October 03, 1992

Article at Toronto Star

Elvis, videos influence native sanctuary


NGUIU, Australia – There’s a quizzical look on Leonard Tungutalum’s face as he considers the question.

“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 and Melville, 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Australia’s northern city of Darwin. 

The Tiwi, cousins of Australia’s Aborigines, own the islands and seem happy with their relaxed lifestyle. They catch fish, do traditional bark paintings, hunt wallabies for food and apply tribal law handed down over millennia.

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

The islands are lush in vegetation and a biological wonderland. They have several unusual species of bats, snakes and rats and a range of uncatalogued plants. The eastern half of Melville is still largely inaccessible.

Tiwis have their own language and distinct culture, nurtured through thousands of years of isolation from the mainland. In their tongue, Tiwi means “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 the hangman dance.

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

Another big Western influence is Elvis Presley.

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

Like most traditional Aborigines, the Tiwi revere their dead. If someone living shares the name of one who has recently died, he must take another name for a year. At the end of this period, the mourners gather in a traditional farewell ceremony to send the spirit of the dead to the mainland.

Tungutalum lost his name when a friend died, and for a year was known to everyone as “Elvis.”

Tiwis are worried about their future. Their culture and self- respect remained relatively intact despite 204 years of white contact . . . until videos came. In a place where there are 20 cars, a dozen telephones and no cinemas, videos have grabbed the imagination of younger Tiwis.

What concerned the elders was that some youngsters who watched violent films took to wearing camouflage and vandalizing property, and “getting up to no good.” That problem was snuffed by the elders laying down the traditional 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 the wire-fenced premises, and must have his own glass that is left behind after use.