Last updated 17 October 2022
Meeting Tiwi locals and learning about their island culture
Passing the island’s southern coastline from the open deck of our SeaLink ferry, I see nothing beyond the dense thicket of trees hugging the white sandy shore. As we enter Shoal Bay, I spy multi-coloured corrugated rooves peeking through the trees indicating the first sign of civilisation – Wurrumiyanga – Bathurst’s main settlement.
The tropical Islands Melville and Bathurst together with a selection of nine smaller islands make up the Tiwi Islands, 80 Kilometres (50 miles) north of Darwin. On Bathurst, I am about to meet direct descendants of a civilisation who’ve inhabited the island for 7,000 years.
In early May 2019, I travelled the 2.5 hours on the Sea Link ferry linking up with AAT Kings and Tiwi Tours on Bathurst Island, the second largest of the Tiwi Islands. The half-day tour on Bathurst gives visitors an opportunity to delve into a culture that has existed independently for an incredible length of time AND without invasion from any other nation or culture.
Welcome to Bathurst Island
On the beach, we’re greeted by two friendly Tiwi Tour employees who direct our small group of eight towards a minibus. As the bus driver navigates the dusty unsealed streets, our guide introduces himself as Trevor number two. Pointing to the driver he says, “This is Trevor number one.”
“Just shout Trevor and one of us will answer,” Trevor (two) adds laughing.
The bus turns into a narrow road. A cluster of shanty houses line either side of the laneway. As we exit the bus Trevor (two) introduces our group to our hosts, Romolo (Romy) and Thaddeus (Teddy.)
The three men crouch over a small fire pit covered with straggly tree cuttings. Trevor reaches under the green leaves flicking a cigarette lighter. He’s attempting to set the green leaves alight.
“Traditions change,” he says holding up the lighter. “There have been some improvements from the older days,” he adds laughing.
A blanket of thick smoke rises from the centre of the leaves. l watch our hosts cup their hands under the billowing plumes, scooping up handfuls of the grey clouds and fanning it onto themselves. For Aboriginals, the welcoming ceremony is a way of letting their ancestral spirits know visitors are coming on to country and to ensure no harm comes to our group. Aboriginals believe the smoke cleanses the body and helps ward off evil spirits.
“We use the smoking ceremony for when you feel bad, or sad and you need to get rid of whatever bad feelings you brought with you,” says Romy.
We‘re invited to walk around the fire pit and follow suit. One by one we reach out scooping the plumes of pungent smoke and sweeping it inwards. As we do this, the three men tap their clapping sticks, a rhythmic background sound as we circle the pit. We revel in the welcoming ceremony. A beautiful tradition showing their connection to country.
Following our welcoming ceremony, we’re invited to help ourselves to morning tea. With a cup of freshly boiled billy tea and a chunk of warm cheesy homemade damper, Romy discusses Tiwi culture.
A proud Tiwi culture with an incredible history
Around 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, the Tiwi Islands were connected to the mainland through what is now the Coburg Peninsula in western Arnhem Land. As sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age – estimated to be 15,000 years ago – the two islands separated from the mainland and each other with the creation of the Aspley and Dundas Straits. Being separated from the mainland, Tiwi people had minimal contact with the outside world. In isolation, they developed a culture distinctly different from the first peoples on the mainland. A culture dating back 7,000 years.
According to the Creation Stories, passed down through many, many generations (around 280 generations, yet another remarkable fact) in story, song, dance, and painting, the Tiwi spirit ancestors created the land and sea during Palaeneri – the Dreaming Time (before living memory.)
Legend has it an older blind woman named Mudungkala arose from the earth carrying three babies in her arms. As she travelled from southeast Melville Island to the north, the tracks she made as she crawled became the Clarence and Dundas Straits, separating the island from the mainland. When Mudungkala decided the island was too large for one landmass, she created the Aspley Strait dividing the two islands.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to discover the Tiwis, initially in 1636 and later in 1705. Dutch merchant Pieter Pieterszoon was in charge of the first expedition. They were searching for goods to trade.
A 23-page booklet written by Historian Peter Forrest for the Tiwi Land Council (The Tiwi meet the Dutch: the First European Contacts published in 1995) describes the impressions the Dutch explorers on board the ships had of the Tiwi people.
To the Tiwi, their islands were ‘the world.’ A rich country, able to sustain numerous, vigorous, and healthy people who had a full and complex cultural life.*
But to the Dutch (with their European values) the Tiwi people had no possessions of any value for exchange. The islands lacked even the most basic life essentials.*
*Extracts from Peter Forrest’s booklet.
The women of the Tiwi Islands
Trevor turns to the three women who are busily working on their craft. He speaks in Tiwi to them.
“Young girls go with their elders on foraging walks,” explains Romy. “They look for pandanus leaves and for food. This is women’s business and I’ll let them explain to you what they do.”
The Elder of the group and the spokeswoman, Jacinta, looks up and in a soft voice, explains the colours used in the paintings, she and the other women, Pamela and Roslyn are working on.
“We use three different base colours,” she says shyly. “The yellow and white are natural ochres sourced locally from around here. To achieve the red, we burn the yellow ochre.”
“And where does black come from?” someone in our group asks.
“Bunnings,” Teddy shouts out, chuckling with laughter.
Ignoring Teddy’s joke, Jacinta picks up a circular band from a bag near her chair. These are ceremonial headbands made from the fibres of a pandanus tree. Jacinta demonstrates this by placing a headband on her shoulder-length white hair.
It is the women who work on the pandanus, stripping off the spiky leaves and softening them before they can be used for weaving. Jacinta’s mother and grandmother taught them the intricacies of weaving and now they teach the next generation.
“We take young girls aged around nine out for foraging walks to collect pandanus and search for food. While we walk, we tell cultural stories about the past and the present. This way we pass on our culture to the younger generation,” Jacinta explains.
They learn what our mothers showed us. We don’t need books because we have our stories. They’re the same stories my mother told me and her mother told her.”
The men, Romy explains, take the boys out hunting and fishing.
“In Tiwi we are rich,” says Romy. “We have both a supermarket and pharmacy here, all we need to do is go out and find the food and the bush medicine. In the water, we find fish, mangrove worms, mussels, and clams.”
The four skin groups or “yiminga”
Roslyn and Pamela are painting the outside half of an empty mussel shell. They’re dipping a paintbrush into plastic containers with ochre colours. Their delicate brushstrokes create a design with four elements.
Picking up a finished shell, Romy explains the meaning behind each design. They represent the four skin groups or “yiminga” which means totem: life, spirit, breath, and pulse.
“Tiwi people are given a moiety by our father and skin colour by our mother. It forms the whole of your life.”
There are four skin groups, “wantarringuwi” (meaning sun), “Miyartiwi” (pandanus), “Marntimapila” (stone), and “Takaringuwi” (mullet.) Every Tiwi is born into a skin group, inherited from the mother and determines the marriage line, the relationships you may have. Who they can talk to, and what lessons they will be taught.
Tiwi people must choose who to marry within permitted skin groups. This is how all marriages have been arranged for tens of thousands of years, allowing bloodlines to stay strong. ‘Interbreeding’ is avoided, which could be problematic in small isolated communities like the Tiwi.
Brothers and sisters growing up can interact with each other. But when they reach puberty they are not allowed to speak to each other, or sit together, we’are not even allowed to make eye contact.”
“My sister owed me some money and she was not allowed to hand it to me. She had to drop it on the ground and walk away before I could pick it up,” says Romy.
Tiwi people pride themselves on their art. Their culture and stories are expressed through paintings, carvings, weaving, and screen-printed fabrics.
There are five Tiwi art centres and on our visit to Bathurst Island, we visit Tiwi Design, within walking distance from where we had morning tea.
Tiwi Design started from a small Catholic Presbytery in 1969. The art studio now operates out of a brightly painted corrugated iron shed.
Around 18 artists work regularly at the studio producing artwork across many mediums including ochre paintings on canvas, screen-printed fabrics, glass sculptures, and ironwood carvings.
Inside the studio, I meet artist, Alan Kerinaiua. He’s seated at a long table painting a canvas. A slim paintbrush in his steady hand colouring in the ochre around the body of a serpent.
The 54-year-old Bathurst Island local began painting at 19 and says his favourite subject to paint is animals. He’s lived in Tiwi all his life.
“I like Tiwi because it’s safe and it’s quiet,” says Alan. “Darwin is so big and whenever I visit there, I miss my family.”
Standing at the table next to Alan, our tour guide Trevor tells me he and Alan are related. “We have the same grandfather, on the Mana side,” he says.
We discuss the family tree. Alan points to the lady on the front desk. “She is my granddaughter because we have the same grandmother.”
I look at the woman who looks too old to be Alan’s granddaughter and just smile. It’s a little too complicated for me to follow, but not for them.
The first female artist to work at Tiwi Design is 57-year-old Maria Josette Orsto. Maria is connected to both islands, her father’s country is at Imalu on Melville, and her mother at Wangurruwu (Marluwu) on Bathurst. Maria’s work has been exhibited widely and is featured in the National Gallery of Canberra and the Paris and Seattle Art Museum. Her works are also found at the Darwin airport.
Maria’s father Declan Apuatimi was a well-known and respected artist and ceremony man.
“My father taught me especially the skills of carving,” says Maria. “He has been my inspiration.”
Maria is very busy with her art and life on Tiwi. She lives in the township of Wurrumiyanga and has two sons. Her husband has passed away. On Sundays, she looks for food in the mangroves and goes hunting for bandicoot.
The Top End Wedding church
If you’ve seen Miranda Tapsell’s fun 2019 rom-com movie, you will remember the wedding scene filmed in a small Catholic church. It’s on Bathurst Island. The Catholic mission was established on the island in 1911 and the little wooden church with glass louvres was built in 1941. We visited the church building (no longer used as a church, but still used as a gathering place) on the tour. No one in our tour group had seen the movie, so they weren’t as excited as I was to be walking into the location for the finale to the movie. And to see in person the beautiful altar decorated in Tiwi art.
You need permission to visit the Tiwi Islands
There is no Crown or Government land on the Tiwi Islands. All land is privately-owned. Visitors are allowed on the islands, but only on Tiwi terms (they must be invited.)
“We have always said who can come to our country and who must go,” states Matthew Wonaeamirri, Chairman of the Tiwi Land Council.
Visitors apply to the Tiwi Land Council for a permit. Not only is this to preserve the privacy of Tiwi residents, but it is also to safeguard the natural environment and protect sacred sites.
If you’re visiting Tiwi as part of an organised tour (like me on the AAT Kings Tour) your permit is automatically covered. The only time permits are not required is for the big annual event held in March – the Tiwi Islands Football Grand Final and Annual Art Sale.
Tiwi the land of the smiles
The Tiwi Islands have been referred to as the ‘land of smiles‘ and it’s easy to see why. These are happy, friendly people leading an uncomplicated life. As Trevor drops us to the departing ferry he turns to our group and says, “It’s been a pleasure of me to share my culture.” Given the opportunity to gain a brief insight into one of the oldest cultures in the world, I know the pleasure was all mine, Trevor.
I wrote a story, Stories of the Tiwi Islands for Tiger Airways inflight magazine which was published in the Oct-Nov 2019 issue, I have created a link to the PDF. (Unfortunately, during the pandemic Tiger Airways ceased operating in March 2020.)
I shared the above blog post as it gives further insight into the generous Tiwi people I met and interviewed for the story.