Bonita Mabo. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
She stood by her late husband Eddie during his fight for Aboriginal land rights. Now, Bonita Mabo tells Clara Iaccarino, it's time for her to stand up for her own people.
You were always a strong supporter of your husband Eddie throughout his battle for land rights. You were the silent woman behind the man. What was life like behind the scenes with Eddie Mabo?
I was his wife, but that's as far as it went. I've got nothing to do with the land, that was his fight. He had to fight for his land. It was hard at times. When things were a bit tough for him, I had to wear it. But other than that I knew it was hard for him, and I couldn't do anything to help. We just hung in there.
You have a family of 10 children, including three you have adopted. How did you manage to balance family life as well as supporting Eddie in his fight for land rights?
Sometimes I ask myself the same question. My kids say, "Mum I don't know how you did it" and I say, "I don't even know myself". Things were different then. The generation of kids those days, you could control them more and they were really good.
Eddie was your first boyfriend. Do you remember what you first thought of him when you met?
I think it was love at first sight. My parents [also] just really took to him. When they knew he was coming Dad would go fishing and crabbing and have it all cooked up for him when he came. And the fruits on the tree, Mum would say, "Don't touch that one, that's for Kaiko". He was really spoilt by everybody. He got on well with everyone.
You brought up your children with the traditions of Eddie's people, the Torres Strait Islanders, sidelining the traditions of your people, the South Sea islanders. You've recently been educating people about the South Sea islanders and their place in Australian history. Do you think Eddie would be proud of your work and that he is, in a sense, watching over you?
I think so, yes. [I'm] just getting them recognition. I go away and talk about our people. I go down south [Mabo lives in Townsville] and nobody has heard about South Sea islanders, which is sad. We're a forgotten race and when I bring up certain things about how our people were treated, people cry. Any time I go for conferences or anything like that he [Eddie] seems to show up. When I went down to Adelaide he was dancing - all hours of the morning it was. While he was dancing he just looked at me and had the biggest smile. He gives me strength to do the things I do.
Looking back on the High Court decision granting native title to Eddie and the Meriam people of Murray Island, what does that mean to you now?
It's good for all our people, for indigenous people on the whole. It really brought a lot of the different tribes out and they're really going back to country and saying who they are and where they come from. Things like that we never heard about before, everybody was sort of hush-hush.
Do you think that recognition continues today or have indigenous issues fallen from the agenda in recent times?
No, I think it's still going today; people are going back to country and things like that. But on the other hand we're making it hard for ourselves because we need to all pull together and [not] see boundary lines, do like our ancestors did. They never saw boundary lines, they just cared and shared for country. We have to take that line too and not let boundary lines stop us from anything. That's really holding up the process.
What do you think is the way forward for black Australia?
We've got to reconcile with each other, black and white. But black people themselves have to clean up their own backyard, reconcile with each other. We've all got to get on an even keel. At least give them the time of day. Smile. I say a smile goes a long way.
You're now beginning to lose your eyesight as a result of diabetes, is there still some fight in you yet?
I'm losing my sight, but that's not going to shut my mouth up, I tell you. If I've got to take somebody with me, not a problem. The main thing is to go around and talk to people and educate them on our people and how they were treated when they were brought out here. They're saying Captain Cook was a good guy. Bull! That's not what our grandparents told us and that's what a lot of our people are against.
You talk fondly of your childhood in Australia, but you are also a traditional owner of Palm Island and have family ties in Vanuatu. Where is home for you?
Australia's my home. I've been born and bred here, but I can still feel at home there [Palm Island], too. I also went back to Vanuatu and I found my people. It was beautiful . . . I took a couple of grandchildren over and my kids; they enjoyed it, some of them wanted to stay. Even me, I didn't want to come back. Next time I go back I intend to stay for a few months.
What is it about life in Vanuatu that makes you want to stay?
The people are so friendly and you feel part of it. [They are] all happy faces over there and more welcoming, especially to us. It makes you sad because people don't want to get close to black people [in Australia]. Everybody's got to reconcile with each other. I think the first step is getting to know somebody, sit down and spend a bit of time talking to people and maybe you'll get to know them and then maybe they'll say, "Come on we'll go and have a barbie somewhere". It's a long [road], but that's what I say, a smile goes a long way.