May 27, 1992

Article at Globe and Mail

Money’s not needed by Australia’s Tiwis

Tiwi boys with fish spears on the beach on the north coast of Melville Island

Island cousins to the Aborigines live as they have for   the past 200 years, except for a few cars and VCRs

By WILSON da SILVA
Nguiu, Australia

THERE’S a quizzical look on Leonard Tungutalum’s face as he considers thequestion.   “Go where? There is nowhere else to go. There’s only the Tiwi Islands.”

Tungutalum is one of 2,000 people on the Tiwi Islands of Bathurst andMelville, 80 kilometres north of Australia’s northern city of Darwin. The Tiwi, cousins of Australia’s Aborigines, own the islands and seemhappy with their relaxed lifestyle.

They catch fish, do traditional bark paintings, hunt wallabies for foodand apply tribal law handed down over millennia.

Visitors arrive on the islands only with permission of the ruling TiwiLand Council. A Tiwi takes responsibility for a stranger’s conduct.

The islands are lush in vegetation, a biological wonderland. They haveseveral unusual species of bats, snakes and rats and a range ofuncatalogued plants. The eastern half of Melville is still largelyinaccessible.

“It’s entirely odd to find a patch of Australia still relatively thesame as 200 years ago,” said biologist John Woinarski of Australia’sNorthern Territory Conservation Commission.

In the wet season, generally November to March, clouds hang low overthe islands and the humidity is stifling. When the rains stop temporarily,the temperature drops.

Tiwis have their own language and distinct culture, nurtured throughthousands of years of isolation from the mainland. In their tongue, Tiwimeans “we people.”Their traditional dances mostly portray local creatures such as snakes,sharks and turtles, but there are signs of western influences.

There is the sailing ship dance, the frigate dance and oddest of all,the hangman dance.

“That’s from that movie Hang ‘em High. The mob saw that movie and madea dance,” said Tungutalum, vice-president of the community council ofNguiu, population 1,700.

Another big western influence was Elvis Presley.

Driving a reporter around Bathurst, the smaller island, Tungutalumgrins at the memory of how as a youngster he used to stand in front of amirror crooning Presley songs and swivelling his hips.

Like most traditional Aborigines, the Tiwi revere their dead. Ifsomeone living shares the name of one who has recently died, he must takeanother name for a year.

At the end of this period, the mourners gather in a traditionalfarewell ceremony to send the spirit of the dead to the mainland.

Tungutalum lost his name when a friend died, and for a year was knownto everyone as “Elvis.”Tiwis are worried about their future. Their culture and self-respecthave remained relatively intact despite 204 years of white contact - untilvideos came. In a place where there are 20 cars, a dozen telephones and nocinemas, videos have grabbed the imagination of younger Tiwis.

What concerned the elders was that some youngsters who watched violentfilms took to wearing camouflage and vandalizing property, and “getting upto no good.” That problem was snuffed by the elders laying down thetraditional law.

Alcohol abuse is a problem. There is only one “watering hole” in Nguiu,the social club, where a patron is permitted to drink only inside thewire-fenced premises, and must have his own glass that is left behindafter use.

Many Tiwis receive welfare payments or have no income at all. They areself-sufficient for food, and only need cash for imported modern goods.

Tribal councils mete out punishment. This once might have involvedspearings. Now transgressions are mostly dealt with by bans on drinking atthe social club or by collective reprimands of individuals by thecommunity.