The Tiwi Islands


The Tiwi Islands are part of the Northern Territory, Australia, 80 km to the north of Darwin. They comprise Melville Island, Bathurst Island, and nine smaller uninhabited islands, there are approximately 3,000 people on the islands. 85-90% of people on the islands being aboriginal.

People and Language

Tiwi basically means “one people”. The Tiwi speak one language, but based on the purpose there are 3-4 levels of Tiwi; for example there is the old and difficult “Ceremonial Tiwi” that is passed down, when it is deemed appropriate.

The skin group, or “yiminga” of a Tiwi is matrilineal; it is inherited from the mother and determines the marriage line. The word “yiminga”, means skin-group, totem, life, spirit, breath and pulse. The skin-group into which Tiwi is born determines who they may, and may not marry. Today, when young Tiwi rather than their parents, choose their partner, they do not choose randomly, but rather from within the permitted skin groups.


The creation story – Palaneri

The Tiwi Islands of Bathurst and Melville were created at the beginning of time during the dreaming or Palaneri. Before this time there was only darkness and the earth was flat.

Mudungkala, an old blind woman arose from the ground at Murupianga in the south east of Melville Island. Clasping her three infants to her breast and crawling on her knees she travelled slowly north. The fresh water that bubbled up in the track she made became the tideways of the Clarence and Dundas Straits, dividing the two islands from the mainland.

She made her way slowly around the land mass and then, deciding it was too large, created the Aspley Strait, which divides the Islands. Mudungkala then decreed that the bare islands be covered with vegetation and inhabited with animals so that her three children left behind would have food. After the Islands were made habitable she vanished. Nobody knows from where she came or, having completed her work, where she disappeared to.

Dreamings / Totems

The dreaming or totem of a Tiwi is inherited from their father. A Tiwi may not kill or eat their dreaming – it has a significant relationship with them that must be observed and respected. Each dreaming has its associated dance, that is used to identify Tiwi at ceremonies. Some of the totems are: Crocodile, Buffalo, Horse, Turtle, Shark & Jungle Fowl. When the Tiwis are using their remarkable knowledge to hunt and 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.

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. Tiwi use natural ochre pigments. They make these colours from natural pigment in the earth.

Music & Art

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. 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.

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.