By: Sabina Lohr
“The word Tiwi means ‘We are one,’” Romolo (Romie) Kantilla says, “because my ancestors thought they were the only people on the planet.” Fifty miles off Australia’s north coast, where the Timor and Arafura Seas meet, live the Aboriginals of the Tiwi Islands. Isolated from the influences which have brought many of Australia’s 460,000 other Aboriginals into the modern world, the natives of these islands hold tight to their traditional way of life. Fully aware that their unique culture could become negatively affected by the forces of modernity, the Tiwis take measures to ensure that their fishing, forestry, retailing, and tourism industries remain true to their roots of the people.
On an Aussie Adventure small group tour, I rode through the desolate jungle island of Bathurst, which along with the other Tiwi Island of Melville, holds 2,100 Aboriginals. At a clearing, a dozen indigenous people waited. They liquefied ochre gathered from cliffs on the islands’ beaches and painted their faces in traditional white, orange, and yellow patterns passed down from their fathers. This ochre is also used in the islands’ many art centers, where Aboriginal artists paint their hues on canvas, paper, linen, and bark to satisfy their creative bents while promoting the culture of the islands. Small groups often head to the islands for tours which focus primarily on its art.
After their faces were painted, the Tiwis began to sing and clap together sticks from ironwood trees. We sat in a semicircle, where three of the women brushed smoldering leaves quickly from our heads to our hands to chase away evil spirits that may have followed us to their land. This smoking ceremony was followed by the traditional shark dance and crocodile dance, which mimicked the moves of the creatures after which they are named. These dances, Romie explained, are the Tiwi Islands’ equivalent of a handshake.
Like other island traditions, the dances are handed down through the generations in an effort to keep their culture alive. Every Sunday the men pass their hunting skills on to their sons, by taking them into the bush to look for feral pigs, wallabies, copper snakes, and iguana as well as buffalo. Buffalo have populated Melville Island since 1824 when the British brought ashore two, and now their numbers have now multiplied to 200,000. Romie’s hunting skills impressed us when he walked off the road and strode silently into the bush. He crouched beneath a tree and quickly reached up, then walked back to us carrying a light brown reptile with a bold orange fan of skin encircling its neck. “A frilly-necked lizard,” he said, passing its long tail into my hand for me to hold.
These Aboriginals pass along their hunting skills and other traditions out of what they believe is necessity. With their numbers so small and their lives on the islands so remote, they follow centuries-old measures against inbreeding. Throughout life, all contact, including eye contact, is forbidden between brothers and sisters as well as cousins of the opposite sex. When someone is approaching life’s end, finally they are allowed to look their close relatives in the eye and reminisce about lives shared yet separated by cultural necessity.
The Aboriginals of the Tiwi Islands want to keep this and all their traditions alive for as long as they inhabit the earth. “I would be sad losing that culture,” Romie said. “I want to keep it strong. I want it to carry on. I don’t want to lose it.”
Photos by Sabina Lohr