The Tiwi – an Introduction

From “Portrait of a People – The Tiwi of northern Australia” by Heide Smith 2008

The Tiwi islands were once known as the Sentinel Islands, because of their strategic location 60 kilometres
north of Darwin in the Timor Sea. The most easterly of the two, Melville Island, covers 5,788 square
kilometres, and Bathurst Island 1693 square kilometres. They are the largest Australian islands after
Tasmania, so large in fact, that they create their own distinct regional weather pattern within the tropical
monsoonal zone. Annual rainfall in the northwest of the islands approaches 2000 mm, the highest in the
Northern Territory (NT), whilst on the east coast of Melville Island it can be less than 1400 mm. As a result
there are abundant fresh water springs on both islands, which together with numerous bores in the
townships provide ample drinking water. The daily temperature range is from 19 C to 36 C depending on
the season, although it can be colder inland. A feature of the north Australian coastline is the high tidal
range, which on the Tiwi Islands can reach seven metres. There are two major seasons, the wet which is
hot, humid and cyclonic, and the dry which is cool, and yes, dry. The Tiwi describe the seasons according to
the many natural events which occur during the year. Thus the wet season is called Jamutakari – the season
of rains. As the grass dries, it is burnt off and fresh shoots appear, attracting the wallabies to the cleared
areas where they can be more easily hunted. This period is called Kumurrupuni – the season of smoke. At
the hottest time of the year the cicadas appear, deafening everyone with their singing, an event the Tiwi
aptly call Tiyari – the season when the cicadas are heard. Territorians call the period leading up to the wet
season “the build up”, a particularly hot, humid, and unpleasant time, when tempers fray and much beer is
consumed. The Tiwi call it Pumwanyingari – the season of thunder.
Clear warm seas rich in fish and other marine creatures are flanked by large stands of mangroves, rocky
headlands and beautiful clean white sandy beaches. Some of those “creatures” include crocodiles (salties),
box jellyfish and sharks, so swimming in the sea can be deadly. Fortunately, there are a number of fresh
water swimming holes on both islands, which are very popular with young Tiwi. The northern coast-lines of
both islands are home to dugongs and marine turtles, both of which are currently protected as part of a
conservation programs involving Tiwi marine rangers.
The islands are generally low-lying with numerous shallow lakes, swamps, and mangrove-lined tidal inlets.
However,  on Melville Island, there is a timbered sandstone range 160 metres high, running for a hundred
kilometres west to east, which drains predominantly to the north. Vegetation cover varies from shrubby
timber to areas of dry and wet rain-forest, rich stands of eucalyptus, and commercial plantations of cypress
pine and acacia on Melville Island. Wild pigs, dingoes, snakes and wallaby are plentiful on both islands,
with water buffalo and geese completing the menu on Melville, which is also home to mobs of fine looking
wild-horses. They are reported to be descendents of the whalers which carried the Australian Light Horse
in the desert campaigns of the First World War, and were quarantined on the island on their return to
Less than one hundred years ago, the Tiwi were hunter gatherers living in small family groups (bands);
there were no villages, in fact there were no permanent settlements of any sort. Today the Tiwi are firmly
ensconced village-dwellers. There are now almost 2,700 Tiwi, largely congregated in three communities.
Nguiu on Bathurst Island is the largest with a population of 1600. On Melville Island, 450 Tiwi live at
Pirlangimpi, formerly known as Pularumpi or Garden Point, while another 600 live at Milikapiti (Snake
Bay). Other small communities have settled at Wurankuwu on Bathurst Island, and at Paru on Melville
The Tiwi Islands Local Government (TILG) in partnership with the Northern Territory Government,
govern the Tiwi. Each of the major communities is represented on the TILG, together with members
appointed by the Tiwi Land Council (TLC), which has paramount powers relating to land use, culture, and
economic development. The TLC itself was formed in 1978, following formal recognition of Tiwi ownership
in 1977 after the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
Education on Melville Island is run by the NT Government, as is the child-care centre on Bathurst Island.
The junior school, community education centre providing secondary education for older children, and the
adult education centre on Nguiu, are operated by the Catholic Church. Most children on Melville Island,
who seek a secondary school education, attend boarding schools in Darwin. In government schools
children are taught in English, whilst the Catholic Schools teach in both Tiwi and English. At home, the
Tiwi still speak to each other in their own language. Pickertaramoor, once the headquarters of the forestry
industry, is soon to become the site of a new Tiwi College for secondary students; (this has now happened)
Health care is the responsibility of the NT Government, with clinics in Nguiu, Milikapiti and Pirlangimpi.
Doctors and other health care specialists visit periodically, but if necessary, patients are flown to Darwin.
Like most indigenous people, the Tiwi have lower life expectancies than white Australians. Numerous
studies, some ongoing, have been carried out on the Tiwi Islands, and the health of the Tiwi in some areas
has improved. In other areas it has not.
There are few full time job opportunities on the islands.  Forestry, and to a lesser extent, marine activities,
are the hope for the future. The largest employer is still the government, although the art centres employ
many fine artists, and tourism and the stores provide some employment opportunities. Employment
benefits and allowances paid by Centre-link or CDEP are linked to obligatory part time employment,
training or study.
Most days, groups of a dozen or so Tiwi gather under shade trees to play cards. Not all the Tiwi in the
groups, which are generally segregated by gender, are players; a card game seems to provide an
opportunity for neighbours and friends to meet and gossip. Some games offer small-stake, low-risk
gambling, others do not, and there are clearly losers as well as winners.
Tiwi towns could never be called “tidy-towns”: to my amazement I discovered that they do actually
compete in the national competition of that name. The Tiwi obviously love dogs, with dogs for hunting pigs
and wallaby being particularly valued. Restrictions have been placed on the number that can be owned by
each family, but even so, dogs are everywhere, and as feeding one’s dogs does not appear to be a priority,
they continuously scavenge for food amongst dustbins and around cooking fires. As the Tiwi, particularly
older Tiwi, much prefer to eat outside their houses rather than inside, there is a cooking fire outside every
A small barge based at Nguiu commutes daily, or as required between the two islands, whilst a larger
barge transports supplies and vehicles to and from Darwin. Passengers can now choose to commute
between Darwin and the islands by air or sea ferry. Access to the islands for non-Tiwi requires a permit,
although Tiwi Tours brings a steady stream of escorted day- trippers to the islands on most week days.
After school, kids of both sexes gather on various ovals and sports fields to play Aussie Rules (Australian
Rules football or AFL), which they play very well. Long-legged, tall, slim and often bare-footed, they show
remarkable skill and athleticism. There are eight teams in the senior-men’s league, and too many teams to
count in the junior “Auskick” competition.  A number of girls play in the NT Women’s team, and many
Tiwi men have gone on to become household names in the AFL, including David Kantilla, Ronnie Burns,
Dean and Maurice Rioli, and Jack and Michael Long. This year a Tiwi Island team has been admitted on a
trial basis into the Darwin AFL senior competition. Their results so far have been sensational, to the
ecstatic delight of the entire population.
The twenty years recorded by Heide’s camera is an insignificant speck of time, when viewed against the
fifty –odd-thousand year history of the Tiwi in Australia, but this has been a period of turmoil. The Tiwi are
determined to preserve their traditional culture, but at the same time they recognise that they must adapt
to the ways of modern Australia. Many Australians today are uncomfortable with the ever accelerating pace
of change – it is not surprising that the Tiwi are having difficulty coping. Although “Tiwi – Portrait of a
People” is first and foremost a book of photographs taken by Heide of the Tiwi and of Tiwi life, it is more
than just a picture book, in that it also relates the history, and describes the customs, lifestyle and culture
of the Tiwi. Heide maintained a diary of her experiences with the Tiwi, and some of the stories of her
adventures have been included.
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