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.

Tiwi Identity

The Tiwi islands consist of Bathurst Island and Melville Island. These islands are then comprised of 8 "countries". One inherits country from their father – it is patrilineal.

Tiwi Dreaming

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

Skin Group

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.

There are four skin groups, namely;
"wantarringuwi" ( sun),
"Miyartiwi" (pandanus),
"Marntimapila" (stone),
"Takaringuwi" (mullet),

Each of thesehas many sub groups.

The skin-group into which Tiwi is born determines who they may, and may not marry. For example, a person in the Wantarringuwi group can marry someone from the Miyartiwi or Takaringuwi groups, but never someone from the Marntimapila group, or from their own group, as shown below:

Today, when young Tiwi rather than their parents, choose their partner, they do not choose randomly, but rather from within the permitted skin groups. When brothers and sisters reach puberty they are not allowed to be alone together, or even to sit together without a chaperone being present; these avoidance rules apply at school, when travelling and even in group-photographs.

Tiwi Ceremonies

Ceremonies play an important role in Tiwi culture. Traditionally each ceremony had its own form, which could vary depending upon the circumstances, and these were transmitted orally. Current ceremonies reflect these traditions, while taking account of modern day circumstances. There are three main ceremonial events performed: • the Kulama (yam) ceremony, • the funeral ceremony (iliana) - including the smoking and healing ceremony • the mortuary or Pukamani ceremony The Kulama ceremony occurs towards the end of the wet season. It is a celebration of life and involves three days and nights of ritual body paintings, singing and dancing complete with the eating of yams according to a ritual custom. Concentric circles often appear as the main element of contemporary Tiwi patterns, representing the Kulama circle or ceremonial dancing ground. The Pukamani ceremony is the Tiwi people's burial ceremony and includes singing, dancing and the making of special carved poles called tutini as well as tungas and arm bands. These large poles are made from the trunk of the ironwood tree and are carved and decorated to celebrate the dead person's life and spiritual journey.

Pukamani - Mortuary Ceremony

Performance of this ceremony ensures that the spirit of the dead person goes from the living world into the spirit world. The Pukamani is a public ceremony and provides a forum for artistic expression through song, dance, sculpture and body painting. The ceremony occurs months after the deceased has been buried. The Tiwi believe that the dead person's existence in the living world is not finished until the completion of the ceremony. The final Pukamani is the climax of a series of ceremonies that traditionally continued for many months after the burial of the dead. There is usually one iliana (funeral ceremony) at the time of death and then many months later the final Pukamani. The ceremony culminates in the erection of monumental carved and decorated Pukamani poles which take many months to prepare and are impressive gifts to placate the spirit of the dead. These poles are placed around the burial site during the ceremony. They symbolise the status and prestige of the deceased. Participants in the ceremony are painted with natural ochres in many different designs, transforming the dancers and providing protection against recognition by the spirit of the deceased. Those participants closely related to the deceased wear decorated armbands (pamajini) during the performance. Pamajini are woven from the leaves of the pandanus or screw palm and are decorated with natural ochres and the feathers of the white cockatoo. The white cockatoo's association with the Pukamani ceremony extends beyond the use of its feathers for headbands and armbands. It is believed to keep a sentinel eye on wayward spirits lost on route to the island of the dead. During all ceremonies a series of dances (yoi) are performed; some are totemic and some serve to act out the narrative of newly composed songs. Aside from these creative and illustrative performances there are those that certain kin - such as the mother, father, sibling and widow - must dance. When all is concluded and the last wailing notes of the amburu (death song) have died away, the grave is deserted and the burial poles allowed to decay.

Kulama - Yam Ceremony

Not long before the death of Purrukapali, when all animals and birds were still men and women, Purutjikini, a boobook owl man and his wife Pintoma, a barn owl woman decided to perform the first Kulama ceremony. The white-headed sea eagle Jirakati was the first initiate and still wears the ceremonial paint. At the close of the creation period, the spirit performed a second and complete Kulama ceremony. This included the preparation of the poisonous Kulama yam for food and the performance of all stages of initiation. At its completion they agreed that this form of ceremony should always remain the same. When a gold ring forms around the moon during the final stages of the wet season Japara the moon man is performing Kulama. Inside this ring a multitude of star people sing and dance Kulama songs. This is the time to prepare for Kulama, the annual celebration of life. The Kulama yam is a round root vegetable found in the surrounding monsoon forest. It is highly poisonous when not properly prepared. While the yams soak in fresh water the earth oven is prepared. Sand and grass are pushed outward from the centre of the ceremonial ground and a large hole is dug. Dry sticks about one metre long are pushed upright into the ground around the oven and a fire built up of sticks, grasses and crumbled termite mounds. When the fire has burnt down to a bed of coals the oven is ready. The yams are placed in and covered with paper bark and sand. On the third day the yams are eaten, ensuring good health for all participants until the next Kulama. During Kulama many new songs and dances are performed. The composition of songs and dances was traditionally one of the duties of new initiates. Due to changes, perhaps only in the last two decades, initiation is no longer a part of the Kulama ceremony or a part of Tiwi social structure. The song and dance performances express the wishes and desires of the participants for a healthy and prosperous future. Large concentric circles often appear as the main element of contemporary Tiwi paintings, representing the Kulama circle or ceremonial dancing ground. They are icons of Tiwi spiritual belief. Source:

Tiwi Creation Stories

The following accounts of Tiwi creation stories were given by Maryanne Mungatopi in 1998.

Palaneri - The Creation Period

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.

Purrukapali and Bima

Purrukapali was Mudungkala's only son. Every day his wife Bima went out gathering food for him, accompanied by their young son Jinani. In the same camp lived an unmarried man, Japara, who used to persuade Bima to leave her child under the shade of a tree and go into the forest with him.

On one very hot day Bima neglected her son too long and he died in the hot sun. On hearing of the child's death, Purrukapali became so enraged that he struck his wife on the head with a throwing stick and hounded her into the forest. In an effort to help the anguished father, Japara promised to restore the dead child to life within three days, but Purrukapali was inconsolable and the two men soon became locked in a deadly struggle.

Purrukapali picked up the dead body of his son and, walking backwards into the sea, he decreed that death should come to the whole world. As his son had died, the whole of creation would die and, once dead, never again would come to life. There was not death before this time.

The place where Purrukapali died, on the east coast of Melville Island, became a whirlpool so strong that anybody who approached it in a canoe would be drowned. When Japara saw what happened he changed himself into the moon. But he did not escape the decree of Purrukapali, for even though his is eternally reincarnated, he has to die for three days every month.

One can see on the face of the moon man the wounds that he received in his fight with Purrukapali. Bima, still bearing scars on her head, became Wayai, the curlew bird, that still roams the forest at night, wailing in remorse for her misdeeds and for the child that she lost.


The death of Jinani brought the creation period to a close. This event was marked by the first Pukumani burial ceremony. Tokampini, the father of Bima called all the original creators, men and women, to the ceremony. These mythical beings were taught the rules of behaviour and the laws of marriage and tribal relationships that had always to be obeyed. Then the periods of light and darkness were established, determining the cycle of daily events. The creators transformed themselves into various creatures, plants, animals, natural forces or heavenly bodies - and spread across the islands. They are the Tiwi totems or skin groups. Source:

Need More Info? Call Us +08 8970 9024