June 3rd is Mabo day. Sure, like many Australian’s, you’ve probably heard of the National Day but what is Mabo Day all about? Let’s dive into the what Mabo Day is, how it came about, how this impacts today, and what it could mean for the future.
WARNING: This article contains images of a deceased Torres Strait Islander person.
What Is Mabo Day?
If you do a search on Google you’ll find that Mabo day is referred to as a National Day to Commemorate the late Eddie Koiki Mabo. To the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, it’s much more. It’s a day for commemoration and celebration.
Mabo Day marks the anniversary of what’s called the Mabo Decision. The Mabo Decision was a legal case that altered the way occupation was seen in Australia for the previous 204 years.
Mabo fought in the court of Australia for 10 years for the recognition of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander People as the traditional custodians, land owners, and occupiers of land. He appealed the claim of land ownership by British settlers who justified the claim by saying Australia was Terra Nullius. On the 3rd of June 1992, the High Court ruled in favour of Eddie Mabo as the Westernised National belief in Terra Nulius had been debunked.
This legal win meant that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People could then be recognized as the custodians and traditional owners of the lands in Australia and would give them legal rights to peruse native title on their countries.
How Mabo Day Came About?
For 10 years leading up to the 1992 Mabo Decision, Eddie Mabo and his team presented a legal case in the High Court of Australia (Mabo and others v Queensland). Up to this point, first settlement in Australia in 1788 and claim of ownership of the land was taken by announcing Australia as Terra Nullius, meaning ‘a land belonging to no one’ or ’empty land’. Although there were Aboriginal people, communities and societies living throughout Australia. The presence of Aboriginal people here was known, but because the way of life the Aboriginal people were living was unfamiliar to the settlers, it was viewed in derogatory ways. Like being uncivilized. The customs, lore, societal systems, and agriculture that married with the natural environment were not recognized as legitimate. And thus begins the long battle for recognition of equality within Australia for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.
The Mabo Decsion ruled that the Meriam people (of the Torres Strait) were ‘entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands’.
How Does the Mabo Decision Impact Today?
Today marks 28 years since the High Court ruling. Legally, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People have acts like the Native Title Act in place… yet the process is a long and grooling process to get to the point of Native Title Determination. Requiring years and years of proving to the government how you are linked to the land and why your family are the traditional owners and custodians of that land. Personally, my family have been involved in Native Title determination processes for the last 15 or so years.
It is a difficult and expensive process to be part of. What makes it even more difficult is the connections, lore and customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People to the land is a very spiritual one. Trying to convey or prove this connection to a government, or lawyers, or representatives, or translators, or courts that don’t understand or value the importance of this as part of land custodianship or ownership, can make it almost impossible to be recognised legally as the traditional custodians and owners. On top of that, verbal history keeping as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do, is not seen as a reputation or credible source of history within the legal system.
Although the Mabo Decision was handed down and it transformed Terra Nullius into a falsehood, it still means that every native title claim has to go through a long legal process of proving traditional ownership and custodianship of the land.
I’d bet it’d be hard to find an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who wasn’t in some way involved in their own families Native Title claim battle. And I say battle because it is long, and it’s emotionally, financially, mentally, and physically taxing to be part of.
What Could Mabo Day Mean For The Future?
I’m not sure if you are aware but Australia is the only Commonwealth Nation that doesn’t have a Treaty (or agreement) with the Traditional Custodians of this land. The sovereignty of the lands and waters across Australia and the Torres Strait have never been ceded or given up by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, yet in 2020, there is still no treaty.
That treaty could lay out an agreement on how the Australian Commonwealth government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customs and lore can work together with respect and harmony of one another.
I’m hoping that Mabo Day and the Mabo Decision can mean a Treaty in the future. Please let me know in the comments if you support a treaty in Australia too.
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I, Louise O’Reilly, of the Warrwa and Noongar Peoples acknowledge and show my deep respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the traditional and ongoing custodians of our lands and waters in Australia and the Torres Strait. I acknowledge they have been the custodian since the beginning. I also pay respect to the Old People, the Ancestors, and the Elders. As I know many of you reading this are here from lands all over the world, I would also like to acknowledge the traditional and ongoing custodians of the lands and waters in the place you stand. I send them my respect and acknowledge our connection in our collective custodianship on this planet.