30 Years of the Mabo Legacy


Over the course of the past 30 years, the Mabo legacy and the story of how Eddie Koiki Mabo and his associates confronted the government and prompted real and tangible change in the Australian legal system has been celebrated and marked in the period around Mabo Day. This has been acknowledged in many ways, particularly on the major anniversaries of the decision, which have prompted moments of reflection and action.


1995 – Mabo Day

Eddie Koiki Mabo’s Tombstone Opening Ceremony on 3 June 1995, (held on the same day of the court decision – 3 June) was when Mabo Day was initiated by the Mabo Family. Since 1996 Mabo Day has formed part of the National Reconciliation Week celebrations.

2002 – The 10th Anniversary of the Mabo Decision

In 2002 several celebrations and commemorations were held to mark the 10 year anniversary of the decision of the Mabo case. While visiting Melbourne on promotional business with other members of the Mabo family, Bonita Mabo called for the date of the decision to become a national public holiday. Mabo Day has been celebrated in various communities since 1992, but was not a formally recognised national holiday. A campaign to have Mabo Day gazetted as a national public holiday commenced in 2003, and is still (as of 2022) ongoing. Although the day is not yet declared a public holiday, it became a gazetted “special holiday” in many areas and is nationally recognised and celebrated throughout Australia.


2012 – The 20th Anniversary of the Mabo decision

Mabo Day celebrations, 3 June, 2012

James Cook University recognised the 20th anniversary of the Mabo decision at Eddie Koiki Mabo Library on Mabo Day, 2012.

Celebrations included a traditional Smoking Ceremony, traditional dancing, and a dedication of the Eddie Koiki Mabo memorial cenotaph in its new location outside the southern entrance of the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library. Addresses were given by James Cook University Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Sandra Harding, and Professor Stanley Nangala (JCU School of Indigenous Australian Studies).

Gail Mabo presented her art exhibition, 17, in the foyer of Eddie Koiki Mabo Library. Gail spoke about her position as a member of the 17th generation of the Mabo family. The exhibition featured screen prints of traditional Torres Strait fishing scoops (baskets) and the sardines that are readily caught off the beach on Mer Island.

The commemoration concluded with a panel discussion about the making of the film, Mabo. The panel featured Darren Dale, Gail Mabo, Jimi Bani, Noel Loos and Charles Passi.

June 9, 2012 – Mabo, the movie

Poster says "Behind his fight for justice was a love that would fight for him"
Promotional movie poster for Mabo by ABC and Blackfella Films.


The Mabo movie, directed by Rachel Perkins and starring Jimi Bani as Eddie Koiki Mabo and Deborah Mailman as Bonita Mabo, was partially filmed on the Townsville campus of JCU, where Koiki worked and where the Land Rights and the Future of Australian Race Relations Conference was held. Several librarians took part in the filming as extras.


Gail Mabo and Jimi Bani with a photograph of Eddie Mabo, 2012.
Gail Mabo and Jimi Bani viewing display cabinet of artefacts in theEddie Koiki Mabo Library, 2012.

Mabo movie photo shoot at Eddie Koiki Mabo Library

Scenes from the Mabo movie shoot in the library, and librarians as extras

Related Content

Cover image for the Mabo movie's DVD, featuring Jimi Bani and Deborah Mailman
DVD of the Mabo movie, produced by the ABC.

Mabo [videorecording]. by ABC and Blackfella Films

JCU Library Holding – Call Number: 791.4372 MAB
Publication Date: 2012

2017 – 25 years since the Mabo decision

June 3, 2017 marked 25 years since native title was recognised in Australia. Several commemorative events took place across the nation, including a special project to undertake restoration work on Koiki’s grave on Mer. Mabo Day celebrations, by now regular annual events, included the Mabo Festival, held in Townsville. The featured artist for the Eddie Koiki Mabo Art Exhibition was Gail Mabo (with the exhibition Reflections: 25 Years On), and the Mabo Lecture that year was presented by Professor Megan Davis (“The Mabo Political Settlement: What Became of the Social Justice Package?“). Outside of JCU, the QPAC Mabo Oration was delivered by Dr Dawn Casey PSM, and the AIATSIS Mabo Lecture was given by June Oscar AO.


Gail Mabo and family pose together at Jezzine Barracks on Mabo Day
25 years Mabo Day celebrations in Townsville: Gail Mabo and her children – Rebecca, Aku, Kaleb, Cade, Joel and Isaac, Mabo Day Townsville 2017. © Photo courtesy of Gail Mabo.

Related Content

2022 – 30 Years since the Mabo decision

In 2022, James Cook University developed and hosted numerous activities, events and a dedicated website to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Mabo decision.

An Anniversary Committee, Chaired by JCU Chancellor Bill Tweddell, was formed in late 2021 to plan and monitor the commemorative activities, and a Project Officer was employed to help manage the multiple projects across the university, in collaboration with the different colleges and directorates, and in consultation with members of the community.

The following events took place on JCU’s Bebegu Yumba and Nguma-bada Campuses in Townsville and Cairns:

Eddie Koiki Mabo Art Exhibition (20 May – 10 June)

“Tribute” Arone Meeks was held at the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library and was almost a sell-out show. The “Tribute” exhibition featured artworks from the late Arone Raymond Meeks (b.1957 – d. 2021), a nationally and internationally acclaimed and celebrated Queensland artist and proud Kuku Midiji man. The exhibition was collaboratively curated by independent Cairns-based artist Geoff Dixon and the Manager of Special Collections Bronwyn McBurnie. It featured selected paintings and prints created by Arone Meeks in the years between 2001 – 2021.

A short documentary was produced by the library in collaboration with the exhibition curator Geoff Dixon who co-narrated the video using the text he had written for the exhibition catalogue. The video includes image and video resources from a range of contributors who had worked with Arone Meeks during his career as an artist. A virtual tour of the exhibition was also created for those who were not able to view the exhibition in person. These legacy items help to describe and promote “Tribute” Arone Meeks to a much broader audience and remain available for view.

flyer, advertising an exhibition
“Tribute” Arone Meeks, Eddie Koiki Mabo Library Art Exhibition invitation 2022

Q+A Programme, ABC TV

The Eddie Koiki Mabo Library in collaboration with other JCU departments provided logistical support for Gail Mabo to appear and speak via livestream from Townsville’s Bebegu Yumba Campus in June and July 2022.

On June 2, Gail joined other Q+A panellists in ABC TV’s Sydney studios on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the historic Mabo decision to discuss what’s been achieved since the High Court rejected the myth of terra nullius. The program was called “Mabo, a Voice and the Road Ahead – Q+A.”


Gail Mabo sits in front of the Mabo Interperative Wall, with lighting equipment surrounding her, as she faces a camera that is out of shot.
Gail Mabo in front of the Mabo Interpretive Wall, preparing to speak on ABC’s Q+A programme.

Gail Mabo was also a keynote speaker at the University of Tasmania’s ASAL Conference 2022 (4 – 8 July), where she spoke to the conference theme, Coming to Terms, 30 Years On: The Mabo Legacy in Australian Writing.

Mabo Under the Stars at Eddie Koiki Mabo Library

On the evening of July 21, JCU Library Services in collaboration with Library Patron Gail Mabo, JCU Diversity and Equity, and the JCU Student Association hosted a free movie screening of Mabo the movie, on the lawns of the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library.


A view through the trees of an audience seated in front of a movie screen, with the Library behind.
“Mabo” movie night on the lawns of the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library, 21 July 2022.

The movie was introduced by Gail Mabo and included a traditional Smoking Ceremony and dance performance by the Thulgarrie Yallarin Bindal Dancers, and a Welcome to Country by Traditional Owner, Bindal Elder, Professor Gracelyn Smallwood. Following the showing the audience had the opportunity to ask Gail questions.

A woman and man stand together, smiling and holding a bark containing containing smoking eucalyptus leaves
Gail Mabo with Bindal Traditional Owner Alfred Smallwood during the smoking ceremony prior to the Welcome to Country for the “Mabo” movie film night. 21 July 2022
flyer advertising the event
Mabo Under the Stars flyer.

Legal Studies Conference (August 12 & 19, 2022)

The JCU College of Business, Law and Governance hosted two Legal Studies Conferences in August 2022, inviting Legal Studies Teachers and Students in Year 11 and 12 from all schools in the Northern Queensland region to attend. The conference was held on the Nguma-bada Campus, Smithfield, Cairns, on 12 August, and the Bebegu Yumba Campus, Douglas, Townsville on 19 August.

The conference theme was centred on the 30th Anniversary of the historic Mabo Decision. Both one-day programs were designed to provide students and teachers with unique insights into Native Title Law, Human Rights Law, Constitutional Law, Business Law, Criminal Law, Employment Law, Sports Law and more. Professionals and experts in these fields were engaged as speakers for the conferences.Around 440 students and their teachers from 23 schools across the region attended the conferences. The various speakers gave the audiences valuable insights into the nature and importance of their work, including practical tips on the learning pathways that students can take to lead them into a Law career.

flyer with program of speakers for the event
Legal Studies Conference Flyer for the Townsville conference.
flyer with program of speakers for the event
Legal Studies Conference Flyer for the Cairns conference.

Queensland State Library held an exhibition, titled “Legacy: Reflections on Mabo“, from 28 May 2022 – 9 October 2022, to celebrate Koiki and the ongoing impact and influence of the Mabo decision. This included an artists panel discussion featuring Gail Mabo, Judy Watson and Katina Davidson.

Legacy: Reflections on Mabo is an award-winning exhibition co-curated by Gail Mabo, and past Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts Directors Dr Jonathan McBurnie and Kellie Williams. The exhibition presents a selection of 22 works by 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists responding to an aspect of Eddie Mabo that they were drawn to. It was launched in Townsville at Umbrella’s temporary gallery space in 2019 and has been travelling around the country, on display in regional galleries, since then.  

The Legacy of Native Title

As of 2022, 408 determinations recognising native title have been made across Australia. Well over 1000 other land use agreements have also been entered into between Traditional Owners and other parties with an interest in their land. These agreements have been reached through negotiation, rather than litigation. They are registered with the National Native Title Tribunal and have the force of law.

The considerable number of land use agreements is recognition of the widespread acceptance of native title. Each one involves groups and individuals ranging from government bodies to tourism, primary and energy industries, cooperating and accepting the rights of Traditional Owners.

Together, these two elements may be the most significant legacy of Eddie Koiki Mabo in Australia’s legal landscape.

Native title Determinations map 2022
Map of National Native Title Tribunal. (2019, October 1). Native Title Determinations.  Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Native Title Tribunal.




Eddie Koiki Mabo: History in the Making Copyright © by James Cook University Library. All Rights Reserved.