By Suzanne McFadden for LockerRoom
Even as Australian netball's indigenous round comes under fire, Silver Fern Maia Wilson believes a celebration of our diverse netball culture would be a good thing. And she's not alone.
Maia Wilson wants to see an indigenous round in New Zealand's netball showcase. And it turns out the Silver Fern shooter's wish may not be far off becoming a reality.
The 22-year-old, of Te Rarawa and Te Waiohua descent, embraces her Māori heritage. She turns up to a Silver Ferns promo shoot with her poi, and although she admits she may not yet be fluent in te reo Māori, she can speak it and understand it.
Wilson is proud of what she's done as a foundation member of the Northern Stars franchise. "I've loved being able to be part of really shaping and influencing a franchise…incorporating all cultures and embracing everyone's differences. That's something special that we have," she explains.
But she knows there's still a lot more that can be done, especially through the country's premier league, the ANZ Premiership. "A New Zealand indigenous round could be really beneficial," she says.
"I love that Australia have an indigenous round, and all teams have an indigenous dress. That's something that would be cool for all our teams to have. The Pulse have some really beautiful whakairo designs on their dress which is special to them.
"I'd love everyone to be a part of that."
While Australia has had an indigenous round in their national league for the last three seasons, recognising the nation's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, the latest round has sparked a massive public furore.
The trigger was the Queensland Firebirds' decision not to play Jemma Mi Mi - the only indigenous player in Australia's Super Netball league for the past two seasons - during their game in the annual indigenous round just over a week ago.
I guess we still haven’t got this fully right! https://t.co/WyXzg9DBG3— Sue Gaudion (@SueGaudion) September 20, 2020
The Firebirds were lambasted across social media channels for leaving Mi Mi, a proud woman of Queensland's Wakka Wakka tribe, on the bench - even after she'd featured strongly in the promotion of the round. And the lashing continued after coach Rosalee Jencke's written explanation for the snub.
"The decision not to put Jemma on the court was the right one from a game strategy perspective," Jencke was quoted. "However, we misread community expectations and the significance of Jemma's court time in the game in this round."
A week later and the midcourter is being celebrated as a hero, coming off the bench and playing a role in the Firebird's two-goal victory over the Magpies.
On this side of the Tasman, Wilson admits she was shocked by the initial treatment of Mi Mi. "That really shook me to be honest, being an indigenous woman," Wilson says.
"It's such a shame. For someone to be the only indigenous woman in the league just shows there's a gap there.
"I'm proud that New Zealand has a diverse range of women - of all shapes and sizes and colours - playing netball, and we're able to promote many minority groups, in my case Māori and Pacific.
"Netball has some amazing women who are role models to our kids and the next generation - many of them in situations where they probably don't believe they can get to where we are. And so that's the challenge, and the privilege we hold, to go to those communities and say: 'You can do it, because we did it'."
And Netball New Zealand agrees with Wilson. They are keen to introduce something like a 'whakapapa round' - acknowledging the genealogy of all those involved in the league.
Kate Agnew, head of events and international at Netball New Zealand, says it's an idea they're discussing and one they "really support".
"What resonates most strongly is a recognition of all cultures of people involved in our sport," she says.
"It's about inclusion and acknowledging our cultural heritage. Inclusion is one of the most empowering things. If you know where you come from, it helps you know where you're heading.
"I think Māori tikanga is the lead for this and can bring all of the other cultures together."
Agnew applauds the Northern Stars and the work they've done embracing the backgrounds of their athletes and management.
"The Mystics and the Pulse have incorporated Māori culture visibly in their dress designs, and the Tactix have done a little of that too and want to do more by looking at including all of the heritage of that region," she says.
For the past three seasons, the Pulse have had the puhoro pattern on their alternate strip - the tightness of the black pattern representing teamwork.
Wilson, who has worked her way into New Zealand's No.1 goal shoot spot, realises the importance of being a role model to young Māori and Pasifika women.
"I love going out to my community in south Auckland for the Stars and for some of the girls to be like, 'I can be a Silver Fern one day, or a Northern Star or a Black Fern'. And I just say: 'You can, you just have to work hard'. And that's the positive messaging I feel we need for our country and our communities," she says.
Wilson was part of a recent University of Auckland report written for Netball NZ looking at the influence of Māori and Pasifika culture on the ANZ Premiership teams. The report's author, Elizabeth Lotoa, found the growing contribution of Māori and Pacific people has "changed the cultural landscape of netball in New Zealand".
Wilson says in the report she's grateful to have two Māori coaches at the Stars who "prioritise and embrace the various cultures in the team", and as one of the longest-standing foundation members in the franchise, created back in 2017, she's been able to foster that too.
"It just needs one person to really push it for it to be manifested and then just become part of the norm," she says.
The team try to learn a song, a game or words from the languages of other cultures represented in the team.
They sing a Tokelauan song as part of their warm-up before leaving the dressing room. When Mystics defender Sulu Fitzpatrick played her 100th league match, against the Stars, her rivals performed a siva and pese (Samoan dance and song) for her after the game.
This season's Stars import, Trinidad and Tobago defender Daystar Swift, really bought into the team's diverse culture, Wilson says.
"She loved learning our Māori waiata, and she loved the ula lole - Samoan lolly leis - and promised to make them for prizes and gifts when she got back home. I feel proud we were able to make a difference to her life," she says.
"Everything is bigger than the game. The way I see it, the game is a vehicle."
Swift and Wilson got to bond as flatmates "playing a lot of board games" during the Level 4 lockdown in the Star's flat in Takanini.
When Auckland went into the second spell of lockdown, Wilson "escaped" the city, to live in Wellington with her partner and his family. But the move is one she usually makes during the international phase of netball's season.
It's meant she's been able to train in the gym and the ASB Sports Centre with seven other Silver Ferns and development squad members based in the capital.
Her Ferns shooting partner and captain, Ameliaranne Ekenasio, has been leading the training sessions, and she's a "tough, but loving" taskmaster, Wilson has discovered.
"Meels takes the court conditioning programmes and they're killers. But we need to be kept accountable," she says.
Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua is renowned for her demanding fitness regimes, especially at training camps before big events.
"We have two camps coming up before the international series next month, and we're all shaking in our boots because we know it's going to be very difficult. So at the moment, we're making sure we can deal with the loading," Wilson says.
"It's most likely none of us have been at that level of intensity this season - there is a big gap between ANZ and international level. But we're all just looking forward to being able to play, when it was looking very doubtful at times this year."
The Silver Ferns now have two Cadbury Series to work towards - the four-day competition against the NZ Men, New Zealand A and U21 sides in Palmerston North at the end of October; and four days later, the three-test series for the Taini Jamison Trophy against the England Roses in Hamilton.
-This story originally appeared on the Newsroom website and was republished with permission.