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The Tiwi

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The Tiwi
The Beginning
• “Out of the ground rose an old, old
woman. She was blind, and she carried
three babies. Across the land she
crawled, clutching her children, and in the
furrows left by her knees fresh water
bubbled up. She turned westward and
formed the shores. She crawled further
and created the ports.”
Introduction and History
• The Tiwi live on Melville
and Bathurst Islands,
which are not only a
cultural unit but also a
geographical one.
• They are located off the
north coast of Australia
and lie about 30 miles
north of Darwin.
• The land is mostly flat,
with a low central ridge
on Melville Island rising to
about 300 feet, and
running west to east.
Introduction and History (cont.)
• On Bathurst, which
boasts less elevation,
rivers are small and
largely tidal.
• Both islands are heavily
• Northern people were
most likely in contact with
outsiders before those
living in the south.
• The Tiwi most likely had
contact with outsiders
long ago but definitive
records can not be found.
Introduction and History (Cont.)
• In 1986 the Tiwi population was aroun
• Around 1,300 lived on Bathurst Island and
around 700 lived on Melville island.
• Native Australians are
traditionally hunter and
• The Tiwi live in a varied
environment that provides
them with dietary
abundance today as it did
it the past.
• Men hunt turtles, geese,
lizards, fish, and
• Women gather edible
plants, fruits, and
Subsistence (Cont.)
• The Tiwi day begins with
women and children fanning
out to begin the day’s
subsistence activities.
• The younger men hunt and
• Young boys and older men
participated least in daily
foraging activities.
• After European settlement,
Tiwi became employed in a
variety of jobs which had to do
with settlement life like
education, health, community
service, and government.
Subsistence (Cont.)
• Each community has a shop where food
and other material goods may be
purchase, however the majority of Tiwi are
concerned with the maintenance of
hunting and foraging skills among the
• Modern-day Tiwi live in two- to
four-bedroom houses built by
outside contractors during the
past fifteen to twenty years.
• Modern-day Tiwi houses
include a kitchen, bathrooms,
electricity, and plumbing.
• Traditionally, Tiwi set up camp
in a cleared area around a fire,
with the kind of shelter
constructed dependent largely
on the season.
Settlement (Cont.)
• Every Tiwi woman and man owns land,
and has a landowning name.
Social Organization
• The word “tiwi”, in their own distinctive
tongue, means “people.”
• Traditionally, Tiwi referred to themselves
by names indicating their membership in
one of several landowning groups, which
they call countries.
Social Organization (Cont.)
• A key feature in the history of the Tiwi was
their isolation.
• Because the Tiwi were so isolated and
rarely disturbed, they thought less of
protecting or identifying their group as a
• Hunting and gathering activities were
organized as a band, but the focus of the
daily routine was the household.
• Tiwi belong to their mother’s matrilineal descent
group, which they cal their “skin.”
• This matrilineal clan is a group whose members
reckon their common descent from a group of
unborn spirit beings living in or near a body of
• For every individual, is is important to recognize
two clans: one’s own clan (that of one’s mother),
and one’s father’s clan, from whom one chooses
an individual to marry.
Kinship ( cont.)
• In the social system of the Tiwi, everyone
is, at base, kin to everyone else.
• The most basic division of kin is between
those who are close (geographically) and
those who are far away (long-way kin).
• Tiwi marriage customs have undergone
enormous change in modern times, mainly
due to the influence of Catholic
missionaries settling on the islands after
World War 2.
• Traditional Tiwi culture mandated that all
women must be married.
Tiwi Wives
• Bestowal of infant daughters and
immediate remarriage of all widows
resulted in households in which successful
old men had as many as twenty wives,
while younger men than thirty had none.
• The Tiwi explicitly made the connection
between their polygynous system and their
Tiwi Wives (Cont.)
• The crucial importance of food gathering
was a driving force behind the necessity
for men who were starting their own
households to begin by securing older
widows as wives.
Power and Prestige
• Women have great power and prestige
– Senior wives at the center of the powerful, cohesive
social and economic unit that included her daughters
and co-wives.
• Big man status a lifelong process
• Most important marker of success:
– Larder of food
• Power comes with age
Religious Beliefs
• World of the unborn
– Tiwi recognize no biological contribution of a man to the
conception of a child
• For any child to be born it must be dreamed of by its mother’s
• World of the living
– Time spent in life is focused on personal achievement and
economic independence
• World of the dead
– Relationships formed while alive are continued
Religion continued
• No “magical” explanation of the world
– No real natural disasters, absence of food or
water, threat of wild animals, and diseases
• Pukamani
– Anything forbidden
– People who were not “themselves”
• After giving birth, in a state of mourning, or undergoing
initiation rights
– Elaborate restrictions regarding food and sex
Kulama Initiation Ceremony
• Rare occasion when dispersed
households come together in joint activity.
• Yam ceremony; initiation into adulthood
• Held at the end of the rainy season,
usually spans several days
• Kaluma yams dug up and eaten
• Initiated adults must participate to ensure
their health
Sickness and Healing
• Expectation to live a long life and die of old age.
• Unfortunate occurrences brought on by one’s
own behavior.
– Children’s accidents the fault of the child’s parents
• Healing is first aid or preventive medicine
– Bloodletting and application of heat
– Urine drank as medicine
– Illness prevention contained in lessons about proper
Death and Pukamani
• In attempts to convince spirits to stay around the grave
sites, food, water, and tobacco are left
• Pukamani funeral ceremony
– Everyone who had any kind of tie to the deceased expected to
– Ritual tasks assigned by membership in certain social categories
(ex: close kin vs. long-way kin)
– Close family become Pukamani
– smear white clay ALL over their bodies
– Hair is cut/shaved
Pukamani cont.
Armbands hide Pukamani from
Pukamani cannot be near water or
touch their own food
Sex is forbidden
Everything owned by the
deceased becomes taboo
Ritually cleansed by “smoking”
Name and similar sounding words
become taboo
Messengers painted red and carry
special message sticks to
announce death
Signing and dancing part of the
Three worlds interact through
Carved and brightly painted poles
Modern Life
• Because of their involvement in WWII, Tiwi had become largely
dependent upon products supplied by military bases
• Polygamous marriages outlawed
• Converted to Christianity
• Tiwi became owners again of Melville and Bathurst Islands
• Tourism and art important part of economy
• Remained active hunters/gatherers
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