When Eddie Koiki Mabo’s grandson, Kaleb Mabo, returned to the land his grandfather fought so hard for, he found it abandoned and overrun by the jungle and sea.

This comes 20 years after Mr Mabo returned to Mer (Murray) Island to pay respects to his heritage.

Now, he plans on restoring Las village on Mer Island, his grandfather’s final final resting place and traditional home.

Eddie Mabo was born in the village of Las on Mer Island in the Torres Straits.

He was involved in the 1967 Referendum to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people included in the census and was president of the Council for the Rights of Indigenous People. Because of his political involvements, he was later denied the right to return to his homeland.

In 1982, Mabo and other Mer Islanders, Reverend David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee, Sam Passi and James Rice began their legal claim in the High Court of Australia for ownership of their lands on the island of Mer.

Eddie Koiki Mabo in Townsville, 1991. Picture: Bethyl Mabo, AIATSIS Collection

In January 1992, Mabo died from cancer aged 56.

Five months later the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of Mabo and his plaintiffs in a landmark decision which came to be known as the Mabo case.

That decision paved the way for the 1993 Native Title act which underpins claims over traditional lands to this day.

Kaleb said Las Village on Mer Island had always held cultural significance to his family and other communities.

“In the days of Malo, Las was the hub of the island – it is where all the law and order took place,” he said.

“It’s the village itself that Malo, the god of the Meriam people, resided in.

“It’s also the home of the zogo le, the sacred people like high priests and Malo’s right hand man. That’s the importance and history and heritage of this place.”

Kaleb said Las had not only been overrun by jungle and sea but Eddie’s resting place also needs restoration.

“During the 25th anniversary it was funded to redo his resting place but a lot of jobs were left incomplete,” he said.

“Like the tiles hadn’t been laid down properly so when people have visited they’ve stepped on them and cracked and now all the tiles are cracked.

“There’s a plumbing system that needed to be installed but it never was and now it’s all going to waste.”

The restoration is very important to Kaleb and his family especially given its historical value to the Meriam people.

“It’s really important to myself in regards to my own cultural journey,” he said.

“By doing this it is bringing together my Mabo family and pulling them into this journey and showing them how important it is to keep that cultural connect to family and community.

“It’s not only paying respects to Koiki, but it’s also paying respects to the land and it’s acknowledging that place and paying honour to our past.”

The restoration of the land will allow for sacred dances and ceremonies to be performed once again.

“We have what we call kab kar, translated to true dance… some of them can only be performed at Las,” Kaleb said.

“A lot of them have to have agreeance with the entire community to be able to conduct certain ceremonies.

“They very rarely occur these ceremonies so it shows you the importance of what it means to community and to the family.”

Kaleb said the Mabo decision was a turning point for Indigenous Australians, but there was still a long way to go.

“The decision has given Indigenous Australians a platform to fight for their lands within the legal system,” he said.

“But Indigenous Australians are yet to see a major change that I guess was hoped for.

“As a nation we’ve got a long way to go in fully exploring the Mabo decision.”

Kaleb has set up a GoFundMe page to help fund the restoration of Las. He posts updates on the project from his Facebook page.