In the course of a 205-game career with South Fremantle in the West Australian Football League, and 39 AFL games with West Coast, Ashton Hams, 32, found himself playing with and against any number of Indigenous footballers.
In Perth, Hams encountered mostly Noongars, who come from the southern half of Western Australia. More Indigenous AFL players come from the Noongar nation than any other. At South Fremantle, Hams also came across Tiwi Shane “Tippa” Tipuamantmirri. The pair played several seasons together, and “Tippa” was often the only Indigenous player in a side of whitefellas. Now, the shoe is on the other foot.
Hams retired from the WAFL at the end of the 2018 season, and then took the chance to enjoy a swansong in the NTFL – which runs through the Top End wet season – at Tipuamantmirri’s Tiwi Bombers. The club represents the Tiwi Islands – Bathurst, and Melville – which float 80km north of Darwin. In Hams’ second game, just after Christmas, the Bombers beat Palmerston, and he was the side’s only whitefella.
“I never thought that would happen,” he says. “I definitely didn’t feel like it, though. They were so welcoming. The boys make you feel a part of it.”
The reversal of roles wasn’t lost on Bombers coach Brenton Toy before the game. As Hams recounts, Toy pointed him out, then gave his players a reminder: “I betcha a few of you boys have been the only blackfella in a team”.
For a changing room full of well-travelled players, the sentiment rings particularly true. There’s Tipuamantmirri; Ross Tungatalum, who spent a season at Souths and also a year on St Kilda’s rookie list; and ex-Melbourne forward Austin “Ossie’ Wonaeamirri, to name but a few.
Hams featured in the Bombers first-up finals win against the Southern Crocs. After starting the season with five losses, the Bombers are one win away from the NTFL grand final on March 16.
They have to beat the Crocs again on Saturday in a knockout preliminary final to make it. Hams and another whitefella, Christian Burgess, from Vermont Football Club in Melbourne’s Eastern Football League, are both likely starters. Coach Toy frequently refers to the pair as “part of the tribe”.
Sam Blanasi, a Bombers board member, says that having non-Indigenous players in the side creates the chance for “two-way learning”.
“They strengthen the team, but from the cultural side, people will see non-Indigenous and Indigenous people playing together, being as one. That bond, that relationship, it gives the non-Indigenous players a chance to understand the Indigenous way of thinking, and the Indigenous players the chance to understand the non-Indigenous way of thinking.”
The Bombers players who have lived away from home for the game’s sake play a central role in welcoming outsiders. Ossie Wonaeamirri, who played 31 AFL games with Melbourne, battled homesickness while he was down south, and alongside Tippa, he hosted Hams out in Milikapiti on Melville Island in January. Now that he’s been to the islands, Hams can see why the Tiwi boys miss home so much.
“They’re just in their own little world up there … it’s beautiful countryside, and the people are beautiful … they’re so family orientated, and they’re all there for one another,” he says.
Hams has learnt about the four Tiwi skin groups, the different tribal totems, and the island’s unique ceremonial traditions, but has struggled to grasp the Tiwi language.
“Tippa’s trying to teach me. But nah, I’m no good … Kuwa means ‘okay’, and that’s pretty much it.”
As well as visiting cultural sites on the islands, Tippa and Ossie took Hams hunting and fishing, led by a memorable guide known only as “Terminator”. The highlight came when Hams had the chance to shoot a buffalo. Ossie reckons there was enough meat on the beast to feed his family for a week. Hams missed, and hasn’t been allowed to forget it. On a whim, Tippa or Ossie will mimic Hams’ shot, holding up an imaginary rifle, their arms shaking violently as they struggle to aim. Hams maintains it was a near-miss, but he’s gained an unwanted nickname – “Sniper”.
He’s comfortable laughing at himself, which shows when he’s asked why he accepted the chance to play for the Tiwi side. “I jumped at it, because I’ve always wanted to do it. Luckily, they wanted a slow, old, little fat person.”
Originally from Katanning, three-hours south-east of Perth, that self-deprecating assessment is consistent with his laid back, country attitude to life. Nonetheless, it’s a little harsh. Hams called time on his AFL career at just 27, but still has the physique of a pro – albeit with extra strapping tape, and a South Fremantle premiership tattoo on his left-ankle.
Hams played in Souths’ 2005 flag, and when they won again in 2009, he was awarded the Simpson Medal for best on ground. That stellar performance was part of the reason the Eagles drafted him. But even after playing at the highest level, it took Hams time a to adjust to the unique Territory game.
“Up here, it’s different footy. In the WAFL, you just go, go, go. Here, it’s so hot, it’s burst footy. It can be fumbly, but at times, I’m stuck in the back pocket just going, ‘How good is this?’, because we go bang bang bang and suddenly, Rocco [Ross Tungatalum] is kicking a goal.”
The Tiwi style, he says, is different again from the Territory style. The current crop of Bombers perfected it playing together on the islands as kids. “A lot of it’s tapping around, but they don’t change it … You think they’re out of it, but because they’re so fast, they land that tackle, or get to that mark. The foot speed is just amazing.
“The other teams are a bit more structured. Having been semi-pro for so long, it’s good to come up here and just play. It’s a ‘see ball, get ball’ sort of thing.”
Hams retired from the AFL in 2013, aged 27, but suspects the Eagles would’ve delisted him if he hadn’t pulled the pin himself. Drafted as half-back flanker, the left-footer found himself “pigeonholed in the forward-pocket”. He was constantly in and out of the Eagles’ side. The freedom to play on instinct at the Bombers is a welcome relief from the hyper-structured nature of the elite level, and the WAFL.
“It’s so serious at South Freo, and at the Eagles. These boys [the Tiwi] actually play their best footy when they’re having a joke and mucking around, and when they’re smiling.”
The Bombers’ lack of height contributes to their free-flowing style, but it has also landed Hams in some precarious positions. Against top-side Nightcliff in round 15, the Bombers won by a point, and Hams, who is only 174-centimetres tall, spent much of the game going back with the flight of the ball to take intercept marks in defence. After the final siren, his ribs were so bruised that he had to ask teammate Chris Luff to tie his shoelaces up.
Often, he’ll be the one at the bottom of a pack in the midfield, trying to flick the ball out to a fleet-footed teammate rushing by. Despite the fact he was expecting the football to be a little less bruising, he’s loved his stint in the Top End, and hopes it will finish on March 16 with another premiership.
“In Perth, you have the Noongars. To see a different culture, and how different they are, it’s been a great experience … That’s the amazing thing about footy, ayy. It just brings people together.”
Part One of this series can be found here.
Part Three of this series can be found here.
Additional photos can be found here.
Travel and research was supported by funding from the Melbourne Press Club’s Michael Gordon Fellowship program.