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Land, Law & Legacy: The Mabo Decision 30 years on

The Land I Own

© Gail Mabo (2008) [artwork detail], JCU Art Collection

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Written By

Tianna Killoran

Publish Date

5 April 2022

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Reflecting on a long-lasting connection

In 2022, we mark 30 years since the landmark Mabo Decision, one of the most significant turning points for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the fight for native title.

Eddie Koiki Mabo had a strong and long-lasting connection with James Cook University, where he left a lasting impact through his tireless work to educate others about the rights and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Thirty years after the Mabo Decision, a new generation learns about, is inspired by and prepares to continue the work that Eddie Koiki Mabo helped progress. At JCU, students find motivation to pursue their own dreams and to support the people around them through the impact of the Mabo Decision and the life Eddie Koiki Mabo led.

Hear from three JCU students, each with their own story and aspirations, as they reflect on the legacy of Eddie Koiki Mabo and the Mabo Decision.

Rikisha Phineasa, JCU Student.

A legacy in land and law

Rikisha Phineasa is a second-year Bachelor of Arts — Bachelor of Laws student who says that Eddie Koiki Mabo, and the Mabo Decision in 1992, has served as a powerful source of inspiration in her personal life and in her studies.

Rikisha says that Eddie Koiki Mabo is an important personal and cultural inspiration for her. “I’m a Torres Strait Islander and so are both of my parents. My mum is from the Top Western Islands of Dauan and Saibai, and my dad is from the Eastern Islands of Mabuiag Island and Mer (Murray) Island,” she says.

“There are a lot of different dimensions to how Eddie Koiki Mabo is a role model for me. He was a Torres Strait Islander man and that makes him a very personal hero for me, because I’m also a Torres Strait Islander woman. My ancestors come from the same island as Mabo — the island of Mer — and that was the very island he went all the way to the High Court to fight for.”

As a Law student, Rikisha says the Mabo Decision and its legacy has created a path not just for her, but for others, to follow in his footsteps and create change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Seeing how Eddie Koiki Mabo used the law to help Indigenous people has been an example for me. I have always wanted to help Indigenous people in my career. Even from the beginning, I have planned to go into native title, constitutional law, policy making, or anything where I can help to create a direct, positive impact on the lives of Indigenous peoples.

“One of the most significant moments I have experienced in my legal journey so far was witnessing a family friend being inducted as a lawyer in the Cairns District Court. That was very inspirational because it helped me to visualise the end goal of my degree. I keep that image in mind every time I go to a lecture or complete an assignment. It reminds me that all the work I do is for something important and tangible; to be inducted officially as a lawyer and begin helping real people, with real problems.”

Studying on the JCU Townsville, Bebegu Yumba Campus, Douglas, Rikisha says that Mabo’s legacy is visible everywhere she goes. “When walking into the library, to study or do an assignment, seeing the name of a Torres Strait Islander man means so much to me, my family and my culture. It’s a very big motivation seeing his name at JCU and studying in the building that commemorates him.”

"Because of Eddie Koiki Mabo’s example, I know that there are no barriers, legal, social or otherwise, that can prevent me from fighting for the right cause. My passion is with Indigenous rights, and Eddie Mabo’s case for land rights set a precedent for the generations to follow, mine included."

Rikisha Phineasa, JCU Student

Thomas Sherrington, President of JCU Student Association

Supporting every voice

The President of the JCU Student Association, Thomas Sherrington, says he is proud of the role JCU students and the Student Association played in the path to the Mabo Decision.

“Thinking about Eddie Koiki Mabo’s legacy as the President of the Student Association, for me it shows the power that campaigning of the Student Association can have and the effect it can have on different interest groups,” he says.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that one of the biggest campaigners for the Mabo Decision was a former Student Association President, just like me, so to share that office with that person is quite an honour,” Thomas says.

Thirty years after the Mabo Decision, Thomas reflects on the involvement of JCU students and the Student Association in advocating for others’ rights. It was in 1981 that the Townsville Treaty Committee and the James Cook Student Union, with Eddie Koiki Mabo and Noel Loos as co-chairs, organised the Land Rights and the Future of Australian Race Relations Conference.

“Over 30 years ago now, with the backing of the Student Association, Eddie Koiki Mabo reminds us all that the Student Association is a great tool for advocacy and this is probably the best example of how far that advocacy can go,” Thomas says. “I’m beyond proud of the efforts of councillors who supported decisions like what was decided in the High Court 30 years ago.”

Thomas says the Mabo Decision sets the example for himself as a leader to campaign for the rights of others. “Student unions are there for supporting with issues that are faced by a majority and minority of students, which includes anything from a parking campaign to the creation of a queer space for students.”

"The Student Association is always there to campaign for different interest groups of students to make sure their voices are heard.”

Thomas Sherrington, President of the JCU Student Association

A law student himself, Thomas says that he can see the impact of the Mabo Decision both in and out of the classroom. “From the perspective of my law degree, I can really see the massive impact that Eddie Koiki Mabo had. I remember learning about the Mabo Case for a land law essay and having the opportunity to learn about so many of the complexities of the case. To learn about government reforms, including around the land rights movement of Indigenous peoples, it’s really important to see the extremely practical and equitable outcomes that came out of that.”

Mariah Mills, JCU Student

Creating change and preparing the way

For third-year Bachelor of Arts — Bachelor of Laws student, Mariah Mills, the Mabo Decision is a source of hope. Mariah’s motivation in choosing to study law at JCU lies in a desire to promote Indigenous rights, a goal not unlike that of Eddie Koiki Mabo.

“I’m an Aboriginal person and Torres Strait Islander; my Aboriginal heritage is with the Gugu Badhun nation, the traditional owners of the Valley of Lagoons in North Queensland. I have kinship ties to the central, eastern and western islands in the Torres Strait,” Mariah says.

“I’ve always been interested in human rights, particularly as they relate to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. I really want to help in that area and move things forward — to help achieve justice as well as support for people as they navigate the legal system. That’s why the Mabo Decision and its legacy is inspiring, because it’s proof that we can make a difference. We can change legislation and make it better for our people and for our future generations.”

With an interest in criminal and family law, Mariah attributes her inspiration to make a difference and achieve the best that she can to her grandmother. “My nan is a health researcher who worked at JCU for years. Growing up seeing her making a difference and having a voice that people listened to made me feel like that was something I could do as well.

“She also taught us about important people like Uncle Eddie and the important things that have happened in our history. I learned more from her about our history than at school. She really encouraged us to go to university, no matter what we wanted to study.”

As she prepares to finish her studies next year, Mariah is hopeful about the direction that Australia and its people are headed.

“I feel hopeful because Uncle Eddie made such an achievement so many years ago, when there wasn’t quite as much awareness of Indigenous history. There is more awareness now and more people willing to be open and listen, so we can make further change. We definitely need to continue creating change. Although we have land rights, we often don’t have full access to that land, whether because it’s restricted or because we only have partial access, which is not enough to practise our customs there.

“Just like with Uncle Eddie, even if we don’t make all the changes we want to right now, we can prepare the way for the next generation to continue pushing for our rights and promoting our history and cultures.”

“We can make a difference. We can change legislation and make it better for our people and for our future generations.”

Mariah Mills, JCU Student

The Mabo Decision: 30 years on

Find out more about the Mabo Decision and the legacy of Eddie Koiki Mabo.