Article by Rachel Merrit and Jessica Naunton for ABC News
On a trip to his ancestral home on Mer Island, Kaleb Mabo made a promise to himself.
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of people who have died.
He had always been curious about the family home his grandfather Eddie “Koiki” Mabo fought so long and hard to protect, but it was on a return visit three years ago that he was inspired to act.
“I was taken back by how much jungle and sea had washed away of the land,” Kaleb said.
“This is exactly where it all started — where he grew up.
“Everything that he was taught … it all came from there — the foundations of the Mabo decision started there.”
Decades had passed since Kaleb visited Mer as a young boy, but he said in 2019 he felt he was returning home.
“You feel like you’re at the place in the world you’re meant to be,” he said.
The roots of native title
One of the easternmost inhabited islands in the Torres Strait, Mer (Murray) Island was the home and birthplace of Eddie Mabo.
Until his death in 1992, he and other plaintiffs campaigned to be recognised as traditional owners of the land, taking their case to the High Court of Australia.
The landmark ruling overturned the notion of terra nullius — the idea that the land was had no before white settlement.
After receiving permission, Kaleb has been placed in charge of restoring the land.
“There was that fire inside my belly and questions of wanting to know more about this place.”
Restoring the past
In 2020, Kaleb returned to the island to begin the back-breaking work of restoring the land and final resting place of his grandfather.
Armed with a rake and machete, he levelled the ground and cleared the land of invasive coconut trees and pandanus palms.
“My hope is to reconnect to our cultural origins,” Kaleb said.
“The reason why Koiki fought for 10 years wasn’t for any political recognition — it was for the survival of culture.
“He was acknowledging that our culture was here first and remains here and is still very strong here on Mer.”
Kaleb said he felt as if his grandfather was “passing the torch” to him, much like a traditional Meriam ceremony between an elder and a young man.
“The younger warrior steps in and takes up a gubba gubba (ceremonial club) and it’s like taking the next journey and I feel like that’s what’s metaphorically happening at this point in time,” he said.
“I know he’s with me.