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Tiwi Classical Rituals in the Age of Hyper-Capitalism

Andrée Grau

Photo 1
Andrée Grau and colleagues relax on a trip to Bunratty Castle, July 16, 2017, during the ICTM conference in Limerick, Ireland, where this paper was presented. Photo by Georgiana Gore.

Setting the Scene

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Tiwi Islands, home of the Tiwi Islands people, are north of Darwin and part of the Northern Territory, Australia. They are comprised of Melville Island, Bathurst Island, and nine smaller uninhabited islands. The larger islands were named in honor of the Viscount Henry Dundas Melville (1742–1811), first Lord of the Admiralty, and the Right Honourable Henry, 3rd Earl Bathurst (1762–1834), principal secretary of the colonies.

The Tiwi islands communities,1 like all [Australian] Aboriginal communities, bear the scars of British colonialism and of Catholic evangelization, which led to enforced sedentarization and the transformation of traditional life. [They also endured] Australian assimilation policies and a global capitalist economy. This presentation is, in part, about the struggle between the Tiwi world and the one that came to dominate it.

Chart 1
Chart 1. Relevant Historical Events--1.

     When the British established the settlement they called Fort Dundas on Melville Island under Captain Philip Arthur King in 1824, it was largely "to open trade with the Macassans who sailed to Arnhem Land" from South East Asia (Morris 2001a: 244). To use historian John Morris's expression, however, it was a "Settlement of Doom" (2001b). Tiwi resistance, combined with difficulties of geography and health, meant that the British departed in 1829.

     They left behind buffalos, which, without natural predators, proliferated so that, by the end of the nineteenth century, [buffalo] hunting became a profitable business, and [buffalo shooter] Joe Cooper established a settlement on Melville Island to hunt them. Having a permanent presence on Tiwi territory, Cooper was appointed "Honorary Protector of Aborigines" from 1905 to 1916,2 and he took the role of facilitating the visits of other Europeans, be they missionaries, anthropologists, or government officials.

Chart 2
Chart 2. Relevant Historical Events--2.

     When Father Francis Xavier Gsell established a Mission of the Sacred Heart on Bathurst Island in 1911, it was part of a bigger Catholic involvement in Northern Australia. The Jesuits had established a mission in the Daly River region [on the mainland] but had left it in 1889, as local people were not interested. They suggested that the Tiwi Islands would be a more promising missionary field than the mainland, because the[y] were better "sheltered from contact with Chinese and Europeans," as they put it.3

     Gsell's mission, however, almost floundered in its early days because the Tiwi, like their Daly River counterparts, would not come near it. The Northern Territory administration came to the rescue and boosted its take-off by removing mixed-descent children from the Daly River to Bathurst Island. A Russian, Leandro Illin, had toured the Northern Territory in 1911 as an expert advisor to the federal government with a view to turning the Daly River into a Russian expatriate community, and he mentioned these removals in passim in his ninety-two-page report.4

     Right from the beginning of its existence, therefore, Gsell's mission was involved with the removal of so-called mixed-blood children from their families. Under the White Australia and Assimilation policies, Aboriginal children who were not considered "full blood" were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian government. The Aborigines Protection Board managed the removal. This government body had the power to remove children without parental consent and without a court order. Children were taken from their birth families so they could be brought up "white" and taught to reject their Aboriginality. As the movement gained momentum and the Bathurst mission was consolidated, Melville Island was seen as an obvious place to set up a second residential school, so the Garden Point mission was established in 1941.

     Furthermore, [it was thought that] such a mission would put a stop to what was considered the undesirable "contact between Tiwi people and Asian lugger crews."5 Teachers could instead inculcate to the children under their care the diligent subservience that was thought desirable in servants and the working class. The youngsters would then be ready to be placed with white families, usually as domestic servants for the women and as laborers for the men, most often in horrendous conditions.6

     According to historian Gordon Reid, the Tiwi were the one Indigenous group "which offered consistent, uncompromising, resistance to European intrusion" (Reid 1990: 97). In the early days of contact, they were therefore usually seen as "murderous blacks," as The Advertiser in Adelaide reported on Saturday, March 21, 1896. When the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer came to do research in 1912, he too noted, "We had a whole bevy of natives with us and of course we carried revolvers and a rifle or two. The natives are apparently quite friendly but even Cooper never moves away from camp without being armed" (Spencer 1928: 643).

     The explorer, the missionary, and the ethnographer all saw the Tiwi through the lenses of their respective education and sets of beliefs: The Tiwi "possess nothing which is of value. They have neither iron nor anything like minerals or metal," noted the explorer; Tiwi and other Aborigines were "the relic of the early childhood of mankind," claimed the missionaries, while the ethnographer remarked that their mortuary rituals were "amongst the wildest [he had] seen in the whole of the Northern Territory" (Spencer 1914: 23).

     All scholars who [have] followed Spencer at regular intervals throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, myself included, have noted that the mortuary rituals were not so much 'wild' as complex and at the very core of Tiwi society. Rejecting them at first, over the years the Catholic Church had to accommodate them and incorporate aspects into its own religious rites.

Mortuary Rituals

The mortuary rituals work on a number of levels. They maintain and pass on a legacy given by the ancestors during the "Dreaming." Before I move one, however, I [had] better say a few words about the Dreaming.

     The Dreaming is undoubtedly the key concept underlying Aboriginal spirituality. I cannot do justice here to its complexity. Suffice it to say that, like all Aborigines, the Tiwi see the earth as a living entity, and, through the bodies of dancers, the landscape becomes flesh (Grau 2003, 2005; see also Glowczewski-Barker 1992). Pukwi, the Sun-woman, created the Tiwi world. Metamorphizing into a turtle, she descended from the sky to the then-amorphous earth, and the movements of her body created the islands, water gushing after her. On her journey, she also transformed into an old blind woman, and she left her daughters at different places around the islands, all "watery" in nature. All Tiwi are said to descend from these ancestresses. Land and sea are where the ancestors live, as well as the spirits of the unborn, so that the landscape can be interpreted as the result of actions of ancestral beings, tying individuals to specific areas of the land and to each other.

     When Tiwi people engage with the land and talk about "looking after" it, it is much more than exploiting and enjoying its resources. It is about engaging with the Dreaming. In this way, the Dreaming can be seen as a matrix of possibilities. These need to become embodied through the actions of human beings, more often than not through danc[ing]. Tiwi ceremonies therefore link the Tiwi to the land and to each other, and danc[ing] keeps the Dreaming alive.

     The Dreaming is everywhere and everywhen, so-to-speak. It is not a remote spiritual experience removed from one's daily life.

     The remark that anthropologist Françoise Dussart made about the Walpiri of Central Australia holds true for the Tiwi. She noted that "Walpiri life is ritual insofar as the expression of spiritual connection to the ancestors extends beyond the formal ceremonial sphere. The links can be made in momentary aside during hunting trips or songs sang during sudden pangs of grief over missed loved ones (which can include pieces of land as well as kin)" (Dussart 2000: 5).

     Each mortuary ritual is unique in that it is performed for a specific person and the configuration of relationships among participants toward the dead vary on most occasions. Nevertheless, each reiteration of the ritual involves a complex dynamic of kinship relationships that leaves sediments in all participants. Over the years, and multiple participations in such events, a deep understanding of one's place within the Tiwi world is built.

     At the same time, through the creation of new songs and dances necessary for certain key moments, the mortuary rituals also [offer] a space where the status quo of the society [can] be explored, occasionally challenged, and new possibilities generated. Considering that the population of the islands is made up not only of Tiwi but also of individuals raised at the missions coming from all over the country, the mortuary rituals therefore also allowed different agenda to be played out.7

Figure 2
Figure 2. A Roman Catholic funeral mass at Jubilee Park, Nguiu, Bathurst Island. Cultural aspects of the Tiwi are very much in evidence, such as the cross made with traditional motives as used on ceremonial spears. Photo by Ludo Kuipers, March 28, 1986., accessed October 18, 2018.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Grave in Nguiu ceremony, incorporating traditional mortuary posts as well as Christian cross. Photo by Ludo Kuipers, March 28, 1986., accessed November 12, 2018.

     The rituals encapsulate a broad overview of Tiwi cosmology by bringing together the worlds of the unborn (Pitapituwi), the living (Tiwi), and the dead (Moporruwi), which in everyday life were generally kept separate. Through the mortuary rituals, Tiwi could express the way kinship generally, and parenthood specifically, were constructed in the society, highlighting the interconnectedness of gender and kinship. Since dances in mortuary rituals are always dedicated to someone, kinship relationships are expressed by the specific kinship dance(s) individual participants perform at specific moments of the ritual. Here I will refer only to how parenthood is expressed through the dances performed.

     Men may dance that they are pregnant, giving birth, and breastfeeding because they are 'mothers' of their sisters' children. In contrast, women dance that they are finding the spirits of unborn children because they are 'father' to their brothers' children, and this is explicitly expressed in dance.

     Tiwi men and women are, then, both fathers and mothers; being a father or mother has nothing to do with one's [biological] sex, but it is about expressing 'fatherly' and 'motherly' qualities of relationships. In some instances, therefore, both practically and conceptually, genders are interchangeable, and this is explicitly expressed in [the] dance.

     Let us examine what this means in kinship terms. In English—or French—there is one term used for aunts and uncles regardless of whether they are on the mother's or father's side or acquired via marriages. In contrast, in Tiwi three different terms are used. Individuals also have more than one mother and one father. Apart from their biological mother, their maternal aunts and paternal aunts-by-marriage are also their mothers. Similarly, apart from their biological father, their paternal uncle and their maternal uncles-by-marriage are also their fathers.

Chart 3
Chart 3. Tiwi Kinship Relations--1.

     In [the] dance[s], however, individuals have additional mothers and fathers. Despite the different nomenclature, the same dance is performed for all those in blue on Chart 4 below: the FZ, FB, MBW, and MZH. The same is true for those in red: the MZ, MB, FBW, and FZH.

Chart 4
Chart 4. Tiwi Kinship Relations--2.

     One of the key functions of the mortuary rituals, therefore, is to place all individuals taking part into a kinship matrix, positioning each and every one in relation to the dead person for whom the ritual is held and [in relation] to all the participants. The rituals also [offer] considerations about gender through the notion of parenthood offered and depicted in the dancing.

     Let us now consider a broader understanding of gender as expressed through the [Tiwi] language and through hunting and gathering roles.

     For the Tiwi, the natural world is gendered. The earth is masculine. Water is feminine. The sky is feminine. The moon is masculine. The sun is feminine.

     The hunting and gathering roles are not only the usual [ones with] men the hunters and women the gatherers. Traditionally, women exploited the resources found in the ground, which is a masculine domain, and men exploited the resources found in the sea and the air, both of which are feminine domains.

     Languages, [moreover], are always gendered in their usage, but some are gendered in their grammar too, where nouns, adjectives, pronouns, [and so on] are given male or female status.8 Linguistically, Tiwi nouns are divided along gender lines. Inanimate objects are given their gender in terms of physical shape and size: things that can be described as small, straight, and thin are masculine, while things that are large, round, and ample are feminine. Interestingly, body parts are of the gender of their owner with the exception of genital organs, which are of the opposite gender to the possessor.

     In recent years, I started to wonder whether there was a link between these Tiwi representations of gender within ritual practices and traditional [ways of] dealing with the natural environment and what had been noted in the twentieth century as a high ratio of intersex children born into Tiwi society. It was not something hidden––it was quite clear that a number of women I was close to [ . . .] were intersex. [One woman told me that she] could not have biological children, [ . . .] but her sisters had "given" her some to look after and raise. I did not pursue the issue because it did not seem to be relevant to my research at the time.

Traditional System at Risk?

The traditional [mortuary ritual] system is threatened by the difficult economic and social choices that have to be made in the twenty-first century. While mortuary rituals are certainly still taking place, as can be seen from clips [that] Tiwi people upload on YouTube or by the remarks made in Tiwi Land Council reports or on Tiwi Facebook pages, they seem less elaborate. [E]thnomusicologist Genevieve Campbell (2014) in a recent study contends that young people could not understand the songs she was repatriating, not having the necessary linguistic skills for classical Tiwi.

     The social environment is fragile. In the late 1990s, for instance, suicide attempts among young men, especially in Nguiu on Bathurst Island, became so common that the community decided to attach barbed-wire 'crowns of thorns' to all power poles (Gordon 2001: 2). And in 2006, an article in the Guardian newspaper argued,

In the past 10 years, this tiny community, a 20-minute flight from the malls and casinos of Darwin, has acquired the highest suicide rate in the world. In Nguiu alone, one in four of the 1,800-strong population have tried to kill themselves. (Scott-Clark and Levy 2006: 34)

     Doing fieldwork in 1998 on Melville Island, I recall being told [in response to my inquiries about suicide and prevention], "Why? This is not our custom, there is no need" and other remarks to that effect, also commenting that [suicide] was happening on Bathurst rather than Melville Island. At the time, I understood that the malaise was due to the inability of young men to find a place for themselves within a society where traditional life styles were eroded and [where] land, for some, was becoming something to be profited from, rather than [something to] relate to spiritually and [where] the natural environment was under threat.

     For instance, in 2001 the Tiwi Land Council and the Northern Territory government approved the clearing of savannah woodland to establish woodchip plantations. In 2014, Tiwi Plantations Corporation signed a sales and purchase agreement with Mitsui, a Japanese company, to ship woodchips and market them to overseas paper manufacturers.

     Mitsui and the Northern Territory government also invested in a deep-sea port facility venture, Port Melville ––a $130 million development by the Singapore-based company Ausgroup––so that the woodchips could be transported easily to Japan. All this happened at huge environmental costs. In May 2015, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation revealed that, even though the Tiwi Islands were recognized by the Northern Territory as "sites of conservation significance," Port Melville had opened for business "despite no formal environmental impact assessments from either the Northern Territory or Commonwealth governments" (ABC News, May 5, 2015). Mitsui also recognized that they would not recoup their investment through woodchips alone and that Port Melville would also be used for oil and gas exploration. In December 2016, The Daily Telegraph reported that Port Melville was approved once again by the federal government. Environmental groups recognized that "the planned reduction of ship movements in the area per year—233 compared to 480—was a bit of good news" but that they were still concerned "about a major operation storing 30 million litres of diesel near a pristine environment home to many threatened species."9 Considering the significance of land, evidenced throughout all Tiwi ritual activities, one wonders how the Tiwi Plantations Corporation can argue on its website that their venture is about "Tiwi people using their forests to support their culture, their ceremony and their way of life."

Gender Twenty-First-Century Style

What I had not picked up in 1990, however, was that a very high number––maybe even all––of the young men who had committed suicide were transgender. Bathurst Island as the seat of the Sacred Heart Mission had [experienced] a much stronger Catholic influence, as the mission was not returned into Tiwi ownership until 1978, and the missionar[ies] were invited to continue with the school. The Church has been rather silent about intersexed and transgendered individuals, [probably] because it is afraid of the challenges [posed] by the existence of such people. Indeed, gender dualism is part of Catholic dogma. In 2012, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI, in his "Christmas Greeting" to the Curia of the Church, stressed that "[t]his duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God."10

     On Melville Island, while the Church is certainly present, it is much more marginal than on Bathurst. At the time of my fieldwork, the devout Catholic families tended to be from the Stolen Generations raised at the mission, but the school closed down in 1962 and the settlement was returned to the Tiwi.

     On the August 29, 2015, the Daily Mail ran the headline "The Sistergirls of Tiwi Islands: How a Remote Community in Northern Australia Has the Highest Population of Transgender People in the Country—including Children as Young as Six" (Tsvirko 2015). ABC News's (Australia) also produced a video documentary, "Tiwi Islands Sistagirls Attend the Sydney Mardi Gras for the First Time." Posted on YouTube, it presents Sistagirls making their costumes for the parade and includes interviews in which a number of Sistagirls share autobiographical details concerning how they were brought up by missionaries, how they came out, and how their family responded to the disclosure.11

Figure 4
Figure 4. Sistagirls discuss their backgrounds as they prepare for their travel to Sydney. See, [published on March 8, 2017, accessed October 18, 2018]

     It is worth noting that, when the Sistagirls go hunting and gathering, they follow the old gender principles of women exploiting what is in the masculine domain of the earth.

     Not having done fieldwork [among the Tiwi] in recent years, I am not entirely sure how to interpret this phenomenon and do not know whether this is [also] happening in other Aboriginal communities. I cannot help wondering, however, whether we have moved from an [older] nondichotomous understanding of gender to cross-gender negotiations typical of a [global] capitalist world. The Sistagirls [were] certainly having a great time in 2017 when a group of thirty went to the Sydney Mardi Gras. The theatricality of the event, the fun and good nature of it certainly rejoice the heart, and maybe it gives a new coherence to what it means to be Tiwi in the twenty-first century.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Transgender Sistagirls from the Tiwi islands represent their community for the first time at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade., accessed October 18, 2018.


1 Inhabited before European settlement by the Tiwi, an Indigenous Australian people, there are currently approximately three thousand people on the islands ("Tiwi Islands," Wikipedia, accessed July 25, 2018). The Tiwi are culturally and linguistically distinct from the Indigenous people of Arnhem Land on the Australian mainland just across the straits.

2 "Garden Point, Melville Island, 1940–1962,", accessed October 18, 2018. Part of German Missionaries in Australia—A Web-Directory of Intercultural Encounters, a project directed by Professor Regina Ganter and funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), 2011–15;, accessed October 18, 2018.

3 "Bathurst Island Mission, 1911-1938-1978,", accessed October 18, 2018.

4 "Bathurst Island Mission, 1911-1938-1978," and Govor 2000: 126ff.

5 "Garden Point, Melville Island, 1940–1962."

6, accessed November 12, 2018.

7 Andeé Grau added the following notes to the PowerPoint slide for her oral presentation (now figures 2 and 3):

Although the Tiwi never experienced the massacres of the mainland, they did see their culture constantly being devalued and their language undermined because its complexity means that very few non-Tiwi ever manage to become fluent in it. No ritual activities were allowed [by the church], but these continued, as people simply practiced them away from the mission. Children brought up at the mission also experienced strict discipline. Sometimes [such] discipline led to harsh punishments. I was told, for example, of girls made to stand all day in full sun because they had escaped to visit their family.

     Furthermore, the missionaries colluded with the policy devised by the Australian government of kidnapping children of mixed parentage in order to raise them within a so-called European context, as we saw earlier with the children from the Daly River mission. Father Gsell also lobbied the government to establish another mission on Melville Island Garden Point specifically to raise this 'stolen generation'—as these children are now being referred to. This is now officially recognized, and the church in Pirlingimpi, for instance, has a statement to this effect, also noted on its website. Yet despite all this, I never heard a word of reproach against the mission during both my periods of fieldwork of the 1980s and late 1990s, and Tiwi tended to label themselves as Catholic. This often puzzled me.

     In Tiwi ideology, there is no notion of good and evil corresponding to the Christian ideology. Neither is there a notion of guilt or of original sin. Happy things and bad things are seen to co-exist. They are part of life, and human beings have to deal with both. Laughter, love for one's children, pleasure with one's lover, satisfaction with hunting may be more enjoyable than jealousy or murder, but the latter belong to life as well and there is no point in ignoring them. Missionaries brought both positive and negative things, and both have to be accepted.

     Furthermore, along with other Aborigines probably, the Tiwi can be said to be extremely pragmatic. If something is seen to work, providing it is not entirely contradictory to their ideology, they seem quite happy to adopt it creatively, developing new possibilities in their lives. Very quickly, the Tiwi became aware that, unlike the British soldiers––who had established a settlement on Melville island in the late nineteenth century and had left because of disease and constant attacks from the Tiwi––the missionaries with their life-long commitment, were more resilient and were here to stay. They also realized that, although patronizing, the attitude of the missionaries was less exploitative than that of the soldiers. And by the 1970s, a process of indigenization of the Church had started.

8 The information in this section is derived from Osborne 1974.

9 "Port Melville Supply Base Approved Again," The Daily Telegraph [December 2016].

10 annamagda4christ, "What Does the Catholic Church Actually Say about Transgenderism," CatholicTrans, December 7, 2013,, accessed October 18, 2018.

11 To support her overall argument, Andrée Grau at this point in her conference presentation showed an extract from ABC News's (Australia) item "Tiwi Islands Sistagirls Attend the Sydney Mardi Gras for the First Time." See Figure 4.

References Cited:

Campbell, Genevieve
2014. Song as Artefact: The Reclaiming of Song Recordings Empowering Indigenous Stakeholders—and the Recordings Themselves. In Circulating Cultures: Exchanges of Australian Indigenous Music, Dance and Media (ed. Amanda Harris). Acton, ACT: Australian National University Press: 101–27.

Dussart, Françoise
2000. The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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Spencer, Baldwin
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Tsvirko, Naomi
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