremantle for much of Nat Fyfe’s absence this season, the second Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander player to lead the team after Michael Walters was acting captain for a game in 2020.
In total, there have been six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander captains in the history of the AFL/VFL in Graham Farmer (Geelong), Gavin Wanganeen (Port Adelaide), Michael Long (Essendon), Chris Johnson (Brisbane), Adam Goodes (Sydney) and Steven May (Gold Coast).
There have also been 15 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander captains in the history of the WAFL in Graham Farmer (West Perth), Bill Dempsey (West Perth), Stephen Michael (South Fremantle), Brad Collard (South Fremantle), Wally Matera (South Fremantle), Maurice Rioli (South Fremantle), Toby McGrath (South Fremantle), Barry Cable (East Perth, Perth) Shane Cable (Perth), Gerald Ugle (Peel Thunder), Joe Smith (Claremont) Jon Griffin (East Fremantle), Keith Narkle (Swan Districts) Troy Ugle (Swan Districts) and Phil Narkle (Swan Districts).
As well as having the chance to lead the team out onto the field, Pearce said it was extra special to wear an Indigenous jumper designed by Walters and be present for the handing over of the message stick pre-game.
“It's a proud moment every time you get to walk out and lead the boys onto the field,” Pearce said.
“To wear a jumper designed by Sonny, to look around during my final speech and see everyone in that jersey, it was special.”
While no Fremantle player has ever been the official captain of the team, Pearce paid tribute to a long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership at the Club.
“When I got to the club, we had Michael Johnson as a leader, Sonny became a leader pretty quickly,” Pearce said.
“We've always had such a rich history of Indigenous players and leaders. My first coach was Roger Hayden and he's still a leader within the club.
“I feel like within the Fremantle Dockers, there's always been a really strong representation of Indigenous leaders.”
As well as Walters’ design, Fremantle wear the Stolen Generation Flower on their chest in Sir Doug Nicholls Round games.
While Pearce was thankful to have the ability to trace his Aboriginal heritage – something not possible for many in the Stolen Generation – he said there was an equally troubling but different history for the Palawa people – referencing the near annihilation of Tasmania’s Aboriginal population in the mid-19th century.
“With the Stolen Generation, there's a loss of culture and belonging, and that would obviously be extremely difficult,” Pearce said.
“In Tasmania, there's not a great understanding of Indigenous history. Colonisation did a pretty good job of wiping a lot of Indigenous people off Tasmania.
“Even though my connection isn't quite as strong - I've got white skin and it goes back a few generations – it’s important to acknowledge that history was there. It has sustained and been able to come through all the horrors of the 19th and early 20th century.
“I feel like it's important as a nation, and as a society, we're aware of all those different histories along the way.”
Pearce spoke of the pride he felt when visiting a bust of one of his ancestors at the Tasmania Museum in Hobart.
“I went to the Tassie Museum recently, and if I trace my family line back, there's a bust of one of the Indigenous leaders in the early days of Tasmanian settlement where he was a local leader of that tribe,” Pearce said.
“It's nice to be able to trace my family heritage back that far and know there's that really strong connection to Tassie – that’s always been really important to me.
“I've always felt a really strong affinity to Tasmania and it’s really important to know there's that real cultural strength there as well.”
This connection was on show with the boots Pearce wore against Collingwood on Sunday, designed by a close friend and sister of a former teammate.
“A friend of mine, Carly Grey, whose brother is Brady, she designed the boots for me and shares some of my Palawa heritage. It was nice to go through that process,” Pearce said.
“She designed and painted the boots, which tell the story of my journey coming from Tassie and the journey to Fremantle.
“There's acknowledgments of the Fremantle Indigenous players from the men's team and the women's team, there's Mutton Birds, who are important to Indigenous culture.
“There's the Tassie Tiger paw print, a map of Tassie and acknowledgement of my meeting place in my hometown of Ulverston.
“That process was really fun and I'm really grateful that Carly was able to do such a good job.
“I’ll keep these boots forever because of what they symbolise for me and what it meant to be able to run out and Captain the team on that day.”