Celebrating 'Mabo Day'

Torres Strait Islanders Aunty Rose Elu and Joyce Waia share us with the significance of ‘Mabo Day’, what it means for our nation, how they will be celebrating, and their reflections on the work still ahead of us.

Today marks the 25th Anniversary of the ‘Mabo Case’, the legal case brought to the High Court by Eddie Koiki Mabo which overturned the myth of Terra Nullius and opened the doorway for native title and land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This week, I had the honour of interviewing two Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders, Aunty Rose Elu and Joyce Waia. They shared with me the significance of ‘Mabo Day’, what it means for our nation, how they will be celebrating, and their reflections on the work still ahead of us. I was deeply moved by these conversations, by their openness to share with me – a non-Indigenous white Christian male – by the strength of their leadership, by the sad loss of previous leadership, and by their personal invitation to sharing our cultures in the spirit of Reconciliation.

As we wrap up Reconciliation week listening and learning about Eddie Mabo and the significance of ‘Mabo Day’, I want to share with you Aunty Rose and Joyce’s words, inviting you to hear their heart, appreciate their perspective, understand the challenges facing Torres Strait Islander peoples, and receive their invitation towards Reconciliation.

Every year on June 3rd, the life and legacy of Eddie Mabo is celebrated across the country, especially amongst Torres Strait Islander peoples, as we remember his tireless effort fighting for land rights through the High Court, and ultimately paving the way for native title rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

aunty-rose.jpgAunty Rose Elu is a Christian leader from the Torres Strait:

“Well I actually come from the top west of Torres Strait, an island called Saibai, and it’s like a gateway to Australia because it's only 2km away from the Papua New Guinea coast. So, I was born there, but raised up on the Cape, on Cape York, the tip of Australia, so my family lives up there and I live here in Brisbane.”

For twenty five years, Aunty Rose has been celebrating ‘Mabo Day’, and remembers the significance of Eddie Mabo’s life:

“It is of great significance for not only me, but for many people, Torres Strait Islander peoples, Aboriginal peoples and for the whole wider community.

“It’s a big legacy that this man fought for land rights, native title, for the whole of the Torres Strait. And it is of importance because it’s the 25th Anniversary of his challenge in the High Court of Australia.

“I think it is very important for all of us as Christians, to acknowledge and honour that this man is a special man. He started this movement in a way of saying that we do own land, and this is our land, Australia and the Torres Strait.”

joyce.jpgJoyce Waia is a young Christian leader from the Torres Strait:

“Well, I am Joyce Waia, I am from the Torres Strait but I grew up in an Aboriginal community, Napranum, up in far north Queensland, near Weipa. Both my parents are Torres Strait.”

When asked why she celebrated Mabo Day she remembers the story of Eddie Mabo’s life as a significant one for her people:

“Because he was one of the ones who was actually fighting for our rights in Australia. And, it’s something that we respect and in particular to give back to.”

Eddie Koiki Mabo was born in 1936 on the island of Mer, in the Torres Strait. He lived a life committed to recognition and equality in society for Torres Strait Islander peoples, having been an activist in the 1967 Referendum and playing a key role in the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

In 1974, while working as a gardener at James Cook University, Eddie Mabo learnt from the Professors there that despite his family having lived on Mer for generations, he did not have any legal right to that land, due to the declaration of Terra Nullius.

Terra Nullius was the legal understanding that prior to British Colonial settlement in 1788, this land was “empty” (or literally “nobody's land” in Latin) and therefore free to be claimed by the British Empire, despite the presence of between 750,000 and 1 million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who had lived on the continent for more than 60,000 years.

In 1982, alongside fellow Mer Islanders and with the support of Solicitor Greg McIntyre, Eddie Mabo began a decade-long battle for land rights through the High Court.


Solicitor Greg McIntyre, barrister Ron Castan, Eddie Mabo and barrister Bryan Keon-Cohen at the High Court of Australia 1991.

On June 3, 1992 – 25 years ago to the day – the High Court historically ruled that the lands of this continent were not terra nullius, overturning the 200 year old myth. Six of the seven High Court judges ruled that the Meriam people were 'entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands (Mer)'.

Sadly, four months prior to this ruling Eddie Mabo passed away from cancer, aged 56. He had lived a life committed to justice, equality and recognition, and his leadership in this country and the impact of his advocacy has been proudly celebrated on this day for the last twenty five years.

This year, Joyce is helping and participating in the ‘Mabo Day’ 25th anniversary celebrations in Weipa:

“We are actually going to do a march on the mission bridge, from the other end of the bridge to the other side, to recognise Mabo Day. And for us Indigenous, we’ve actually opened it for non-Indigenous as well to come and join us, to take part in it. So Mabo is therefore not just for Indigenous people, it is actually about us coming together for where we are today. And so, for us to get together we’re actually doing a big march for Mabo Day on Saturday.”

For Aunty Rose, the celebrations have already well begun:

“Well, there will be a lot of things happening! As you know, it's not only just Mabo, some of us were over in Uluru for the 50th Anniversary, and of course we just had a Sorry Day, and then of course the week of Reconciliation. And I have been speaking at a few venues around Brisbane Northern suburbs, and I still have a couple more to do, speaking on Mabo and Reconciliation, what it means for all of us, and how we want to become united as one, as the body of Christ, and clothing one another in our love for one another.

“And then of course the celebration has already started on Monday, for Mabo. That was the beginning of his celebration, and of course the big March on Saturday with many activities are happening around Brisbane.

“Then on Sunday we’ll have a combined service in the Holy Trinitarian church, where I am part of the Torres Strait Islander ministry based in that parish. We’re going to have a big celebration from 9:30am, so I am really looking forward to that. And I would like to invite your [supporters], if they can make a time even to pop in, and have a look at our culture, our culture is so alive, and how we celebrate it as a Torres Strait, along with Aboriginal brothers and sisters of the land, and of course the Christian community as a whole in Brisbane.”

Mabo Day is not just an opportunity to celebrate one man’s leadership and efforts towards justice and equality, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership as a whole, both past present and future. It is a time to remember the strength of our past and present leaders, but also acknowledge the loss of leadership too soon, and the fight against poverty and injustice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country.

For Joyce, this loss of leadership is deeply felt in her life, her culture and her community:

“It’s especially hard for us young, next generation, because our Elders have left us so quick, and we haven’t actually picked up enough from them while we had the chance to. We need to act quickly to sit down with the old people that are left and listen and learn from them. So we’re actually picking up as we go, picking up whatever things come up.

For Aunty Rose, ‘Mabo Day’ this year has an added significance as they acknowledge the recent loss of Bishop Mabo, a significant Torres Strait Islander leader in the Anglican church who was related to Eddie Mabo and sadly passed away just a few weeks ago:

“We’re also celebrating the life of an Anglican Bishop that just passed his life into eternal. He passed away on the 12th of May, and his funeral was withheld because of this celebration, because his last name is Mabo as well. So he will be laid to rest on the 16th of July, so I would think that this is also a time for all the Christian community in Torres Strait, the Anglican community to acknowledge his life, and his contribution to the life of this family, bearing the name.

“Just let people know that this is also part of the celebration, celebrating his life also, even though it’s sorry business, but I think acknowledging the fact that he has joined his brother and passed this life to another, and so they’re united together with all their mothers and fathers, and part of the Mabo family that has gone before.

The High Court ‘Mabo’ ruling in 1992 set a legal precedent for land rights across Australia and the Torres Strait. Aunty Rose reflects on whether anything has changed since this time:

“Yes, and no (laughs). But I think it's made the greatest difference, because he has set the precedent for the whole of Australia, now that our people are freely putting their cases together for their respected traditional boundaries and areas where we all come from, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Also we have lots of great leadership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that continues to fight for the rights of our people, and for the recognition of things that are happening.

“There is a long way to go, really, but we’re trying to walk forward with better ideas about how to achieve the betterment of our people in Australia and Torres Strait. But there are a lot of things that are still unresolved, like assimilation, the stolen generations, all that things.”

As we move forward to address these unresolved challenges, Joyce deeply believes that the path forward is one walked together between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians:

“Us Indigenous people, we are strong in our culture, we carry our culture everywhere we go. But non-Indigenous, we actually try to help them and encourage them to bond with us: my culture is your culture, your culture is my culture, we can all share the two different cultures. If you come with us, we’ll do the same thing back. We’re more than happy, we’re always out there encouraging non-Indigenous people to come with us, you know? We can learn stories of what we are and who we are and where we’re from.”

“My hope is for we all to stay strong, and continue sharing our passion, and be recognised and show our culture, and present who we are, and stand up for and continue on fighting for our rights.

For Aunty Rose, she too believes that the road to reconciliation is one shared:

“It's just a matter of continuing to talk about Reconciliation, reconciled to one another, listen to one another, listen to stories, be part of each other’s cultures. And also, its not only that, it's for us Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal peoples within our communities also to reconcile with our other groups as well. So it's all that, but the whole concept of Reconciliation is because of the historical practice of this nation, and I think the whole of Australia should listen, and come forward, and come be part of this Christian life. To acknowledge the fact that we are one in Christ’s body, we are one, there is no differentiating. You may be born with the different colours of skin, and the languages and that, but in God’s eyes we are one. I think that’s what I’d like to say, I keep saying that to them, because Jesus said ‘Love one another, as I have loved’. So they are powerful words.

They truly are powerful words, and I, for one, have been deeply moved and challenged throughout the last week as we’ve listened and learnt about the significance of National Sorry Day, the 1967 Referendum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leadership, the history of ‘Mabo Day’, and the journey towards Reconciliation.

May we together commit to more than a week of Reconciliation, but live lives that embody that unity in Christ that Aunty Rose reminds us of. And may we be ready to speak up and stand against injustice that robs the rights and dignity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our land, as they lead us, and as we together embody the Reconciliation of Christ.

This post is part of a series of posts we're publishing each day throughout Reconciliation Week. If you'd like to follow along you can signup with your email or follow us on Facebook.

This post was written by Scott Sanders from interviews with Aunty Rose Elu Philips and Joyce Waia. We thank them for sharing with us and for their present day leadership in this country.

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Doug Hewitt 2017-06-03 13:38:01 +1000

My grateful thanks to Scott and all who have contributed this week to the reflections. As one who have been involved in the struggle for land rights and reconciliation since before 1967 it has been encouraging to see the great support for the observance of this designated week, and to remember the anniversaries that have occurred during the past 7 days.
Also, we give thanks for the life of Bishop Saigon Mabo, remembered with great affection. He as a dedicated leader, inspiring many. May we continue his fight for recognition.
Doug Hewitt

Reconciliation Week