At just 17 years old, Ky-ya Nicholson Ward is exceptionally driven, mature and well-spoken – qualities she attributes to her upbringing and her culture.
Descended from Wurundjeri (the traditional owners of Melbourne), Dja Dja Wurrung and Ngurai illum Wurrung, Ky-ya also recognises her Irish and German ancestry, but her eyes light up when she speaks about her Aboriginal culture.
Ka-ya presents the Foxx our 2020 Indigenous jersey
“I’m related to a lot of Aboriginal Victoria,” she said when speaking to the club ahead of the NRL’s 2020 Indigenous Round.
Before colonialism there were thousands of Wurundjeri people and we had five separate clans, but by the 1800s we only had around 18 Wurundjeri people left.Ky-ya Nicholson Ward
“In my family we are all descended from one of those people, Annie Borate, who was the younger sister of William Barak, one of the first freedom and civil rights activists for Aboriginal Victoria.
“Annie had around 10 kids and my great grandmother had 16 kids, which brought our population back up,” she added with a laugh.
Ky-ya is currently involved with the club through the NRL School to Work Program, an initiative funded by the Federal Government to support young Indigenous Australians with work experience, mentoring and leadership opportunities.
Her passion for her culture was learnt through her mum – Wurundjeri artist Mandy Nicholson – who is widely recognised and has designed jerseys for a number of professional sports teams.
Ky-ya inherited the same artistic talent and is an emerging artist in her own right – she designed her first jersey at age 15.
“Mum is a huge influence – I grew up knowing about my culture because she is really passionate about it,” Ky-ya said.
Our family was forced not to practice our culture or speak our language, so my mum and my family have reclaimed it. Mum always says our culture never died, it was just sleeping, and now we are awakening it with a bang.Ky-ya Nicholson Ward
“Mum has designed AFL and AFLW jerseys and she’s really well known for that. She gave me the opportunity to design jerseys for a few VFL teams and local football clubs and now this Storm Indigenous Round jersey.
“I was so excited to work with Josh (Addo-Carr) on the design because I love Josh, I love his spirit and how excited he is all the time.”
The styles of art on this year’s jersey reflect the shields, carvings and paintings of the Wurundjeri people.
“Around Australia there are different styles of art, we are diverse. There is cross hatching and dot art and many more unique styles. My mobs in Victoria don’t do them, we are a carving culture. We have circles, diamonds and lines. That is mainly because of our environment and my peoples story,” Ky-ya explained.
I wanted to incorporate the players and make them feel like it’s not just a pretty design, I wanted it to actually mean something to them and use symbols or totems to represent the Indigenous players.Ky-ya Nicholson Ward
“The emu footprints are powerful and symbolic; they represent moving forward, because the emu can’t step backwards.
“(The footprints) represent a journey and all the Indigenous players unique paths in life.
“The white circles in the middle of the jersey represent AAMI Stadium and the crowd and supporters of the Storm coming together to watch games.
“The boomerang is symbolic of the players strength and power, knowing your goal and aiming for it and trying to reach it.”
The name Wally Carr and a pair of boxing gloves appear on the back of the collar – a detail to honour Josh’s late grandfather, an Australian boxing icon.
The tribute was Ky-ya’s idea and a touching surprise for the Foxx, who didn’t know about it until the jersey reveal.
“That part is not as visible, it’s not for everyone to see. It’s for Josh and his teammates to honour Wally,” she said.
Ky-ya said to see the Melbourne Storm side wear the jerseys in round 12 would be a powerful experience.
“For so long my family has been silenced and our culture has been degraded," she said.
To showcase my culture, my mob in particular and Victorian Aboriginal people in such a positive way is really heartwarming.Ky-ya Nicholson Ward
“Over the years culture has kept me on the right path and learning about my history gives me pride. Being Aboriginal is such a precious thing, because we were almost wiped out.
“It is going to feel really powerful to know I’m doing my ancestors proud – using their story in my artwork means a lot. I feel really lucky to understand my culture and showcase it through my art.
“Family is everything to me, it gives me my identity and it feels like my ancestors are speaking through me.”
Shop our 2020 Indigenous Round jersey here.
See more of Ky-ya's work here.