Dr Bonita Mabo’s legacy honoured at State Funeral in Townsville

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Community Indigenous & Heritage Queensland Government


Prominent activist Dr Ernestine “Bonita” Mabo AO has been remembered as the matriarch of reconciliation and the mother of native title at a State Funeral held at Townsville Stadium today.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Deputy Premier, Treasurer and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Jackie Trad joined Dr Mabo’s family and friends, dignitaries from around the country and the wider community in paying tribute to a life dedicated to fostering inclusion and effecting change.

The Premier said Dr Bonita Mabo and was one of the most prominent Indigenous and South Sea Islander activists of her time.

“She empowered her people to speak from the heart and stand up for what they believed in,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

“Dr Mabo was a history maker in her own right long before the High Court’s landmark native title ruling, which forever and rightfully changed our nation, and long after.

“Her gentle compassion and courage, and her unwavering conviction to stand up for justice without hesitation, will continue to inspire us all.”

Dr Mabo was a proud Aboriginal woman with South Sea Islander ancestry and family ties to Vanuatu.

A 2013 Order of Australia recipient, Dr Mabo was recognised recently with an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from James Cook University for her contribution to social justice and human rights.

Deputy Premier, Treasurer and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Jackie Trad said Dr Bonita Mabo was an incredibly important and enduring voice for change for First Nations and South Sea Islander peoples.

“She was a matriarch, an activist and a trailblazer and will be greatly missed,” Ms Trad said.

“Her influence and that of her late husband, Eddie Mabo, can be felt all around us – her legacy is in the wind, the water and the land we all now share. It can be heard in the way Queenslanders speak to one another today, with respect and mutual understanding.

“The theme of NAIDOC Week this year was ‘because of her, we can’ and how true that is of Dr Bonita Mabo. We are a better Queensland and a better Australia because of her.

“Our gratitude is best expressed by continuing to nurture an inclusive, harmonious and fair society, where everyone is made to feel they truly belong.

“That is what Dr Bonita Mabo has gifted us at the end of her truly remarkable life.”


We are here today to honour an unlikely giant.

I say ‘unlikely’ because Bonita Mabo was not imposing.

Not physically.

And yet this slight woman from Ingham would change the course of history.

Most of us learn right and wrong from our families.

Bonita, one of 10 children, was instilled with not just a deep sense of what’s right but the courage to demand it from others.

It was a family trait.

So was pride: in themselves and in their islander heritage.

Like so many, they lived the experience of family members who were stolen.

But rather than fill her with the poison of hate, it fueled her with the passion that we could be better than that and she went about quietly making sure that we were.

When her children went to school Bonita became known as a difficult mother.

When she felt her children were not getting the education they deserved she’d send her husband Uncle Edward ‘Koiki’ Mabo to address the teachers.

In extreme cases she’d go herself and the teachers were left in no doubt about Bonita’s feelings. She made no apologies for that.

When there too many wrongs to make right Koiki and Bonita simply started their own school.

It was the Black Community School here in Townsville. It taught their language and their customs.

It was Australia’s first and it was ahead of its time.

While Koiki raged against the intolerance and injustices of 1960s Australia, Bonita was, compared with him, the quiet one.

But in her stillness was tremendous strength.

One day, Bonita approached the checkout of a supermarket with the week’s shopping in her trolley.

She waited while those ahead of her were served. And then, those behind her as well.

When, finally, anyone within sight had been allowed to conduct their business ahead of her, Bonita was allowed to approach and her groceries were added up.

Bonita walked out. Head held high without her groceries.

Pride. Strength. Dignity. And defiance.

This was the core of the fight Koiki would take up but he and Bonita were opposite sides of the same coin.

Koiki's fight was Koiki's fight. Bonita supported him but had her own ambitions.

Being heard is one thing.

It’s another to be seen.

You’re invisible in a supermarket because you’re invisible everywhere and that’s what Bonita wanted changed.

Yes, she wanted reconciliation but you can’t cure a disease by ignoring its symptoms.

She wanted recognition of the history of her South Sea Islander forebears taken from their homes in Vanuatu to work here and she’d go person to person if that’s what it took to change people’s minds.

Eventually she made us see what we didn’t want to see. She made the invisible, visible.

After thousands of years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customs, the broader community is beginning to understand the power of story.

Bonita’s story is powerful. It’ll be told and retold as a beacon to generations to follow her lead.

As recently as yesterday, in the fire-charred ruins of the forests of Minjerribah, her name was spoken with gratitude and reverence.

She’d have been pleased to know the Quandamooka people stood shoulder to shoulder with firefighters who’d come from across Australia.

They all defended areas of cultural significance with exactly the same determination as saving a cathedral.

That’s her legacy.

“I hope I made people proud,” she said in those final days when James Cook University made her an honorary doctor of letters.

You did. But you did so much more than make us proud of you.

You gave us the gift of pride in ourselves and in all our people.



Ernistine ‘Bonita’ Mabo.


Premier and Minister for Trade
The Honourable Annastacia Palaszczuk
Deputy Premier, Treasurer and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships
The Honourable Jackie Trad

Annastacia Palaszczuk : Queensland Premier and Minister for Trade :
PO Box 15185, City East, Queensland 4002, Queensland Wide
07 3224 4500
Annastacia Palaszczuk : Queensland Premier and Minister for Trade
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