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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 July 2005, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Aborigines' island life
By Nick Squires
BBC News, Tiwi Islands

Nick Squires visits the Tiwi Islands, a pair of remote islands situated 80 km (50 miles) north of Darwin, Australia, in the Arafura Sea and finds a very different way of Aboriginal life.

A jogger passes a mural featuring Aboriginal children by Australian artist Michael Byrt in the indigenous community of Redfern in Sydney, 15 October 2004
Aborigines are Australia's most disadvantaged community

From the outside, the church is perfectly ordinary looking. It was built in the 1930s and its white timber walls dazzle in the tropical sunshine.

A cluster of palms and ancient mango trees provide shade at one end.

At the top of a steep flight of wooden steps is the front door. It is only when you enter that you realise this is no ordinary place of worship.

The entire altar area is decorated with an extraordinary array of Aboriginal art work.

The walls are covered in distinctive cross-hatched designs, and above them is a parade of animals - stingrays, crocodiles, turtles and pelicans.

There is a painting of the baby Jesus being held aloft by a bearded tribesman flanked by two lethal-looking spears.

The warrior wears a head dress and a red loincloth. In front of that is a tabernacle made of tortoise shell and mother of pearl.

Cultural difference

This most unusual of churches is the focal point of the tiny town of Nguiu, on Bathurst Island. Bathurst and neighbouring Melville are together known as the Tiwi islands.

Painting of baby Jesus held aloft by a bearded tribesman in Nguiu church
Painting of baby Jesus held aloft by bearded tribesman in Nguiu church

They lie 80 kilometres north of Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. "My people have lived on the islands forever," John Munkara, a cheery local guide, tells me.

"We were isolated for so long that we're different to the Aborigines on the mainland."

So different, in fact, that the Tiwis knew neither the didgeridoo nor the boomerang, and for thousands of years believed they were the only people on earth.

In the past, the only contact the Tiwis had with the tribes across the water was when they took to their canoes and carried out raids to steal women.

These days relations are a bit more genial, but the 2,500 Tiwis are still very different from their mainland cousins.

You sense it as soon as you set foot on the islands.

In a lot of Aboriginal communities there is an air of sullen hostility.

You can hardly blame them - crime, domestic violence, unemployment and poor health are huge problems for many indigenous people.

On the Tiwis, though, people smile as soon as they see you. Kids run alongside, adults wave and there's a real warmth in the welcome.


Part of the reason is that the supply of alcohol is strictly controlled.

Local guide John Munkara
We kept our customs and our culture very strong
Local guide John Munkara

The only place you can get a drink is the town's social club.

The other reason for the Tiwis' culture remaining intact is their isolation.

They have a long history of repelling outsiders - first Macassan traders who were after sea cucumbers, or beche-de-mer, and then Dutch explorers.

The British established a settlement here in the 1820s but disease, the heat and the hostility of the locals drove them away after five years.

"We've always had ownership of our land and we were never forced to mix with other tribes," John Munkara says.

"We kept our customs and our culture very strong."

Even today, traditional hunting skills remain important parts of Tiwi life, especially at the weekends, when whole families head to the bush.

The men shoot possums and bandicoots, while the women collect seafood.

Most prized of all are long, slimy white worms which are hacked out of mangrove branches and eaten live.

The Tiwi insist they are good for hangovers - I decided to take their word for it.

When the Catholic Church eventually established a mission here in 1911, it was relatively benign and allowed traditional beliefs to be woven into Christianity - hence the spectacular mix of Aboriginal artistry and Biblical motifs in Nguiu's church.

Tiwi graves were, and still are, marked with distinctive wooden poles known as 'pukumani'.

Elaborately carved and painted, they celebrate the life of the person who has died.

One of the ones I saw was carved in the shape of a rugby ball - the Tiwis are fanatical about Australian rules football.

'Hangover cure'

The islanders played an important role in the World War II, capturing Japanese pilots who were shot down during bombing raids on Darwin.

Colourful murals are painted on just about every wall, and a couple of artists' co-operatives produce bark paintings and wooden sculptures which have become internationally renowned

One of the downed pilots struggled ashore dripping wet only to be confronted by a Tiwi tribesman who promptly told him: "stick 'em up" - turns out he was a big fan of the John Wayne films which were screened at the mission.

There is a thriving art scene - a couple of artists' co-operatives produce bark paintings and wooden sculptures.

The ceiling of one of the art centres is decorated with dozens of traditional cross-hatch designs. A few years ago Italian Vogue magazine described it as "the Aboriginal Sistine Chapel".

That may be pushing it a bit, but it is another reminder of the cultural pride and self-confidence which prospers in this little known but intriguing corner of Australia.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 16 July, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times. <

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