Trinity student Cooper Craig-Peters plays for the Western Bulldogs in the VFL and is proud to see his teammates wearing an Indigenous guernsey, which he designed in 2018. One of Cooper’s guernsey’s now hangs as part of the Trinity College art collection, so we caught up with Cooper to chat about his upbringing and culture, and what his design means.
Cooper is a Yorta Yorta, Wadi Wadi, Ngurai Illum Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung and Yara Yara man, and grew up between Wurundjeri (Melbourne) and Wathaurong (Ballarat) land.
Learning about and celebrating Aboriginal culture played a big part in his upbringing. After Wednesday night swimming training, for instance, he and his mother would meet with other Aboriginal locals and help coordinate cultural and educational events for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members. ‘Even my dad, he’s not Indigenous, but he’s very proud of me, my mum, and our culture,’ says Cooper.
From a young age, Cooper was also right into football. From a very young age, in fact. ‘My parents always have a story from when I was about four months old. They put me in a Jolly Jumper with a little football, and every single time I'd kick the footy to the ground, then, when it was just below me, I'd pick it up with my feet,’ says Cooper. ‘I then started Auskick at around age four and I've continued playing since then. I just love, love, playing it.’
Things became more serious when Cooper was around 14 and he began playing for state representative sides. He started to appreciate the elite aspects of the game, like regular training and pushing his body to its limits, and thriving on the pressure to perform well each week. He also loved that he could inspire other kids to follow in his footsteps.
Then, Cooper’s love of sport and Aboriginal culture came together when he was approached to come up with an Indigenous guernsey for the Western Bulldogs after running a number of Aboriginal workshops with the club.
It was an opportunity he snapped up straight away.
Cooper has never really seen himself as an artist but remembers doodling on his books at school. ‘I'd always have these beautiful designs in the back of my notebooks, so I'd say [that creativity] was always there with me. Then, being able to draw the guernsey design gave me a chance to showcase that artist in me.’
The process of coming up with the design was difficult … and easy.
‘At first I was stressing about it, trying to think of the perfect design,’ says Cooper. ‘So I slept on it and then it sort of came to me [in my dream]. Something that looked really cool, but also was very meaningful to me and my family. When I woke up, I put pen to paper straight away and then I had the actual drawing done in 15 minutes because of how thoroughly it was planned out in my sleep.’
Cooper explains that his design is something of a ripple effect. The biggest circle shows how investing time in learning about his culture has created a lot of pathways for him, then the other circles represent a big change or opportunity that Cooper has been faced with and the path he took. He then wanted to show support for his dad, who has helped Cooper on his sporting and cultural journey, by including 45 circles – a nod to his favourite number.
‘The footsteps represent our ancestors, because we're very storytelling and we also like to reflect on our elder's decisions,’ says Cooper. ‘The footprints are me looking at what my mum, dad, aunties, uncles and ancestors have done, and learning from that to help me choose the path that I think is best for me.’
A path that Cooper is grateful for choosing is the path to Trinity College, where he says he’s met many great people, and has been able to build his character and openly share his culture. ‘Leonie (Trinity’s Residential College Dean), for example, who is non-Indigenous, is so proud to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at college and loves our culture and artwork. To have someone like that in the Trinity community, it feels like a great thing.’
A few years on, Cooper also loves seeing that his guernsey is still popular amongst club members. ‘To see a lot of kids still wearing my guernsey and having a lot of them coming up to me saying that my guernsey design is the best they've had, it's pretty heart warming.’