First Nations Australians feel a sense of "betrayal" over Tom Wills' alleged involvement in the massacre of Aboriginal people, said First Peoples Assembly of Victoria co-chair Marcus Stewart.
Wills is credited with being the co-founder of Australian Rules Football and the Melbourne Football Club and is viewed as Australia’s first cricket star.
But an article from an 1895 edition of the Chicago Tribune, discovered by sports history researcher Gary Fearon and published by the ABC, has rattled the sporting community.
The article, written anonymously by ‘G’ explains Wills’ involvement in the killings of the Gayiri people following the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre in Central Queensland and quotes his killing of an Aboriginal man who had stolen his jacket.
In 1861, 19 settlers and members of the Wills family, including Tom's father Horatio, were killed at Cullin-la-Ringo station near Emerald in Queensland, as retaliation for killing the local Gayiri people.
In the following months, more than three hundred Gayiri people were massacred in the Medway Ranges in the Central Highlights in response to those deaths.
In the Tribune article, Wills is quoted as describing one of the retaliatory attacks.
“If you ever saw men out to kill it was these. There was ‘death to the devils’ written on every face,” it read.
“After eight hours galloping we came up with the band about three o’clock in the afternoon. What a shout went up as we sighted them! How we galloped down upon them! I cannot tell all that happened, but know we killed all in sight.
“Just as we thought they were all settled I happened to see a dirty, shrinking, greasy brute with my Zingari jacket on sneaking off. O, the desecration of it! Fancy my Zingari jacket! O, didn't I gallop after him, and when I got alongside I emptied the whole six barrels of my revolver into him, the brute."
The First People's Assembly of Victoria advocated for the establishment of the state's Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, an Australia-first independent inquiry that will probe the injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation.
Marcus Stewart called for leadership from the governing bodies of the two sports which celebrate Mr Wills.
“We were led to believe that a certain figure, that’s memorialised in and throughout our society and as a champion of reconciliation and these revelations, they’re significant,” the Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation said.
“I think right now we need to see the institutions that they’ve played a role in setting up, whether it be Cricket Australia or the AFL, come out and demonstrate leadership in this instance.”
In the years following the massacre, Wills led an Aboriginal cricket team on a tour of the country as captain-coach. He has been described as a ‘symbol of reconciliation’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
He is a member of the AFL Hall of Fame and his legacy is widely acknowledged, with statues, monuments and landmarks named after him.
In a statement, Cricket Australia said it is “committed to leaning into the traumas of the past, listening and learning so we can be better”.
“Ultimately this is about grappling with who we are, not only as a sport but as a nation,” Cricket Australia said.
It would seek advice from its National Aboriginal Advisory Committee about its next steps.
The AFL said it acknowledged the revelations about Wills and “the trauma associated with historical events that occurred in Australia”.
The AFL would also seek advice, “from those with knowledge of the available evidence as well as communities whose trauma this speaks of”.
Mr Stewart said speaking to descendants was crucial as the governing bodies go through a process of truth-telling.
“The AFL, Cricket Australia, the MCC and MCG need to ask themselves what does that mean for the Aboriginal families whose ancestors, whose Elders, were part of this massacre,” Mr Stewart said.
“Lets put ourselves in their shoes and understand what do these statues, what does this memorialisation of these individuals... what does this mean for our families and communities every time they hear that name, every time they see that statue.”
Mr Stewart said he’d like to see the memorialisation of historical figures who unite the community.
“Why don’t we have a statue of Johnny Mullagh, captain of the first Australian Aboriginal [cricket] team that toured England,” he said.
“That’s a story that I want to tell my son when I stand outside the MCG, that’s a story that all Victorians, and all Australians need to know.
“That is something we should all be proud of.”