Honouring Mabo

Torres Strait drummers marching on Mabo Day 2019 in Cairns

On 3 June 2019 a successful Mabo Day celebration was hosted by a Cairns-based corporation of Meriam people of Mer (Murray Island), the home of Eddie Koiki Mabo. 

Gordon Bennett's portrait of Eddie Mabo

Gordon Bennett (1955–2014)
Eddie Mabo (after Mike Kelley’s “Booth’s Puddle” 1985; from Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile) No 3 (1996)
Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. Purchased with funds provided by L Gordon Darling AC CMG 1999
© The Estate of Gordon Bennett

Cairns, far north Queensland: Meriam Buai Torres Strait Islander Corporation Cairns (MBTSICC) is a recently-registered corporation that kicked an early goal in June, hosting a successful Mabo Day celebration—the first to be planned and run by the Meriam people within the corporation.

Two schoolboys happily holding the Torres Strait Islander flag

‘Meriam Buai’ means people from Mer Island, and the corporation’s objective is to preserve and promote Meriam culture and traditions through cultural events celebrating language, storytelling, singing, dance, arts and crafts. It’s currently planning a suite of recurring programs for men, women, young people and other groups.

Torres Strait Islander guitarists

Part of the corporation’s vision is a national public holiday every 3 June. On that date in 1992, after years of struggle by Eddie Koiki Mabo and other Meriam plaintiffs, the High Court of Australia handed down the decision known as the Mabo decision, granting land rights to the Meriam people and overturning the fiction of ‘terra nullius’. The Mabo decision opened a pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to claim rights and interests in Australian lands and waters.

Torres Strait Islanders and allies marching with drums

Every year since the landmark decision, Meriam people together with the Torres Strait and Aboriginal people of Australia have celebrated Mabo Day and the legacy of Eddie Koiki Mabo. Every year, the day is marked by more people in more ways. In 2018, in the lead-up to 3 June, a committee formed to seek funding to host an event in Cairns. But without a registered entity to auspice the grant applications, the outcomes were limited. Ben Depoma is a Meriam man who attended last year's Mabo Day celebration. He describes the resulting event on 3 June 2018 as ‘cook and carry’. Only Cairns Meriam families from Mer (Murray) Island gathered, and they brought their own prepared food to the Esplanade, shared, sat, yarned and sang together to celebrate.

Group of eight Torres Strait Islander dancers

Knowing that the quality and impact of Mabo Day commemorations should be as great as the turning point that inspires them, Mr Depoma resolved to get Meriam people together, to have a meeting to discuss Meriam issues. One of the main agenda items was the proposal to start a corporation. He says of that moment:

Everyone came to an agreement. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people look up to Meriam people to take the lead on Mabo Day, so there is a lot of support for the initiative in the surrounding community.

Having registered in September 2018, MBTSICC was able to secure a small grant from the (Queensland) Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships and, with support from the Cairns Regional Council, hosted a Mabo Day festival at The Esplanade on 3 June 2019.

Ben Depoma, chair of Meriam Buai Torres Strait Islander Corporation Cairns

It was a resounding success. Mr Depoma, chair of the corporation, described the event as follows:

Even though 3 June was a Monday (and in 2019, not yet a public holiday ;) we had schools come along, community service organisations, numerous local media, food stalls, guest speakers and entertainers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as well as people from all different cultures.

The day started with a march at 9am. When we arrived at the site, there was a welcome to country from a traditional land owner, followed by a flag-raising ceremony and speeches. After the formal proceedings there were activities and entertainment until 6pm. We had a special tent for our elders, and everyone enjoyed themselves. 

I personally thought that the Mabo Day committee of MBTSICC did a great job planning the event, and feedback from community service organisations, public participants and passers-by was mostly very positive. I reckon Uncle Koiki would be proud.

The Meriam Buai Torres Strait Islander Corporation Cairns (MBTSICC) is now planning a bumper Mabo Day celebration event for 2020. We congratulate this young Torres Strait Islander corporation and wish the directors well in making Cairns the hub for Mabo Day celebrations.

Two Torres Strait Islander women smiling to camera