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ETHNONYMS: Bathurst Islanders, Melville Islanders


Identification. The word "Tiwi" means "people" in the language of the Aboriginal inhabitants and owners of Melville and Bathurst islands of north Australia.

Location. Melville and Bathurst islands are located 40 kilometers north of Darwin at 11° 30 S and 131° 15 E. The land (approximately 7,500 square kilometers) is relatively flat with a low central ridge on Melville Island running west to east. Running south to north from this ridge are nine rivers. On Bathurst there is less elevation and draining rivers are small and largely tidal. Along the tidal reaches of rivers and smaller streams are mangrove forests, while mixed eucalyptus and cypress forests characterize much of the uplands. At the freshwater headlands of the larger rivers are small areas of true rain-forest vegetation and along the coast are areas of sandy beach and rocky reef. This varied environment makes for a varied and rich diet for the Tiwi today as in the past. The rainfall is monsoonal, with heavy rains occurring between November and March. Almost no rain falls from June to September; the nights are cool and the air is filled with smoke from the fires of hunting parties. The range of temperatures is only a few degrees during the monsoon season, averaging about 27° C, while during the dry season the range is greater.

Demography. In 1986 the Tiwi population of the islands was about 2,000, divided between the Bathhurst Island township Nguiu with 1,300 and the two Melville Island townships of Parlingimpi and Milikapiti with 300 and 400, respectively.

linguistic Affiliation. The Tiwi speak a distinctive Language, distantly related to other Aboriginal languages. At Nguiu there is a bilingual literature center producing texts in Tiwi language for use in the local primary school. At the Parlingimpi and Milikapiti primary schools education is in English. Both Tiwi and English are used by nearly everyone. However, elders bemoan the loss of fluency in Tiwi among the younger generations. In the past, fluency in Tiwi was an important marker of full adult status, enabling both men and women to participate fully in the important ceremonial activity of composing and singing songs.

History and Cultural Relations

The prehistory of the Tiwi is related to that of other Aboriginal Australians. Recently calculated (1981) dates for earliest signs of human cultural activity are approximately forty thousand years ago. The Tiwi themselves are mentioned in historic records from the early eighteenth century, when they came in contact with Dutch, Portuguese, and British explorers. Prior to these recorded contacts by Europeans, there is evidence for early Chinese and Indonesian contact but no sustained settlement. The first foreign settlement on the Islands occurred in 1824, when the British established Fort Dundas near the contemporary Parlingimpi township. After five years of hardship the settlement was abandoned and it was nearly seventy-five years before European settlement was again attempted early in the twentieth century. In 1911, Father Gsell, M.S.C., established a Catholic mission at Nguiu on the southeastern coast of Bathurst Island, and following this development there was a significantly increased amount of contact with White Australians. The township of Parlingimpi, located near the ruins of Fort Dundas at Garden Point, was first established as a government settlement in 1939. In the late 1940s the government settlement was moved from Garden Point to Snake Bay (Milikapiti). Milikapiti continued as a government settlement until the late 1970s, when it became the first of three communities to incorporate as a township.


The Tiwi today live in housing largely built by outside contractors during the past ten to fifteen years, each with two to four bedrooms, kitchen and bath, electricity, and plumbing. Some families have built housing for themselves outside of the townships on their own local groups' land. What they gain in "rural" peace and quiet they lose in proximity to school, store, and clinicall of which are located in each township. Many families own private vehicles or boats and leave their home township frequently to hunt, visit, attend ceremonies, or fly to Darwin for shopping and visiting. Perhaps the most important recent event in the history of the Tiwi was the granting back to the traditional Tiwi owners of all their original tribal lands (both Bathurst and Melville Islands) under the Land Rights Bill (Northern Territory) of 1976.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Prior to European settlement on the islands, the Tiwi had an abundant subsistence economy of hunting, fishing, and foraging in the bush, sea, and along the shore. Increasingly after European settlement, Tiwi became employed in a variety of jobs related to settlement life, including education, health, community service, and government. While each community has a shop where food and other material goods may be purchased, the majority of Tiwi are concerned with the maintenance of hunting and foraging skills among the young. With a preference for "bush" over "store-bought" foods, Tiwi make up much of their weekly diet with native foods.

Industrial Arts. A number of local industries have had commercial success: silk-screened textiles; clothing manufacturing; pottery; and, more recently, a large pine (timber) plantationa legacy of the Australian governmentand several tourist facilities.

Trade. External trade with the mainland peoples did not exist prior to the early twentieth century and the arrival of European settlers on the islands.

Division of Labor. In the precolonial subsistence Economy the division of labor was such that hunting in the sea or air was the exclusive domain of men, while extracting roots, seeds, fruits, etc. from plants rooted in the ground was the exclusive domain of women. However, aside from these particular exclusions, both men and women hunted and gathered ground- or tree-dwelling animals, shellfish, turtle eggs, and the like from the shore, and both sexes contributed equally to the daily diet. There were no full- or part-time specialists.

Land Tenure. There are a number of named local groups that hold exclusive responsibility for geographically distinct areas (murukupupuni, or "countries") on the two islands. The number and boundaries of these countries are known to have fluctuated over the nearly one hundred years of recorded Tiwi history. Currently there are seven countries and each of these is represented by delegates to the Tiwi Land Council, which came into existence in 1976 when the islands were deeded back to the Tiwi under the Land Rights Bill. Currently one is considered an owner of one's fathers country although in the presettlement days one was an owner of the country in which one's father was buried. Owners of a country are collectively held responsible for maintaining that country (and its natural and spiritual resources) and for transmitting the knowledge of and responsibility for that country to the next generation.


Kin Groups and Descent. The matrilineal clan is a group whose members assume common descent from an ancestrally conceived group of unborn spirit beings located in clan-specific localities in or near a body of water. In the precolonial belief system, conception is accomplished when a father locates one of these unborn spirits and sends it to his wife, who must be of the same clan origin. Each clan is named and members of a clan provide physical, moral, and emotional support to fellow clan members in numerous and diverse situations. These clans are further grouped into four larger and exogamous groups. For each individual, two clans are significant: his or her own clan; and his or her father's clan. It is among the latter clan group that one should seek a spouse. One's father's clan and the natural species with which it is affiliated is also considered to be one's "Dreaming." One's Dreaming serves as inspiration for expressive ceremonial dances, songs, and art. In the social world of the Tiwi everyone is related.

Kinship Terminology. In the first ascending generation, one's parent's siblings of the same sex are classified with the parent, and their children (one's parallel cousins) are classed with one and one's siblings. One's parent's opposite-sex Siblings are distinguished from each other, as are their children (one's cross cousins and potential spouses). One's siblings are distinguished in several ways: first by gender and then by relative age. Further distinction is made for siblings who have the same father but whose mothers are of different clans. There are two further distinctions that are behaviorally Significant although unmarked by terminology. Aminiyati siblings are those who have the same (named) father's father, and "one-granny" siblings are those who have the same (named) mother's mother. Among the latter group there is strict avoidance between siblings of the opposite sex once sexual maturity is imminent, while the potentially much larger group, those who acknowledge a common grandfather, was in precolonial days the group of siblings that was largely responsible for the integrity of the countries.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In precontact timesand in some cases todaymarriages were arranged by a system of selecting a son-in-law for a young woman at the conclusion of her first-menstruation celebration. The young woman (who, in the past, would already have been married by this time) and her son-in-law are in a reciprocal relationship in which the son-in-law is obliged to "feed" his potential wife's mother, providing her not only food but any goods and services she demands. In return he will receive as wives all daughters born to his mother-in-law prior to their sexual maturity. For each woman, this kind of marriage arrangement generally characterized her first marriage and also often her secondary Marriages to a deceased husband's brother(s) through the Levirate. For the male, this form of marriage was often contracted for well past middle age, as it was the most prestigious and required considerable political acumen and accomplishment. Earlier marriages for men (after the age of 30 or more years) were most frequently to older women, widows of older brothers. Because a woman was usually married to a series of younger men, divorce rarely took place. Changes in the regulation of marriage have occurred since contact. While the actual cohabitation of a young girl with her promised husband is more frequently not taking place, such marriage contracts are still being made. In many of these cases the mother-inlaw/son-in-law relationship still follows the traditional pattern, and the marriage usually conforms to the societal preference for marrying someone in one's father's matrilineal clansomeone who falls into the category of acceptable potential spouses yet who is, at the same time, someone closer in age. There are, however, an increasing number of marriages of Tiwi to non-Tiwi Aboriginals of mixed (Asian or European) background.

Domestic Unit. The precontact domestic unita woman, her daughters, her daughters' husbands, and her grandchildrenremains today a viable domestic unit, although monogamy is almost universal. Within the townships there are groups of houses in close proximity to each other that operate as economic units. The modern domestic unit is often under the "direction" of a senior woman as in the past, and all members contribute differentially, from wages, pensions, and foraging activities. Ceremonial activities (dancing and carving) are now monetized, as is gambling (a redistributive institution).

Socialization. The socialization of children is carried out by the entire domestic unit today as in the past. All children attend elementary school in their home community until the sixth grade. Some may continue their schooling at Nguiu, in Darwin, or even farther away from home in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, or Alice Springs. A few Tiwi have gone beyond high school, and in each community there are women and men who have been trained as educators, health workers, or office managers. The annual kulama yam ceremony was the event at which initiation of males and females was finalized. Initiates traditionally participated in six such annual Ceremonies, advancing in rank in each and ultimately reaching senior status as a full initiate between ages 40 and 50. Today, initiation is more often for males (though women attend and participate) and involves only one or two participations. In contrast to practices on the mainland, there is no body scarification or mutilation (circumcision or subincision) in Tiwi male initiation. There is, however, a ritual sequence of body painting and decoration, heavily imbued with symbolic meaning.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The precontact social organization was characterized by the matrilineal clans and by the local groups affiliated with each country. In matrilineal clans, Leadership was largely ceremonial and was conferred according to seniority and competence among the males. Under the Country system of organization, some leaders in the past were men who achieved great prominence through arranging multiple (reportedly sometimes as many as a hundred) marriage contracts for themselves; they also were men whose domestic groups were very large and regionally influential. Such men also gained notoriety as ceremonial leaders in song, dance, and art.

Political Organization. Today, imposed upon the kinship, kin group, and local group organizations are (in ascending order) the township council, the Tiwi Land Council, and the Northern Territory and Australian Commonwealth governments. In each of the three communities an elected township council is empowered to impose bylaws regulating community affairs and is responsible for budgeting and for maintaining township services. The council hires a town clerk (a manager) and other personnel to manage and oversee the various operations of the township. Both men and women serve on the town council.

Social Control. The Tiwi Land Council meets once a month to decide issues that concern matters outside of those of individual townships. While most of these have to do with land and its use, some are concerned with matters of law and its enforcement. Who or what body is concerned with social control and conflict resolution is sometimes problematic. Clan members are often the proper ones to resolve domestic and intradomestic conflict. However, the territory government maintains a two-person police station at Parlingimpi and one or two police aides in each township to handle internal disputes.

Conflict. Conflicts occurred between matrilineal clans and patrifocal local groups and mainly concerned rights to women as wives, almost never other resources. Today, such conflicts are still settled by localized close cognatic and/or matrilineal kin groups or, if this fails, by affiliated matrilineal clans that consider that their close relationship requires their involvement on behalf of their kin. A very few interregional conflicts are part of the oral history of contemporary Tiwi and were resolved by holding a "war" at a designated place and time, during which the opposite sides took turns throwing and dodging spears and throwing clubs. Interpersonal conflicts were often settled by sneak attacks and ambushes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tiwi religion focuses on ancestral spirits of those who have lived in the recent past and including those who, in "the Dreamtime," created the land, sea, and all that is found within. The Catholic church is a strong and consistent element of daily life in Nguiu and Parlingimpi and to a lesser extent in Milikapiti. At the present time there is open acceptance of Tiwi ceremonial life by the church and church Members, although in the past this was not so.

Ceremonies. The annual kulama yam ceremony is held near the end of the wet season (November-March). The three-day ritual involves the digging, preparation, cooking, and eating of the kulama type of wild yam. The yam symbolizes reproduction and maintenance of life, both human and nonhuman. Participants must, in addition to carrying out the preparation and cooking of the yams, compose and sing more than a dozen new songs throughout the three days. Other major ceremonies include the celebration of the transition of the living to the world of the dead. In connection with funeral rituals, elaborately carved and painted poles are commissioned and paid for by the close kin of the deceased, and for related activities painted bark baskets and spears are also manufactured. In the songs and dances of these ceremonies, historic and mythological events as well as contemporary events and problems (complaints or explanations) are remembered and marked. To both compose and understand the sung metaphoric poetic allusions to significant elements in Tiwi culture requires an extremely high level of verbal skill in the Tiwi language.

Arts. With the slow erosion of Tiwi language in favor of fluency in English in postcontact times, the verbal arts are in danger of substantial loss, whereas the visual arts (painting, sculpture, and dance) are being maintained, as they not only are an essential part of the ceremonial life (reinforcing the Tiwi worldview) but also are being translated to the commercial production of wood sculpture, textiles, clothing and Pottery design, and other related enterprises.

Medicine. Traditionally, good commonsense medical knowledge among the Tiwi utilized the curative values of the island environment. Although some men and women were said to have greater knowledge of particular plants, animal parts, and other curative items, there were no full-time or even part-time curers. Magical death, sorcery, bone pointing, and kidney-fat theft are considered to be illnesses caused by mainlanders and are believed to be cured only by mainland curers. The spread of these illnesses is a feature of Contemporary Tiwi life, and the people seek cures from non-Tiwi specialists on the mainland.

Death and Afterlife. The most important myth of the Tiwi deals with the permanence of death, after the death-by-neglect of Purukupali's son. This culture hero walked into the sea with his son's body, declaring that henceforth all Tiwi shall die and never return to life. The spirits of the deceased reside in the country where they are buried, although to accommodate the increased mobility of Tiwi (over to the mainland and overseas) the spirits are said to be able to travel back to their "homeland" as well. The life in this spirit world mir-TOTS that of the living, in that the dead hunt, fish, and hold parallel ceremonies with the living.


Goodale, Jane C. (1971). Tiwi Wives: A Study of the Women of Melville Island, North Australia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Hart, C. W. M., Arnold R. Pilling, and Jane C. Goodale (1988). The Tiwi of North Australia. 3rd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.