One of the biggest stains on humanity is the annexation of Indigenous land and culture. Every colonized nation in the world, has a dark history of murder, land theft, torture and ethnic cleansing. Upon arrival in Australia, British settlers claimed the land of Aboriginal Australians (Indigenous population) to be ‘terra nullius’ — a land without people). This allowed them to enact their British laws and claim the land as theirs to own, without any treaty or payment.
Despite Aboriginal Australians harvesting and cultivating the land of Australia for 40,000 years before the colonial invasion, they had no right over the land of their ancestors.
This all changed, because of the resistance and unwavering efforts of a man called Eddie Koiki Mabo.
Growing up in an era of segregation where whites were always served before Blacks and Black people were forced to sit outside restaurants and pubs, Mabo understood the legal and symbolic need to countervail this system.
He was a key activist during the 1967 Referendum ‘Yes’ Campaign, to remove discriminatory references to Aboriginal people in the Constitution, he co-founded the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service and opened a Black Community School to cater for the needs of Indigenous children. However, the achievement that made him the face of Indigenous resistance and struggle was a court case (Mabo case) where he challenged the Government and the Commonwealth in the High Court to take back ownership of Indigenous land.
The case over a long period of 10 years, and in 1992 the founding law of Australia, ‘terra nullius’ was overturned as false, and ‘native title’ was recognised for the first time. This meant that Indigenous people of Australia were able to claim ownership over land that belonged to their ancestors before the settlers invaded Australia.
To date there have been approximately 141 native title declarations, covering at least 16 percent of the nation.
This case not only recognized the legal right of Indigenous and Torres Strait people over their land, but it recognized the validity of their culture, law and traditions. After years of refusal to be recognized, the Indigenous people of the land had their ancestry and history returned.
Sadly, Mabo did not live to hear the final High Court ruling. On January 21st, 1991, he passed away from an aggressive form of cancer, just months before the victory. According to his wife Bonita Mabo, his last words were ‘land case’. Showing the extent to which he craved justice for his people.
When it was first brought to Mabo’s attention that the land Mabo grew up in belonged to the Government and not his people by the two professors at James Cook University who assisted Eddie throughout the trial, his immediate response showcased his defiant attitude.
‘No way, it’s not theirs, it’s ours’, he said.
This attitude of courage, defiance and strength is what became the legacy of Mabo. In 1992, along with his fellow plaintiffs, he was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal as part of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Awards, ‘in recognition of their long and determined battle to gain justice for their people’.
What if Eddie Mabo had not challenged the system and instead tried to claim rights through a set of laws he knew were wrong? That is where the power of Eddie Mabo’s resistance lies; in his refusal to sit idle and accept certain laws when he knew they were unjust and illogical. He whole heartedly embodied the famous saying by Thomas Jefferson ‘When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty’. He resisted the law, and eventually overturned it. Freeing his people from one of the many chains that colonization had put around the Indigenous population.
This ‘duty’ to ensure a society with just laws is a responsibility of every human citizen. Like Eddie Mabo we also have the power within us, and as a collective to not only challenge the system if it is unjust, but to overturn it.
But like Mabo, we need to have faith in our existence, have confidence in our struggle and have hope that winning is not just a possibility but a necessity for the preservation of our humanity.
Although the recognition of ‘native title’ didn’t provide the original inhabitants of the land of Australia with complete rights as institutionalised racism and discrimination still occurs, it was a successful first step that created a precedence of victory in the fight for Indigenous Rights. It acknowledged the injustices that they faced upon colonization and forever changed the way Indigenous issues were discussed in Australia, leading way to an era of recognition and reconciliation in Australian history.
View Sources ∨
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/indigenous/my- dad-eddie- mabo-a-
man-who- changed-history/news- story/3e9204aa3380176061c68593c4336281
http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mabo-edward- koiki-eddie- 16122