Aboriginal Studies

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Social Justice and Human Rights Issues:
The Global Perspective

Aboriginal and Indigenous responses and initiatives

Indigenous Australian case study:

Torres Strait Islands, Mer (Murray Island) and Eddie 'Koiki' Mabo
The fight for social justice and human rights issues as told by his daughter Gail Mabo

Torres Strait Islands Flag    Eddie Mabo

Eddie Mabo

My first impressions of the struggle for social justice and human rights was of my father sitting at the kitchen table in a blue haze of cigarette smoke, writing. I was eight and at the time I did not understand what he was trying to achieve. All I wanted to know was why he was awake at 2 o'clock in the morning and why he wasn't tired.

As I grew older I used to sit with my father and he used to explain what he was doing and why he was doing it. He always talked about his home, Mer, and how the land on the island would be ours when the time came. My father believed in fighting for his rights through the help of his family, the indigenous communities and the legal system. His political struggle and fight for recognition was reflected in the projects he undertook and the goals he set for himself.

His fight for the rights of Torres Strait Islanders was to involve him in a range of activities and representing Torres Strait Islanders in the islands, including Mer, and on the mainland of Australia.

Click on the links below to investigate the topics:

  1. Overview of the Torres Strait Islands
  2. Overview of Mer (Murray Island)
  3. Health
  4. Education
  5. Housing
  6. Employment
  7. Criminal justice
  8. Economic independence

These links will examine the topics in relation to the Torres Straits, Mer (Murray Island) and the role that my father played in each.

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My father was born Edward Koiki Sambo on the 29th June 1936. He was born on Mer, the son of Robert Zezou Sambo and Annie Mabo of the Piadaram clan. His mother died in childbirth and as a result his Uncle Benny Mabo and Aunt Maiga adopted my father under customary law.

From an early age my father was taught about his family's land.

Exile and the Mainland

When my father was seventeen he was involved in a teenage prank which saw him exiled from Mer by the Island Council. He left his homeland to work on pearling boats and when his exile was extended he moved to Townsville. While in Townsville he worked at various jobs including canecutter and railway labourer.

In 1959 my father married my mother Bonita Neehow. They would eventually raise ten children.

The next few years were important in shaping my father. In 1960 he became the union representative on the Townsville-Mount Isa rail construction project. In 1962 he worked for the Townsville Harbour Board and became the Secretary for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League. In 1967 he helped organise a seminar in Townsville: 'We the Australians: What is to Follow the Referendum?' These events were to help shape my father's interest in social justice.

The dawning truth

In 1967 my father began work as a gardener at James Cook University. While working there he met Professor Henry Reynolds and was given the opportunity to present lectures on Torres Strait Islander culture and political issues.

My father used to talk with Professor Reynolds about the land that his family owned on Mer. During one of their talks Professor Reynolds said to my father "Look, you do appreciate, don't you, that although in your view this is your land, it's actually all Crown land. According to white Australian law, you don't own any land on Murray (Mer) Island".

This was the turning point for my father when he realized that his ancestral land no longer belonged to his family under Australian law. Imagine if the government told you that the house your family live in and the land they live on does not belong to you. It doesn't matter that your family has always lived on that land. It doesn't matter that you know the land is yours. Your land is owned by the government because the law says so. What would you do?

Council for the Rights of Indigenous People

In 1970 my father became the President of the 'Council for the Rights of Indigenous People'. This was an all-indigenous organization, which pioneered a legal aid service, a medical service and an indigenous community school. This organization was important as it allowed the indigenous people of the Townsville area to make their own decisions and have control of their own social services.

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The Black Community School

The Black Community School was established in 1973 as a result of the need for a school that catered for the needs of indigenous children. My father believed that indigenous children needed to be taught their culture by their Aunties and Uncles. Eddie Mabo was the director of the school, which, in turn was run by the parents of the students. The philosophy of the school was to develop a strong identity and belief in indigenous cultures before the students entered the mainstream education system. The school operated until 1983 when cutbacks in government funding and non-Indigenous community concerns led to the closing of the school.

Playing basketball at the Black Community School Eddie Mabo
Gail playing basketball with the other children from the Black Community School Eddie Mabo Principal, teacher and bus driver

Yumba Meta Housing Association

Yumba Meta was a housing co-operative which was established to provide suitable accommodation for the growing indigenous population of the Townsville region. My father was the President of the association and he believed that Aboriginal and Islander people had the right of equality of housing. The association purchased houses throughout the Townsville area which Indigenous people to live in any suburb. This broke down the barriers of black suburbs and allowed indigenous and non-Indigenous people to live together.

Permission denied

In 1972 my family had planned to visit Mer. My father had hoped to visit his father, Benny Mabo, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Tuberculosis was a major killer of Torres Strait Islanders at the time. Our family travelled to Thursday Island but were refused permission to travel to Mer.

My mother, Bonita Mabo, remembers,

"In those days you had to get permission to go across to Mer, but the Queensland authorities wouldn't let us. They said Eddie was a non-Islander, because he hadn't lived there for so long They thought he was too political and would stir up trouble".

Our family returned to Townsville. Six weeks later my father received a telegram saying that his father had died. My father cried. We never had the chance to meet our grandfather.

My father never forgave the government authorities for this injustice. It fuelled his determination for recognition and equality in society. This began his ten-year battle for justice and political status.

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The fight for Native Title

In 1981 my father attended a land rights conference at James Cook University. A lawyer at the conference suggested there should be a test case to claim land rights through the court system. My father and the other Murray Islanders decided they would be the ones to challenge the claim of terra nullius in the High Court. My father was chosen as the leader to head the case. The other representatives of the case were Sam Passi, Father Dave Passi, James Rice and Celuia Mapo Salee.

This began a 10-year battle, which saw the case go to the High Court of Australia. The battle took a heavy toll on my father and my family. My father use to escape the strain my working on his boat, which still sits outside our family home, or by painting.
On January 21st 1992 my father died from cancer. He was 56. My father had fought to the end but always knew that he would win the case.

On the 3rd of June 1992 the High Court delivered a 6 to 1 verdict in favour of Mabo, Mabo v State of Queensland. This overturned the 205-year-old legal doctrine of terra nullius.

My father fought for his legal rights. He won his battle for native title of his traditional land.

Three years after my father had passed away, with the traditional mourning period over, my family and friends gathered in Townsville for a memorial service. This ceremony was to celebrate his life and to replace the wooden cross, which marked his grave with a marble headstone.

The following day my father's grave was vandalised. The tombstone was defaced with graffiti, including nazi swastikas, and the carving of my fathers face was stolen. My family removed his headstone.

Our family decided to bury my father on Murray Island in September 1995. The people of Murray Island performed a traditional ceremony not seen on the island for 80 years. The restored tombstone was placed on my father's grave.
My father had returned home.

Eddie Mabo's tombstone on Mer

Gail Mabo, her children and the grandchildren of
Eddie Mabo at his tombstone on Mer.

On Australia Day 1993 The Australian named my father 'Australian of the Year'.

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Organisations in which Eddie Mabo was involved.

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Additional research

Additional research of Eddie Mabo and Mer can be undertaken by researching the following questions in relation to the course outcomes.

References and resources

Graham.T et al Mabo - The Native Title Revolution(CD Rom) Film Australia Ltd, Cinemedia 2000
Sharp.N No Ordinary Judgement: Mabo, the Murray Islanders' Land Case1986
Land Bilong Islanders(video) Film Australia 1989
Mabo - Life of an Island Man(video) Film Australia 1997
Screen Australia (external website)Screen Australia, formerly Film Australia, lists documentaries and teacher resources on Indigenous issues including the film Mabo - Life of an Island Man.
Indigenous Law Resources (external website)This site includes interactive resources, departments and agencies, research, education and training, other sites (non-legal), law journals, legal services, legislation, reports, commissions and parliamentary committees.
The Australasian Legal Information Institute (ALII) (external website)On this web site is the historic 1992 decision of the High Court of Australia in the Mabo native title claim case.

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International Indigenous case study


Lakota Hide Painting

Lakota Hide Painting: Nineteenth Century


"The name, 'Sioux' is a French rendering of the Ojibwa word nadewisou, meaning 'treacherous snakes.' The name was not meant as a compliment and was not until recently, used by our people.

We referred to ourselves as 'An Alliance of Friends.' In the Santee dialect, the name is pronounced, 'Dakhota.' In the Yankton dialect the name is 'Nakhota.' And, in the Teton dialect, we are the 'Lakhota.' The Lakhota, largest population of the three, come mainly from Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Lower Brule, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Reservations.

Contrary to popular belief, the Lakhota are not history. We're very much here, struggling to keep abreast of an ever changing world. Yet, though we willingly take steps forward, we have never forgotten who we are and where we came from."

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Members

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The people

Pine Ridge Reservation and community

The Lakota are a Native American language group of Northern USA. The Pine Ridge reservation is located in the south west of the state of South Dakota, south of Rapid City and east of the Black Hills. The Lakota are often referred to as "Sioux" (pronounced "Sue") which is actually a deviation of an Ojibwa (a traditional enemy of the Lakota) word which means "cutthroat" or "little snake". There are three main dialects of the Sioux language, Santee, Yankton and Teton. The Teton Sioux refer to themselves as Lakota.

Non-Native American researchers believe have proposed that the Sioux entered this area only about one hundred years before European settlement in North America. However the Sioux believe that they have always been there, with the land given to them by the Great Spirit.

To gain a relatively accurate understanding of the traditional lifestyle and language of the Lakota, you can view the Kevin Costner movie, "Dances With Wolves".

In general terms, the Lakota have very strong spiritual links with their traditional lands, especially the Black Hills, to which they have a sacred responsibility of custodianship. Land was held communally within the tribe. They see themselves connected to, and related to, all things. They traditionally have a belief in a supreme being, Wakan Tunka (Great Mystery or Great Spirit), and a spiritual link and close dependency on the "buffalo" (North American bison).

Pine ridge reservation is the second most populated reservation in the USA. In 1990, 11,180 Native American residents comprised 91.7% of the reservation's total population. A reservation is described as an area of land reserved for a Native American band, village or tribe to live on and use. As owners of he reservation Lakota people have sole rights to hunt and fish on their land without interference. Title to the Native American ?owned land is held in trust by the US government for the benefit of the Native Americans. This is a type of joint ownership aimed to protect unscrupulous interests from acquiring the land, which has been severely reduced over the years since the reservation system was first set up in this area in the 1800's.

Much of the land inside reservation borders has been lost by the Native Americans to non-Native Americans. This has further drastically reduced the land lost through broken promises and broken treaties.
After many years of negotiation and fighting, a treaty called the "Fort Laramie Treaty" was signed by the Lakota nation and US Congress in 1868.This treaty recognised Lakota sovereignty in their Dakota/Wyoming homelands and hunting grounds, including the sacred "Black Hills". However the discovery of gold in the Black Hills a few years later led to pressure on Lakota chiefs, including Sitting Bull, to sell their land. Refusal led to the illegal repudiation (refusal to recognise the treaty by US Congress) of the treaty in 1876. Troops were sent in to pursue the "hostiles" who would not agree to sell the land. This act led to the famous defeat of General George Custer at Little Big Horn by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

After this embarrassing defeat the government increased its efforts to defeat the Lakota and finally, after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the last of the Lakota were forced onto reservations. Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Sioux, had by this time settled his people on Pine Ridge.

Severe reductions in the size of the Pine Ridge reservation occurred over the years to the point that by 1942 nearly 1 million of the 2.7 million acres ( approx. 0.4m of the original 1.1 million hectares) assigned to Pine Ridge in 1889 had passed into other hands. By the 1970's 90% of reservation lands were owned or leased by non-Native American people.

Today the Pine Ridge reservation is one of the poorest reservations in the US with at least 40% of the people living below the poverty line. Around 30% of incomes come from tribal business, taxes and investments. The remaining 70% comes from federal programs.

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Individual responses

For the early Lakhota, life on the prairie meant feast and famine, almost constant wind, severe freezing winters, hot sultry summers and high infant mortality. It was a hard life that helped mold a strong culture, bonding together for a common cause, day-to-day survival.

Today, Lakhota survival is threatened again. No, the water isn't being poisoned by some chemical waste plant. It's not lack of food or blankets. It's deeper than poverty and poor health, it's the very life blood of the people themselves. It's non-native pillage of the Lakhota culture.

From Universities and celebrities, to the neighbor down the street, "Indian experts" have been dictating to native and non-native people alike how "real Indians" think and act. These so-called-experts, are not proponents of true historical Native American culture, nor the culture of todays elders. These people impose their own corrupted version of an "Indian" culture usually laced with romanticism and worse, new age eastern mysticism.

The Lakhota, along with other Native Americans thought at first the cultural embrace was simply a passing fad and said very little about the phenomena. However today, many Native Americans are becoming vocal. Alarmed by the enormous growing evidence that Native culture is being consumed and altered by non-native people, Native American's are taking a stand.

Vine Deloria, Jr. (Santee Dakota) in a quote taken from THE STATE OF NATIVE AMERICA (edited by Annette Jaimes) Chapter XIV "The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections on White-shamanism" by Wendy Rose:

"The realities of Indian belief and existence have become so misunderstood and distorted at this point that when a real Indian stands up and speaks the truth at any given moment, he or she is not only unlikely to be believed, but will probably be contradicted and 'corrected' by the citation of some non-Indian and totally inaccurate 'expert.' More, young Indians in universities are now being trained to see themselves and their cultures in terms prescribed by such experts rather than in the traditional terms of the tribal elders. In this way, the experts are perfecting a system of self-validation in which all semblance of honesty and accuracy is lost. This is not only a travesty of scholarship, but it is absolutely devastating to Indian societies."

Pam Colorado (Oneida) in a quote from the same text:

"The process is ultimately intended to supplant Indians, even in areas of their own customs and spirituality. In the end, non-Indians will have complete power to define what is and is not Indian, even for Indians. We are talking here about an absolute ideological/conceptual subordination in addition to the total physical subordination we already experience. When this happens, the last vestiges of real Indian society and Indian rights will disappear. Non-Indians will then 'own' our heritage and ideas as thoroughly as they now claim to own our land and resources."

Michael Twohorse ( Sicangu Lakhota) in a quote from his personal webpage:

"The continual stereotyping of Indian people as somehow above the rest of humanity in terms of 'nobility' simply defeats attempts by Indians to self-define as human beings. I believe it is essential that non-Indians either cease to attempt to define Indian cultures (not likely) or preface their work with statements that make clear they are writing from an outsider's perspective and therefore cannot pretend to accurately represent Indian desires and interests."

In 1889, the last of the Lakhota land was stolen. 107 years later, the Lakhota culture itself is in jeopardy and there is little the Lakhota people alone can do about it. We need your help! It's not someone else's problem. As human beings, it's everyone's problem. Culture thieves have no rules, they would just as soon deceive you as someone else. Their goal is personal gratification whether financial, spiritual, or emotional. They prey upon the naive until their "false truths" become accepted as fact.

Native American frauds are not determined by skin color or enrollment. There are blond blue-eyed native descendants that know and respect the culture of the elders. And, there are dark-skinned, non-native frauds who base their "Indian lifestyle" on movies and books.

Most Native people (whether dark, light, enrolled or not) are very comfortable with their heritage and have no desire or reason to flaunt it. In fact, due to years of struggle as minorities, most Native Americans are happy just to be treated fairly by non-natives. For non-natives who respect Native American culture, we thank you. Our culture is all we have left to pass onto our children.

Copyright 1996 Hal & Randi LaVaux (Itazipko Lakhota)

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The following information relates directly to the Lakota of South Dakota, particularly on the Reservations of Pine ridge and Rosebud.
Pine Ridge Reservation has a Native American population of 11,800 (1990).
Rosebud has a Native American population of 8,000 (1990).
The median age of the people of Pine Ridge and Rosebud is 19.3 and 18.8 respectively. This relatively low median age reflects both the low life expectancy and the high fertility rates of the population.

The following gives specific information on a list of socio-economic indicators for Lakota on Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations.

Pine ridge: Infant Mortality rate is 3 times higher than the national average.
High levels of heart disease and diabetes (almost 50% of the population diabetic).
High levels of Alcohol Foetal Syndrome
Life expectancy for males is 45 years, females 52 years.
Highest infant mortality rate in the United States.

Pine Ridge has colloquially been called the "Prairie Ghetto". As many as 30 people from 3 families fit into…derelict homes". (Sunday Telegraph 12th July 1992)

Percentage of owner occupied housing is 44.6% for Pine Ridge and 42.7% for Rosebud (This is the lowest percentage for the 10 largest reservations in the US). This compares with 57% for the US as a whole.

The percentage of houses lacking in complete plumbing facilities is 21% for Pine Ridge and 7.2% for Rosebud. The percentage for US overall is 1%.

Employment and income
On Pine Ridge 85 % of people are jobless.
90% of every $ is spent off the reservation.
There is a very high level of welfare dependency.
Average family income in 1992 was $3115 for Pine Ridge and $3,739 for Rosebud.
Percentage of people living in poverty in 1989 was 66.6% on Pine Ridge and 60.4% on Rosebud.
The overall poverty rate for the United States was 10% of the population.

Percent of persons 3 years and over enrolled in elementary or high school is 33.2% for Pine Ridge and 34.7% for Rosebud.
Percent of persons 25 years old and over with a high school diploma or over is 55% for Pine Ridge and 59.3% for Rosebud.
The overall percentage for US is 76.5 %

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Josephy, A.M. 500 Nations ?An Illustrated history of North American IndiansHutchinson/Pimlico, 1995.

Lazarus, E Black Hills White JusticeHarperCollins, 1991.

Matthiesen, P. In the Spirit of Crazy HorseHarper Collins, 1992.

Rutter, J. American Indians ? Answers to Today's QuestionsNational Woodlands Publishing Company, 1993.

Taylor & Sturtevant Native Americans ? The indigenous People of North AmericaSmithmark, 1991.

Related links

Lakota Page: The Great Sioux Nation (external website) (external website)

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