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Bonita Mabo 'one of the greatest matriarchs of all time' farewelled at state funeral in Townsville

ABC News logo ABC News 6 days ago Sofie Wainwright
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Dr Ernestine "Bonita" Mabo AO, has been remembered at her state funeral as the "mother of native title" and matriarch of reconciliation.

Close to 1,000 people attended the funeral in Townsville to farewell Dr Mabo, who died late last month at the age of 75.

She worked alongside her husband, Eddie "Koiki" Mabo, in the pursuit of Indigenous land recognition, paving the way for the Native Title Act of 1993.

In her own right, Dr Mabo was a social justice and education advocate for Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander people.

Her sister Aunty Roslind White delivered the eulogy at the service.

Dr Mabo's grandson Kaleb Cohen read a letter he had penned to her in the days before her death.

"Thank you for all the love you have given me... the advice and the direction, the precious times we have spent together, the sacrifice that you have made," he said.

Mourners pay their respects at the state funeral of Bonita Mabo in Townsville. © Provided by ABC News Mourners pay their respects at the state funeral of Bonita Mabo in Townsville. "You are the reason I can walk with my chest out and my head held high. You are the reason I feel proud to be a black man in this country.

"You are the reason no-one will ever take away my culture, my heritage and who I am as a person.

"Listen every night to me singing island songs, playing the didgeridoo for you and teaching your great-grandchildren our culture."

Speaking at her funeral, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Bonita Mabo was an "unlikely giant".

"I say 'unlikely' because Bonita Mabo was not imposing, not physically. And yet this slight women from Ingham would change the course of history," she said.

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

A smoking ceremony was conducted after the service and attendants were asked to donate to Diabetes Queensland in lieu of flowers.

Ms Palaszczuk said the Mabo family lived the experience of the stolen generations.

Bonita  Mabo was the wife of Eddie Mabo and worked alongside him in the pursuit of Indigenous land rights. © AAP Image/CLPR, Matt Nettheim Bonita Mabo was the wife of Eddie Mabo and worked alongside him in the pursuit of Indigenous land rights. "But rather than fill her with the poison of hate it fuelled her with the passion that we could be better than that and she went about quietly making sure that we were," she said.

Dr Mabo, a Malanbarra woman and descendant of Vanuatuan workers brought to Queensland, was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2013 for "distinguished service to the Indigenous community and to human rights".

She was born near Ingham in North Queensland and married Eddie in 1959.

The couple had 10 children and Indigenous education became one of Mabo's lifelong passions.

In the early 1970s, she set up Australia's first Aboriginal community school and worked as a teacher's aide.

It taught their language and their customs.

"When she felt her children were not getting the education they deserved... when there too many wrongs to make right Koike and Bonita simply started their own school," Ms Palaszczuk said.

"It was Australia's first and it was ahead of the time."

She was last month awarded an honorary doctorate from James Cook University (JCU) for her outstanding contribution made over 45 years, particularly her advocacy for Indigenous schooling.

Recognising South Sea Islanders

In recent years, Mabo had been fighting for South Sea Islanders to be recognised in Australia as their own distinct ethnic group.

"While Uncle Koike Mabo raged against the intolerance and injustices of 1960s Australia, Bonita was, compared with him, as the quiet one. But in her stillness was tremendous strength," Ms Palaszczuk said.

"Pride, strength, dignity and defiance.

"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".

Dr Mabo was often asked about her work with Eddie, but while speaking about the Order of Australia in 2013, she said she made sure to tell people: "Well, I've got another side too."

"I'm a South Sea Islander descendant. My great grandfather came from the Tanna Islands and was stolen out here … to come and clean the country up here," she said.

"And well, when I start saying that, they sit up and listen."

Dr Mabo was an honorary patron of the Australian South Sea Islanders Alliance.

Chairwoman Emelda Davis said it was sad Dr Mabo's fight for South Sea Islanders to be included in the Australian narrative still had a long way to go.

"Dr Bonita Mabo is one of the most formidable matriarchs of the struggle," Ms Davis said.

"The effort that she has put into the work on a national and international perspective … is monumental. We're continuing that call."

"Every time one of our elders die, it just brings it all back up again for us. When will we see this reconciliation for Australian South Sea Islander communities?"

Bonita Mabo remembered

Ahead of the funeral, Dr Mabo's sister-in-law Pendy Nehow said she would remember her as the matriarch of the family who was gentle yet staunch.

"Just a lovely, caring, gentle person, and don't get me wrong, she could make her voice heard if she needed to," Ms Nehow said.

"She deserves a state funeral. She's just very passionate about Indigenous rights, land rights, and wasn't frightened to speak up about it."

JCU chancellor Bill Tweddell said Dr Mabo's speech when she accepted the Honorary Doctorate of Letters was probably her last.

"Bonita, in a very quiet, very loving, very clear voice, projected her thoughts to the young people of whom there were many in the room," Mr Tweddell said.

"[She] urged them to continue with the good work, the work isn't done, you must continue with the good work.

Australian actress Deborah Mailman portrayed Dr Mabo in the 2012 film 'Mabo' and praised the 75-year-old while at an awards ceremony on Wednesday.

"She was so kind, so thoughtful, but hell don't mess with her — and that's what I loved about her," she said

"She ain't no shrinking wallflower. She had a wicked sense of humour, smart as, very kind, beautiful — everything an incredible woman is and she was that."

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