Very different Mabo Day for Torres Strait’s Mer Island due to coronavirus safety restrictions

Mabo Day, celebrated June 3 each year, is usually marked with feasts, dancing and singing on Mer Island, home to the late Indigenous land rights campaigner Eddie Koiki Mabo.

Mer, also known as Murray Island, was the subject of the High Court’s landmark 1992 Mabo decision.

WARNING: This article contains images of a deceased Indigenous person.

The case recognised the traditional land rights of the Meriam people and paved the way for native title recognition across Australia.

Local councillor Aven Noah said in an ordinary year there would be a week of cultural activities culminating in a big celebration paying tribute to “Grandad Koiki” and other plaintiffs in the case.

“It’s all one big festival that we celebrate to remember those who fought long and hard in recognition of the land where we all come from, our inheritance.”

But today’s celebrations will be very different due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Just 20 people, predominantly senior elders, will take part in official proceedings.

“Twenty people will meet, we’ll have a flag-raising ceremony, we’ll have a prayer to give us a blessing for the day, we’ll have wreath-laying, we’ll have speeches,” Cr Noah said.

“We’ll be dressed in our colourful traditional dresses and lava lava and flowery shirts.”

Eddie Mabo
Eddie Mabo died in January 1992, five months before the High Court handed down its historic decision.(Supplied: Gail Mabo)

The group will visit Mr Mabo’s grave and those of other plaintiffs in the case.

“Then we’ll just go to our own homes and celebrate ourselves with our families.

“I’m sure [people will] put the music on and even get the drum out and they’ll be singing to celebrate.”

Tony Abbott at the grave of Eddie Mabo
Tony Abbott was the first Prime Minister to visit Eddie Mabo’s grave in 2015.(AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

Daughter urges people to celebrate online

A virtual Mabo Day ceremony has been organised in Townsville, home to many Torres Strait Islanders including Eddie Mabo’s daughter Gail Mabo.

“For me it’s sad that as a community we can’t be together to celebrate,” she said.

“But via phone, via Facebook, via all of those devices, we can be together and united to actually celebrate this day which for me is the most special day.

“For me it feels like yesterday and for my family it’s a little bit harder this year because of mum not being here to celebrate it with us. But we celebrate both of them now.”

She hoped all Australians, not just First Nations people, would celebrate Mabo Day.

“Just do a little clip with your house, with your family, celebrating Mabo Day and just send it out there.

“Just say ‘Happy Mabo Day’ and share it with everybody. Being viral can be viral.”

Smiling Torres Strait Islander woman with art backdrop
Gail Mabo hopes all Australians recognise the importance of the Mabo decision.(Supplied: James Cook University)

James Cook University (JCU) today released a 1982 video recording of Eddie Mabo giving a guest lecture about the Torres Strait Islander community.

JCU Library special collections manager Bronwyn McBurnie said the 52-minute clip had not been publicly released before and was of national significance.

“This lecture is a historical moment when Koiki Mabo was at the beginning of his decade-long land rights court battle,” she said.

“This recording is an intimate connection to the High Court of Australia’s decision to overturn the concept of ‘terra nullius’ in 1992 through the Mabo case.”

Walking Together is taking a look at our nation’s reconciliation journey and where we’ve been and asks the question — where do we go next?

Join us as we listen, learn and share stories from across the country that unpack the truth-telling of our history and embrace the rich culture and language of Australia’s First People.

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