Sports

Ash Gardner builds deeper connection with Indigenous identity

The Australian women’s cricket team has not left the country since the pandemic struck in March 2020.

The side was lucky enough to wrap up the Women’s T20 World Cup campaign and lift the trophy in front of a record crowd at the MCG, before the COVID-19 situation rapidly worsened and Australia’s borders closed.

A tour to South Africa had to be cancelled and the 50-over women’s World Cup was postponed from early 2021 to 2022.

Suddenly left with time on her hands, all-rounder Ashleigh Gardner turned to her roots, eager to learn more about her Indigenous heritage and to immerse herself in ways she had not had time to do before.

“Over the past 18 months I’ve been fortunate enough to explore more about my culture as a whole and my people,” she told the ABC.

Ashleigh Gardner (right) and her Australian teammate Rachael Haynes (left) pose with fans after winning the T20 World Cup at the MCG.(AAP: Scott Barbour)

“That was something I really wanted to do so that I was better educated to share information and positive messages with my teammates and other people about our wonderful culture.”

Going back to country

Gardner was born in Bankstown and still lives in Western Sydney.

But this year (before NSW went into another lockdown), the 24-year-old was able to head off to Muruwari land in north-western NSW, where her mother’s side of the family is from, for the very first time.

Ash Gardner, Mum and Aunty go back to country
Gardner, her mum (far right) and Aunty Doris on Muruwari land.(Instagram: Ashleigh Gardner)

Gardner said the trip was crucial to help her gain a deeper understanding of Muruwari history and her true identity.

“For every Aboriginal person, going back to country, there is no better feeling,” she said.

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“It was a long drive, through Dubbo and onto Bourke where we stayed the night … that was a nine-hour trip in itself.

“Then the next day we drove out to country with about 10 other Muruwari people, to a place called Ledknapper Reserve.”

The group spent three days there, mostly sitting around the campfire, telling stories and singing.

They were also invited to sit in on a meeting with the local land council to hear some of the plans they have for conservation in the area.

“Every mob is different and it was a great opportunity for me to learn specific things about my people, in relation to totems, as well as plants and certain animals,” she said.

“Our Indigenous people are so special and that’s a conversation I want to be part of and to continue so that people can appreciate the unique elements of our culture.”

Picking up the paintbrush

Gardner had always had an interest in Aboriginal art and decided to try her hand at it during lockdown.

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Self-taught, her paintings are her own interpretation of the traditional dot style.

“I’ve always appreciated it because it’s stunning and helps people portray their stories and messages in different and unique ways,” Gardner said.

“It had been something that I’d thought about before but it is time-consuming, and I don’t count myself as an artistic person.

“However, I am creative enough to come up with really beautiful stories and portray them in the way I see them.”

What started as a hobby has become a passion, and Gardner has since painted many artworks for friends and fellow cricketers.

Ash Gardner shoes
Gardner painted fellow Australian teammate Maitlan Brown’s cricket spikes with Indigenous art. (Instagram: Ashleigh Gardner)

Sometimes the stories come to life on canvas, other times her imagination spreads onto objects like shoes or cricket bats.

“It’s always a nice feeling when people get in touch and ask me to do something for them,” Gardner said.

“It’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing and it’s a great way for me to keep in touch and keep learning about my culture.”

The rise of Indigenous athletes

Some of our most prominent athletes throughout history have been of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, and this year there has been another wave of First Nations athletes on the world stage.

Australia's women's football team, the Matildas, pose with the Aboriginal flag before their first game of the Tokyo Olympics.
The Matildas paid tribute to Australia’s First Nations people by posing with the Aboriginal flag before their first game at the Tokyo Olympics.(AP: Ricardo Mazalan)

For the Tokyo Olympics, Australia boasted its largest contingent of Indigenous athletes in Games history, with 16 of the 472 athletes on the team representing First Nations people across 11 sports.

“I was hooked on the Olympics and trying to follow as many Aboriginal athletes as I could,” Gardner said.

“I watched Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams play for the Matildas, as well as Taliqua Clancy, who won silver in beach volleyball; Ash Barty, who is an absolute superstar and had just won Wimbledon; and also the flag-bearer Patty Mills.

Australian beach volleyballer Taliqua Clancy
Australian beach volleyballer Taliqua Clancy was one of the 16 First Nations athletes that headed to Tokyo this year.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

“The best thing is, when these athletes do media, they always recognise their culture and it’s the first thing they mention.

Female cricketer sitting in front of a painted wall with her bat and gloves
Proud Muruwari woman Ashleigh Gardner says her culture is at the forefront of her mind when she puts on the green and gold for Australia.(Getty: Ryan Pierse)

“It’s just about being proud and not taking anything for granted … When I play sport, I’m conscious that I’m trying to be a positive role model for other Aboriginal kids.”

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