May 23, 1992

Article at Calgary Herald

Videos concern Aussie islanders

Tiwi women face painting


Tiwi Islands, Ausralia – 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 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.

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

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

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 oddest of all, 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 have 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.

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

Tribal councils mete out punishment. This once might have involved spearings. Now transgressions are mostly dealt with by bans on drinking at the social club or by collective reprimands of individuals by the community.