Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English Settler Colonialism

By Whitehouse-Strong, Derek | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English Settler Colonialism


Whitehouse-Strong, Derek, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English Settler Colonialism. Peter H. Russell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. 470 pp. $65.00 hc.

In Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism, Peter H. Russell examines the background and impact of two intertwined Australian legal cases, Mabo (Nos. 1 and 2). These cases centered on Indigenous land rights, and their decisions continue to have precedent-setting and far-reaching political, social, economic, and cultural consequences in Australia. Recognizing that the issues behind Mabo did not develop in isolation, however, Russell also frames his analysis against an international backdrop that includes Canada, New Zealand, and the United States and by doing so has produced a work that will be of interest to scholars in a variety of fields.

Russell traces the life of Eddie Mabo from his time on Murray Island, to his political radicalization--or awakening--on the Australian mainland, to his efforts to have the land rights of Murray Islanders recognized. Beyond being solely the story of "Eddie Mabo, the islander legal warrior," however, the narrative in Recognizing Aboriginal Title also tells "the story of imperialism, colonization, and the efforts of Indigenous peoples in the contemporary period to get out from under the colonialism imposed on them by the English-settler democracies" (p. 10). Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States were the only four British colonies where "English-speaking settlers bec[a]me the dominant population both in numbers and in the influence of their legal and political traditions" (p. 8). Russell shows that Mabo's potentially explosive impact on Australia's sense and understanding of itself stemmed from a crucial distinction that it did not share with the other European-settler dominated colonies.

While Indigenous peoples in all four colonies were subjected to "massive dispossession and colonization" (p. 117), treaty processes in Canada, New Zealand, and the United States "implicitly recognized the Indians [and Maori] as owners of the vast territories 'surrendered'" (p. 115). Settler society in Australia, however, believed that before the arrival of Europeans, the colony had been a terra null&s-an uninhabited territory, an empty land. This did not mean uninhabited in the truest sense of the word-bloody conflicts between settlers and Aborigines over lands and resources punctuated the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Rather, Australian settler society believed that the land was "unoccupied" and that Aboriginal land rights did not exist because local Indigenous populations did not exercise (and perhaps were not capable of exercising) "sovereign authority" over their lands (p. 41) and that they therefore were not "fully human" (p. 255). Euro-Australians viewed their country as being of "one-nation," that is, "a political society formed by British settlers which non-British immigrants and native people have been allowed to join" (p. …

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