Justice Richard Cooper granted native title status yesterday to Erub (Darnley Island), in the eastern Torres Strait, along with the uninhabited island, Aureed.

Five other islands, Ugar (Stephen Island), Boigu (Talbot Island), Iama (Yam Island), Gebar (Two Brothers Island) and Badu (Mulgrave Island) will have their claims finalised over the next week.

Torres Strait Regional Authority chairman Toshie Kris said the week was of great significance to island communities and gave a sense of relief that formal recognition by the Federal Court was almost complete.

“Native title is about being recognised as owners of this land. It gives meaning to our lives, that’s why it’s so important,” Mr Kris said.

Claims were first lodged in 1992 following the watershed Mabo decision.

When the hearings finish on December 14, all 14 of the Torres Strait islands will have native title status.

The native title process required the complicated question of whether public works had been built on the islands, and if so, whether native title could be applied.

The historic moment, however, was overshadowed by the death of one of the Torres Strait’s most beloved and respected elders.

Rita Mills, or Aunty Rita as she was better known, died yesterday aged 69 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

With her twin sisters, Cessa and Ina, Rita helped put the Torres Strait and its rich cultural and musical heritage on the world map.

The Mills Sisters, from Naghir Island, started performing traditional songs in 1975 and went on to share the stage with international stars of the likes of Tina Turner and Charley Pride.

With Rita on guitar, Cessa on ukulele and Ina on tambourine, their unique blend of traditional island songs, blues, creole and reggae captivated audiences the world over.

“Aunty Rita once said that when the Mills Sisters started singing, no one knew where the Torres Strait islands were,” Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy Minister, Liddy Clark, said.

“The Mills Sisters certainly did their bit to change that, and toured around the globe, with performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, at Spain’s WOMAD Festival in front of 70,000 people and many other countries.”

Academic and producer Karl Neuenfeldt, who discovered another Torres Strait performer, ‘Seaman’ Dan, said the Mills Sisters sang purely for the love of it.

“They were three hula grannies just getting up there and having a good time,” Mr Neuenfeldt said.

Cessa and Ina, now in their mid-70s retired from performing in 1996, leaving Rita to continue on as a solo artist.

However, she too was forced to retire from the stage in 2001 due to illness.