27 Nov 2018

Indigenous rights activist Bonita Mabo dies days after accolade

11:56 am on 27 November 2018

Prominent Indigenous and South Sea Islander activist Bonita Mabo has died.

Bonita Mabo has been recognised for her advocacy work and campaigning for the rights of Indigenous Australians and Australian South Sea Islanders.

Bonita Mabo has been recognised for her advocacy work and campaigning for the rights of Indigenous Australians and Australian South Sea Islanders. Photo: James Cook University

Just days ago she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from James Cook University for her contribution to social justice and human rights.

"It's a big loss for us all," Indigenous Western Australia senator Patrick Dodson said.

"I think Australia needs to honour people like Mrs Mabo who stood, to some degree, in the shadows of her husband, but who was the backbone and the steel that helped he and many others to continue the struggles.

"A person of great note; a great Australian and great contribution to the cause of justice to all.

"It's a sad day. It's a big loss for all of us. But she is a person who comes in the vain of the very recent recognition that 'because of her, we can do things'."

In a statement, The Australian South Sea Islander Alliance said she would "be greatly missed".

"Aunty Bonita's contribution to social justice and human rights for First Nations People and the Australian South Sea Islander recognition was monumental and relentless," the statement read.

"A formidable 'Woman Tanna', Aunty Bonita will be greatly missed as Australia has lost one of the greatest matriarchs of all time."

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner June Oscar remembered her as "the mother of native title".

"She was a woman of great strength. She was gentle, stoic and loving," Ms Oscar said in a statement.

"I will always remember her as the mother of native title. Her legacy lives on in our continuing fight for land and sea rights."

Indigenous education was a lifelong passion

Mrs Mabo was a Malanbarra woman and a descendant of Vanuatuan workers brought to Queensland to work on sugar plantations.

She was born near Ingham in North Queensland and married Eddie in 1959.

In the early 1970s, she set up Australia's first Aboriginal community school and worked as a teacher's aide.

"For black children … we could see how they were … they used to go to school and they'd get blamed for different things," she said in a 2013 interview.

"I used to go up to the school and I used to have arguments with the teachers and many times they cried and I didn't care because I'd said what I'd wanted to say."

The Black Community School started in Townsville with 10 students and two teachers who volunteered for half pay.

The school taught children to read and write, and Torres Strait Islander history and culture.

At its peak in the late 1970s, 45 students were enrolled at the school.

It closed in 1985 due to a lack of funding.

The Mabo decision

Eddie Mabo spent a decade fighting for official recognition of his people's ownership of Mer Island in the Torres Strait.

The couple had 10 children and Indigenous education became one of Mabo's lifelong passions.

Her husband did not live to see the result, but in 1992 Bonita Mabo was making her way from North Queensland to Canberra when the landmark decision was handed down.

In 2017, she recalled that moment.

"We were just outside of Sydney and we stopped and pulled up on the side of the road and Malita rang us and said 'dad won the decision, won the case'," she said.

"And we just jumped out and we just hugged each other.

"We were proud as punch."

The Mabo case was legally significant in Australia because it ruled the lands of this continent were not "terra nullius" or "land belonging to no-one" when European settlement occurred.

It found the Meriam people, traditional owners of the Murray Islands, including the islands of Mer, Dauer and Waier, were "entitled against the whole world to possession" of the lands.

The case paved the way for the Native Title Act of 1993.

In an interview with the ABC in 2013, Mrs Mabo said she had to be there for her husband "all the way".

"Thick or thin, we made it," she said.

"[I was] disappointed he wasn't there… for the judgement to come down early enough.

"But on his deathbed he knew and he kept saying: 'when I win the case, when I win the case'."

Recognising South Sea Islanders

In recent years, Mrs Mabo had been fighting for South Sea Islanders to be recognised in Australia as their own distinct ethnic group.

She was recognised in the Order of Australia in 2013 for "distinguished service to the Indigenous community and to human rights".

"I feel so honoured to be part of it," Mrs Mabo said at the time.

Mrs Mabo was often asked about her work with Eddie, but while speaking about the Order of Australia, she said she made sure to tell people: "Well, I've got another side too."

"I'm a South Sea Islander descendent. My great grandfather came from the Tanna Islands and was stolen out here … to come and clean the country up here," she said.

"And well, when I start saying that, they sit up and listen."

Jackie Huggins, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia's First People's, said Mrs Mabo was "a mother to all of us in the political struggle".

"She left a legacy of great compassion, of being the woman who was behind Eddie Mabo, her husband, in his fight for justice and human rights," she said.

"She was also an activist in her own right.

"She was a great legend across this whole nation.

"Like her husband, her legacy will always live on."