THE 2022 AFL season will celebrate a major anniversary in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander political history.

2022 marks 30 years since the Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court of Australia and will be this year’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round theme.

In doing this the AFL will acknowledge the legacy of this decision and the profound work of Mer (Murray) Islander, the late Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo.

The major consequence of Mabo’s efforts was to change the historical falsehood that Australia was in a state of Terra Nullius or land of no one and it is for this reason Sir Doug Nicholls Round takes on great significance.

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From the commencement of his legal journey to the announcement by the High Court in Mabo’s favour took a decade.

In many respects Mabo’s struggle for recognition and land can be traced back to 1788 and the resistance to colonisation from colonial figures like Pemulwuy, Tarenorerer, Jandamara and Yagan.

But the provenance of the Mabo process has a nuanced and complex history that stemmed from the work by others like William Cooper, William Barak and Sir Doug Nicholls where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people forced the issue of human rights into the public domain as early as the 1880s and into the 1930s.

Later with the Civil Rights movements taking hold in America in the 1960’s this saw the rise of leaders in Australia like Charles Perkins and the Freedom Rides, Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji Walk Off and the Tent Embassy in Canberra.  

It is the work of Mabo and the other Torres Strait Islander claimants that positions the importance of the decision into the here and now.

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In many respects, all of these moments speak to the ultimate outcome that Eddie Mabo was seeking that being the recognition that Australia’s Traditional Owners had not ceded their land through trade or official conflict but from the fact that they had not been regarded as people.

For Mabo, the idea for change first began to germinate at, ironically, James Cook University where he was employed as a gardener.

Mabo was active on campus not just in terms of his job but speaking with the academics he met about his culture and his Mer Island birthright.

It was here, through the process of dialogue, he became aware that the traditional law that was passed down patrilineally in the Torres Strait for decades was not recognised by the Crown. For Mabo, this realisation was such an affront, he was shocked into action.

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Having worked on pearl luggers, cane-fields and the Townsville docks Mabo knew what hard work was but even he was under no illusions just how hard the process was going to be as he challenged the very foundations of Australian history and the Queensland legal system.

By undertaking this process he became a very public target where he and his family received death threats regularly, forcing Mabo to sleep in his lounge room with a loaded gun.

Having commenced the process in late May of 1982, formal legal proceedings did not start until 1986.

Ten Victorian AFL club representatives and AFL Umpire Alex Whetton gather at the MCG to launch Sir Doug Nicholls Round. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos

By 1988 and the Australian Bicentenary, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had mobilised from across the nation and headed to Sydney for Australia Day.

This was seen as a critical moment to challenge the myth of Terra Nullius as well as raise the range of issues that the Traditional Owners from across the country had dealt with for years.

This included the loss of land, culture and language as well as the issues of high incarceration rates, infant mortality and lack of education and housing.

In many ways the Celebration of the Nation became the chance for Traditional Owners to have significant impact and contest the relevance for a party when so much had been overlooked in the name of progress and the non-cessation of land.

As the legal process churned on the toll on Eddie Mabo and his family was immense. Being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer he succumbed to the disease and died in early 1992.

Five months later the High Court delivered its finding that Terra Nullius should not have been applied to Australia.

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Despite Mabo passing away before he knew the determination of this long battle his legacy became law with the Australian Government passing the Native Title Act in 1993.

It seems almost poetic that 1993 in Australia and the AFL ushered in a feeling of hope for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

1993 was the International Year of Indigenous People and gave us the indelible image of Nicky Winmar raising his jumper creating one of the most iconic sporting moments in Australian history.

In the AFL pregame in 1993 the Grand Final entertainment consisted of Archie Roach, Maroochy Barambah and Yothu Yindi.

Inspired, Essendon champion Michael Long won the Norm Smith Medal which was presented to him by fellow Tiwi Islander, and Richmond legend, Maurice Rioli.  

Nicky Winmar (left) and Michael Long look on during round 20, 1995. Picture: AFL Photos

The further legacy of this would take another four years whereby Adelaide champion Andrew McLeod, who has Torres Strait Islander heritage, which is proudly displayed on his right shoulder in the form of a Dari or headdress, also won a Norm Smith in 1997 and 1998.

For Andrew McLeod the history of Australia is something that is not lost on him and despite its difficulty is one for many non-Indigenous people to come to terms with:

"What happened from the early days from being pushed off and driven away from our land turned a lot of Aboriginal people into beggars. That’s probably the biggest thing that we’ve faced and that stands out to me as us being segregated.  I think we need to stand up and say 'we’re still here, we’re survivors, we’re still going. We’re the oldest living culture in the world and we can adapt.' People need to understand our issues and that way we can all move forward," he said in 2011.