February 17, 2012

Meeting Dizzy's dad

Neil Gillespie loves watching wrestling, collects memorabilia, and is a torch bearer for the Aboriginal cause

In his book, Jason Gillespie calls himself a "nuffy", an autograph collector. Wait until you meet his father, Neil.

Gillespie senior is a proper collector. His house is a mini museum and he loves to show you what he has got. There is rare memorabilia in there, and stunning Aboriginal art. Forget cricket and Bradman and Tendulkar and South Australia stuff, he even has an autograph from wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. There's a chair from a WWE show. Vicki, his wife, says, "We are all wrestling nuts. Including Jason." We bond immediately over wrestling. Vicki is reminded of her son every time she sees Ishant Sharma bowl. The long hair and the bounding run.

Neil is a mad sports fan. He wants to have fun at sporting events, even if that means liming with fans of Australia's opposition. He once sang along with the Barmy Army. Jason was fielding at the boundary at the time. He looked back and saw his father singing with the enemy. "The old man has lost it," he said.

Nicknames are a big thing in the Gillespie family, as they are in Australia in general. Long before Jason got the nickname Dizzy, after Dizzy Gillespie, he was called Spiros, because of Vicki's Greek heritage. Vicki herself was called The Boss because she was the boss of the house. Neil was just Chief, after the decorated army man Ken Gillespie.

The old man is a child at heart. He still collects autographs. He bought a Swami Army shirt, got it autographed by a few Indian players, and wears it to grounds - even when Australia play India.

It is fun to talk sport with him, but he is also an angry old man. He has fought all his life for the rights of the Aboriginal people, has been CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM), and is not happy with how Australian governments have "institutionally discriminated against the Aboriginals".

Neil's mother was of Aboriginal descent, though he says he is often mistaken for an Italian himself. For someone like me, who has followed only Australian cricket, and not the country's history as such, it is an education talking to Neil. Aussie Rules football originated from the Aborigines; the first ball was one made of stuffed possum skin. There are more than 300 language groups in Australia, about 42 in the state of South Australia alone.

Until as recently as 1967, the Aboriginal people were not even included in the country's census, but Australia was never isolated like South Africa was during apartheid. About the landmark 1967 referendum, passed on the back of overwhelming support from common Australians, which changed that state of affairs, Waratah Gillespie, an Aboriginal lady not related to the Gillespies, says: "For the first time in almost 200 years of colonisation, Aboriginal people would be counted, but by then genocidal practices had done their evil work." She's referring to Aboriginal children being taken from their clans and raised in white families.

"Whether they were put in homes or some of them were abused or others went to very good homes, the fact remains they were taken away from their mother and father," Neil says. "How would you feel if you were taken away from your family? You live contrary to your heritage. In a sterile white family. You wouldn't like it. You wouldn't like it to happen to your children, and you wouldn't like it to happen to you. But that's what happened. I don't see anything wrong with saying sorry."

Because John Howard wouldn't apologise for the stolen generation, Neil opposed his nomination as ICC president. "He said, 'Why should I apologise for what happened in the past?'" Neil says. "The past is past, but the hurt was there. When Vicki and I were there in the Parliament House when the apology was made, we saw the tears of the Aboriginal people who were the victims of the stolen generation." The apology finally came in 2008, during the reign of Kevin Rudd.

Jason Gillespie, though, said he had no problems with Howard. Neil respects his son's personal views. Jason's views were sought after because he was the first Australian Test cricketer of Aboriginal descent. When he first spoke about his heritage, in an interview in 2000, it became a big topic of discussion. Had he done enough to embrace his Aboriginal heritage? "What did people expect me to do once I started playing for Australia?" he wrote. "Call a press conference and announce I am an Aboriginal? It's not in my nature to do that." He has always carried that tag ever since, though, and also that of being the son of an outspoken activist.

Neil says his son faced no discrimination in cricket, but speaks of another struggle, to get the Australian cricket team, comprising Aboriginal players, that visited England in 1868, recognised. Ian Chappell fought hard for the cause too. Finally, during a tea break of the Boxing Day Test of 2004, against Pakistan, the 1868 team was formally honoured and recognised at the MCG. Fourteen replica shirts were made and awarded to the best 14 Aboriginal cricketers from the Imparja Cup.

For Neil, the fight continues. He feels people of Aboriginal descent are still discriminated against. "We are a first-world nation but we have got our most deprived people of society at such a disadvantage that they have the highest incidence of unemployment, they have the worst health... the mortality rates are a disgrace," he says. "Other social indicators all indicate a deprived section of the community. We are 2% of the population, but we make up about 40% of the total prison population."

"Incarceration and over-policing" of the Aboriginal people is Neil's biggest concern. He is not happy that the funding of ALRM has been near static for the last 15 years. He believes his outspokenness and his visit to UK, where he met members of Parliament and tried to work towards compensation for Aboriginal people affected by British nuclear tests in Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s, led to his sacking from ALRM.

He says he still knows Aboriginal people who say they are of Spanish descent in order to avoid discrimination. He says he knows of families that are not accepted as tenants because of their Aboriginal heritage. He says Aboriginal people like to be called Aboriginal and not indigenous, but the government continues to ignore that preference.

There is discrimination in almost every society. A few keep fighting it. To quote from the song written by Aboriginal singer-songwriter Kev Carmody with Paul Kelly, about the story of Vincent Lingiarri and the Land Rights Movement, "From little things big things grow."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on February 19, 2012, 0:04 GMT

    Having played sport with & against aboriginals I have a foot either side of the fence on where their treatment is at. One of my best mates in High School was part aborigine & I had seen him discriminated against, he use to just shake his head & more or less feel sorry for the ignoramus that abused him. I played & met many aborigines that made light of the whole situation & encouraged lighthearted jokes about things - as long as they repected you, if they didn't respect you, watch out! From what I can see, is aborigines that have chosen not to be victims, by & large have done well in life & realise that it is the minority that have prejudiced/racist views. IMO - there is a lot aboriginal people need to do for themselves, I won't go into the negatives, but the whole discrimination issue cuts both ways. I have personally seen shameful things from both sides of the debate!

  • Rajaram on February 18, 2012, 8:08 GMT

    After Jason Gillespie, the next man of Aboriginal descent to don the Aussie colours is Daniel Christian, though not yet the Baggy Grreen. We have the Imparja Cup, that could be worth watching to find a spinner - that's eluded us ever since Shane Warne.

  • Rod on February 17, 2012, 10:15 GMT

    Having worked with Aboriginal people, I can say that many wish to be called "Aboriginals" partly because they feel the term "Aborigine" is associated with an unpleasant past history, and also because they feel the word "aborigine" is generic and encompasses many other peoples such as Inuit and Native Americans and Ainu of Hokkaido.

    Thanks Ian Chappell for pushing Cricket Australia to finally recognise the 1868 team. If anyone is ever in Western Victoria, at Edenhope they can see a monument to Johnny Mullagh (Unaarrrimin) who was the star of that tour.

  • King on February 17, 2012, 9:18 GMT

    Dare I ask what this article is doing on Cricinfo? Not because it's a bad article (it isn't), but it isn't exactly about cricket.

  • Girik on February 17, 2012, 5:56 GMT

    Just on the point of Aborigine vs indigenous, I believe "indigenous" cover both Aboriginal Australiand and Torres Strait Islanders. The TSI have a different history and culture (closer to PNG) and were engaged in agriculture when the British arrived unlike the Aborigines who were hunter-gatherers. Also just in case anyone gets confused "Aboriginal" is an adjective and "Aborigine" is the noun. Many Australians themselves make the mistake as referring to the people as "the Aborginals" which is wrong.

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