Tiwi people

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Tiwi people
Tiwi bombers.jpg
The Tiwi Bombers, a local football team from the Tiwi Islands
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Australia (Northern Territory)
Related ethnic groups
see List of Indigenous Australian group names

The Tiwi people, properly Tunuvivi,[a] are one of the many Indigenous groups of Australia. Nearly 2,000 Tiwi live in the Bathurst and Melville Islands, which make up the Tiwi Islands. The Tiwi Islanders are known for music, art and athletics. The stolen generation saw many indigenous people brought to the Tiwi Islands but not of direct Tiwi descent. The Tiwi population is around 2000.

The Dutch landed on the Melville islands in 1705, but did not colonize it. Their isolation continues even now, where they have separate independent character political relationship with Australia. The location of the Tiwi people lies close to Darwin, being around 30 miles off. The geographical land is mainly flat, there are nine rivers that flow south to north.


Tiwi, the most polysynthetic of all Australian languages,[2] is a language isolate with no apparent genetic link to the contiguous languages of Arnhem Land on the Australian mainland.[b]


The Tunuvivi people held sway over some 3,100 square miles (8,000 km2) of land on Melville and Bathurst islands.[1]


The Tiwi come from a matrilineal descent group, which the Tiwi call "skin". This group of "skin" believe in the thought of pregnancy coming from spirits. The Tiwi believe these spirits are unborn, coming from bodies of water. This traditional belief system from the Tiwi explains how the man has no physical role in birth, but a male's role is to find a spirit and uncover it, so that it is sent to the wife (Culture Sketches, 237). The kin clan must be the same for the spirit as the wife. All Tiwi members have a general kinship to each other. This is separated into "close" and "far away" kinship which refers to the distance geographically between the Tiwi people. A band unit which is smaller only rely on somebodies sex or marriage. This means people such as mother, father, or husband are considered your close kin (Culture Sketches, 238). Smaller units of bands that are dependent through one sex or one marriage only. Any person within this emblem are considered your close kin: Like mother, father, sister, & brother (Culture Sketches, 238). With this said, acceptance into Tiwi society is often very loose, with traditional Tiwi members naming newcomers in the society as "son" and "daughter" (Venbrux, 13). This is known as a "far away" kinship where other races were often still considered as outsiders to traditional Tiwi people (Culture Sketches, 238).


Marriage roles of the Tiwi plays an important role for economic, social and political status. The Tiwi consider marriage as a very important aspect of their livelihoods, as almost all people get married, especially women. Tiwi culture places great emphasis on the importance of marriage in women's lives. Since both the men and women come from a matrilineal descent group, wives descent group is important. A marriage occurs at a gravesite of the previous husband, at the tomb (Culture Sketches, 238). Remarriage of a widow is common for the traditional Tiwi, which allows the less promising hunters to be married. This is because widows have to remarry quickly, which had to be immediately after the husband dies. Since the more promising husbands are usually claimed, older women often end up with younger, less experienced men (Culture Sketches, 239).

Tiwi Islands, 2005.

Bestowal is often used in the Tiwi culture, which is the main way of receiving young wives. Successful men, usually older men often had many wives, even up to 20 for very promising husbands (Culture Sketches, 239). Men younger than 30 often had fewer or no wives. In traditional Tiwi culture, ages 30–40 were the most likely to be married to widows (Culture Sketches, 239). Older women had great importance in the society, mainly because the necessity of good in Tiwi society. The older woman know all the gathering skills, making food not be a problem for the household. On the other hand, less experienced woman created problems for the household, as they have less food. Younger women often were like apprentices, learning all the possible ways of gathering from older women to please their husband or household (Culture Sketches, 240). Even though this traditional marriage culture is still very prevalent in modern Tiwi culture, marriage has changed juristically recently because of catholic missionaries beginning to settle on Tiwi land after the 1945.According to culture sketches, the power dynamic of men and women both had their advantages. While men had a lot more political power, women were well respected for their gathering skills to provide food and favors (Culture Sketches, 240).

Hunting for food is still an important part of Tiwi life. On land, they hunt for wallaby, lizards, possums, carpet snakes, pig, buffalo, flying foxes, bandicoot, turtle and seagull eggs and magpie geese. From the sea they hunt for turtle, crocodiles, dugong and fish (Culture Sketches 238).

Dancing or yoi as they call it, is a part of everyday life. Tiwi inherit their totemic dance, evocative of the dreamtime and which defines their spiritual identity[4] from their mother. Narrative dances are performed to depict everyday life or historical events. The land on both islands is heavily forested.

Art, music and ritual

Ceiling of a Tiwi Island art gallery and studio, 2011.


Compared with Arnhem Land art, Tiwi art often appears to be abstract and geometric. With its strong patterns and use of colour, Tiwi art is considered very attractive and highly collectible. Tiwi art is used to tell stories, and the hatch patterns represent friendships within the community. Many art experts worldwide have studied Tiwi art and have analysed the meaning of Tiwi symbols. Tiwi art forms an integral part of the oral tradition passing on history and wisdom through generations. English is taught at schools as a second language, and the Tiwi communicate principally in their own language. When in mourning, it is part of their beliefs to paint their body and express their love for who has passed through music, art and dance. Painting has been practised for thousands of years as a part of ceremonies and the Tiwi totem poles are famous and have been sold all over the world. The Tiwi islanders are also well known for their figurative sculptures[5] made of ironwood painted with natural ochre pigments. They make these colours from natural pigment in the earth. When a person dies their name becomes taboo. For many years as the spirit returns to the land, you cannot say the name of the person. When the Tiwis are using their remarkable knowledge to find food in the bush, they never take the mothers or the baby animals. This proves their incredible respect for the land and knowledge of how to conserve the environment.


Music has formed an integral part, of all aspects of life on the Tiwi islands, being centered around the Tiwi initiation ceremony, Kulama (yam), and the innovative use of song on such occasions is now at risk given the weakening of the customary rituals that engendered its creativity.[6]

The Tiwi people sing songs about the land which have been handed down through the generations. They sing about many aspects of their lives, including hunting, cooking, family, animals, plants and the Australian outback. Some of these songs have been recorded and archived. There was a performance of Tiwi women singing recently in different important venues in Australia. The Tiwi "strong women's group" are currently working on a collaborative project to conserve their music. Research has led to a revival of some of the old songs. As these songs have been sung for thousands of years, it is with the strictest sensitivity that this research must be carried out.

The music of the Tiwi women "strong women's group" is being preserved and revived currently on Bathurst and Melville island.

Notable people


  1. ^ Norman Tindale wrote: 'The name Tiwi was coined for the convenience of anthropologists and others, it means "We, the only people"; the late Father E. A. Worms gave me Tunuvivi as the ancient and proper name.'[1]
  2. ^ With one exception (a Torrers Strait group) Tiwi is defined as "the most divergent language in the Australian linguistic area."[3]


  1. ^ a b Tindale 1974, p. 236.
  2. ^ Dixon 2002, p. 82.
  3. ^ Dixon 2002, p. 251.
  4. ^ Campbell 2013, p. xvii.
  5. ^ Aldridge 2017.
  6. ^ Campbell 2013, pp. 98–115.


  • Aldridge, Richard (11 December 2017). "Tiwi Sculpture". Aboriginal Bark Paintings. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  • Campbell, Genevieve (2013). Ngarukuruwala – we sing: the songs of the Tiwi Islands, northern Australia. University of Sydney doctoral thesis.
  • Dixon, Robert M. W. (2002). Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development. Volume 1. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-47378-1.
  • Goodale, J. G. (1962). "Marriage contracts among the Tiwi". Ethnology. 1 (4): 452–466.
  • Goodale, J. G. (1971). Tiwi wives.
  • Hart, C. W. (July 1930). "The Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst Islands". Oceania. 1 (2): 167–180. JSTOR 40327319.
  • Hart, Charles William Merton; Pilling, Arnold R. (1960). The Tiwi of North Australia. Holt. ISBN 978-0-030-05700-7.
  • Peters-Golden, Holly (1997). Culture Sketches: Case Studies in Anthropology (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-070-49715-3.
  • Tindale, Norman Barnett (1974). "Tunuvivi (Tiwi) (NT)". Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits, and Proper Names. Australian National University. ISBN 978-0-708-10741-6.
  • Venbrux, Eric (1995). A death in the Tiwi islands: conflict, ritual, and social life in an Australian aboriginal community. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-47351-4.
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