Gail Mabo’s heartfelt gratitude for the respect in which her father was remembered by Australia’s 28th Prime Minister was a poignant moment on television screens across the country. But something on a much deeper spiritual level was taking place.
"To me it shows he has that respect for what my father achieved," Gail Mabo told AAP on Monday. "This is the space he was fighting for."
Gail and her nine brothers and sisters grew up witnessing the political struggles of their father fighting for the Meriam people to be recognised with dignity and respect as rightful owners of Mer.
"I remember him coming home saying he was going to stand up and fight for land rights," Gail Mabo told The Australian.
"We were young and didn't understand what it was about. Later he would sit on the back veranda of our house with me and cry. How do you console your dad when he cries? He said people were trying to discredit him."
Eddie Koiki Mabo described his beloved country in an interview with the ABC’s Law Report in 1988: "Murray is situated about 120 miles to the east of Cape York, and if one follows the Great Barrier Reef on the map, it comes onto Murray Island.
"The Barrier Reef, it goes up to Bramble Cay, which is right on the very end of the Barrier Reef towards the Papuan coast.
"The islands are tropical, with volcanic soils and rainforests, of course we’ve got beautiful reefs around it."
It's the sea country where the spiritual journey for the Meriam people holds deep significance, they hold their spiritual history very close to their hearts, especially the ancestral story of the spiritual creator, Malo.
It's the sea country where the spiritual journey for the Meriam people holds deep significance, they hold their spiritual history very close to their hearts, especially the ancestral story of the spiritual creator, Malo
Elder Uncle Francis Tapim Senior explained to me by phone from Townsville that, “Malo came in the form of an octopus, and the eight tentacles of the octupus created the eight clans of Mer Komet, Zagareb, Meuram, Magaram, Geuram, Peibre-Dowar, Meriam-Samsep and Piadram.”
For Aboriginal people on mainland Australia, in particular in my home country of the Yanyuwa and Garrawa people, it is the Rainbow Serpent that is an important creator of country.
Tapim Senior says, "Malo is a spiritual God of Murray Island, teter moki moki – you cannot trespass on somebody else’s land, and in the Miriam language tag moki moki – you cannot steal or grab someone else's land and property unless you ask for it."
It is this deep spiritual belief that anchored Eddie Koiki Mabo in his pursuit for justice for the people of Mer. So much trespassing and unjust practices had taken place against his people for so long that he’d had enough.
Eddie Koiki Mabo told ABC Radio’s Law Report, "What I noticed from my father when he used to take me to the bush, and to build gardens, everywhere we gardened that plot of land was founded by a mound of dirt, a mound of dirt with trees planted on top of those mounds.
So much trespassing and unjust practices had taken place against his people for so long that he’d had enough
"Now that meant that each plot that my people had gardened, they picked up all the debris, or rubbish or whatever, and they piled it along the boundary lines, and that, over the years, became recognised mounds and recognised boundaries.
"If one wants to walk down the beach, you'd look out towards the reef or the submerged land just out from that island. You'd find mounds of rocks had been placed into positions in a form of a circle from the beach out. These are stone fish traps, and these are the living proof and visual evidence of man’s occupation of that island, because we were expert horticulturalists."
"You'd find mounds of rocks had been placed into positions in a form of a circle from the beach out. These are stone fish traps, and these are the living proof and visual evidence of man’s occupation of that island"
The dance the Meriam people performed for Prime Minister Tony Abbott reflects the significance of the occasion, for both the Mabo family and the Prime Minister.
Tapim Senior says, "The dance is danced for a special occasion and it is called Kab Kar, which means a traditional dance belonging to Murray Island.
"The design for that particular event, [the] mask they have is the shark mask...feathers and bamboo and twine, but before twine came in they used the vines. They put the edging plant in the costume, which is worn on the arms of the dancers, wes is the Meriam word for it.
"That shark, it’s a traditional dance performed only for certain people. It is a warrior dance, probably, depending. It’s the PM on the island and to respect the PM as a warrior, and Koiki Mabo as a warrior."
It is a special honour for the Prime Minister to be respected in such a way.
Gail Mabo tells of the sacredness of the location, "Because where he is lying, behind him, there is a whole field of warriors who are buried behind my father," she said. "Where my father is, he is the last of the warriors to be laid in that area."
"Because where he is lying, behind him, there is a whole field of warriors who are buried behind my father"
The PM used the reverent time at Koiki Mabo’s grave to reflect on history.
"He fought for justice and, for many years, justice was denied. Eventually, too late perhaps, justice was granted and now we are a people on the path to reconciliation, in large measure because of what Eddie Koiki Mabo and his brothers and sisters fought for."
Did the Prime Minister then use the time to also recall the words of his Coalition colleagues at the time of the Mabo Decision in June 1992? Or the debate around the Native Title Legislation in 1993 when John Hewson said, "This is a day of shame for the Australian Parliament”, or when WA Liberal Bill Hassell said it had "The potential to destroy our society"?
Did the Prime Minister reflect on how it was Eddie Koiki Mabo’s society that was being destroyed over two centuries?
Did the Prime Minister reflect on how it was Eddie Koiki Mabo’s society that was being destroyed over two centuries.
"Originally I was born on Murray and migrated to Townsville in 1958, and then Queensland government decided that they would block the ways of the people who migrated south because we were exposed to different ideologies and political influences and whatever," he told the Law Report.
"And of course they attempted to block me, and they successfully did until 1977 when I hired a boat and went across there myself with my family. I was expected to be arrested by Queensland police, but when my people saw me, no one complained.
"So I spent three months in my region after the initial breakthrough. I’d been going sometime three times a year.
"I've got telegrams that I kept over the years, each time I’d make an approach to them they would send a telegram and say ‘you are not permitted to enter’ either one of the islands which provided access to get there.
It's the spiritual heart of ourselves and our nation that Australians strive to be at peace with, in amidst the cacophony of clanging political clutter surrounded by a whirlwind of photo opportunities
"Then it led on from there and of course I believed the islands were mine and nobody could stop me from going there, and of course it led me to prepare for this case, Mabo and others against the Queensland and the Commonwealth."
Eddie Koiki Mabo’s journey and the defeat of 'Terra Nullius, a land belonging to no one' and his court battles were historic and successful struggles.
What about in death?
The High Court ruling was delivered in June 1992 in favour of Eddie Koiki Mabo but he had died in January and buried in Townsville. But the desecration of his grave in 1995 caused deeper hurt to his family.
Tapim Senior recalls his last moments with Eddie Koiki Mabo. "I went to see him in hospital in Brisbane and he was laying down and I was involved in politics at the time, and he said, it’s your time now, take it forward.
"It was an emotional journey for all of us. We had about one hundred people and the aircraft organised, to fly from Townsville to Thursday Island to Mer by Caribou"
"When he died, we had his funeral here in Townsville and his grave was desecrated. I was the CEO of Magani Malu Kes [a Torres Strait Island organisation in Townsville], and Benny Mills, [who] was the general manager of the Office of Torres Strait Islands at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in Canberra, rang me and said, 'Prime Minister Keating said the family want to move the body from Townsville to Mer, and the government will pay for it'.
"Between Benny and I, we organised for the body to be buried in Mer now along with Eddie Mabo Junior.
"It was an emotional journey for all of us. We had about one hundred people and the aircraft organised, to fly from Townsville to Thursday Island to Mer by Caribou.
"I was the one that organised his body to be returned."
Beside his grave on Mer, did the Prime Minister feel the strong spirit of Eddie Koiki Mabo, and understand the Meriam people’s cultural and spiritual need to ‘abide by the laws of Malo’?
Beside his grave on Mer, did the Prime Minister feel the strong spirit of Eddie Koiki Mabo, and understand the Meriam people's cultural and spiritual need to 'abide by the laws of Malo'? And will such reverence be remembered when it truly matters.
Gail Mabo reminded all Australians, and the Prime Minister, in her courageous gesture of forgiveness beside her father’s grave, that such graciousness is like a healing balm bringing relief on a raw and festering burn, and brings a lightness of spirit and heart.
Such graciousness is like a healing balm bringing relief on a raw and festering burn, and brings a lightness of spirit and heart
It's the spiritual heart of ourselves and our nation that Australians strive to be at peace with, in amidst the cacophony of clanging political clutter surrounded by a whirlwind of photo opportunities.
It is no coincidence that both federal leaders are in far North Queensland as we head towards a federal election in 2016.
With polls showing Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten the preferred Prime Minister, the current Prime Minister is under pressure to perform much better.
Shorten’s trip to Cape York would be designed to add heat to that pressure.
But the Mabo family and the people of the Torres Strait can see through the competitive arm wrestling going on with the federal political leaders.
That’s why its no accident that the daughter of the late Eddie Koiki Mabo was guiding the Prime Minister to her fathers’ grave, on Murray Island, for a moment of forgiveness, while her mother, Bonita Mabo, waited patiently to welcome the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten to Cape York.
Despite the entourage following both men and the chaotic chorus of the issues plaguing the Prime Minister amd Cabinet's logistics team, the Mabo family were going to ensure this visit was going to mean something deeply spiritual, for them and for their people.
As for how far Australia has come with recognition of Native Title since the Mabo judgement?
Well, stay tuned.
Bauji Barra (see you later)
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