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Decades after Eddie Mabo's historic native title win, a new court victory

This is the story of five different First Nations groups, a vast area of sea and an unprecedented legal outcome.

It is the story of traditional owners taking back control and a decades' long journey come full circle.

"This is a continuation of what Uncle Eddie started all those years ago," Ned David, chair of Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council, tells ABC RN's Law Report.

Back in 1992, Eddie Mabo, who lived on the Mer Island in the Torres Strait, won his historic native title case in the High Court of Australia, which accepted that Mabo had exclusive possession of the land he lived on.

Now, in a landmark Federal Court determination, the traditional owners of Mer Island and other First Nations peoples in the Torres Strait region have won native title over the sea.

The determination was officially handed down on Thursday Island in November 2022, which was celebrated with singing and dancing.

"Everyone knows that, sadly, the [Mabo] decision came after [Eddie Mabo] passed.

"And you know his famous words, 'all the resources, all the fishes in the sea belongs to me and my people'.

"We're basically now delivering on those prophetic words," David says

Mainland Aboriginal groups the Ankamuthi and Gudang Yadhaykenu, and the Kaurareg, Kulkalgal and Kemer Kemer Meriam people of the Torres Strait now have native title over parts of the Torres Strait, the Coral Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria.

"This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things … words fail me," David says.

"Western law has finally caught up to and is recognising what's been around for a very long time."

That is, an Indigenous connection to the ocean that is as meaningful as to the land.

"It's never happened before … where Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal brothers and sisters have got a consent determination, recognising combined groups' rights and interests in the waters," David says.

"We're reconnecting amongst ourselves."

In December 2022, the Federal Court approved a settlement reached between five First Nations groups, and the Queensland and Federal governments, that recognised native title over 40,000 square kilometres of Torres Strait sea country. It is the first time a native title claim has brought together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to achieve joint native title outcomes.

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