Tribal Law and Elvis Rule in Aboriginal Sanctuary

Reuters | 27 March 1992

By Wilson da Silva


NGUIU, Tiwi Islands, Australia: There’s a quizzical look on Leonard Tungutalum’s face as he considers my question. “Go where? There is nowhere else to go. There’s only the Tiwi Islands,” he says.


Tungutalum is one of 2,000 Tiwi people on Bathurst and Melville Islands, 80 km north of Australia’s steamy northern city of Darwin. They are a people happy with their relaxed lifestyles.


About half the size of Switzerland, the two islands are Australia’s last stop before Asia. Its people catch bountiful fish, work traditional bark paintings, hunt wallabies for their food and apply tribal law handed down over millennia.

“It’s entirely odd to find a patch of Australia still relatively the same as 200 years ago.”

The Tiwi, cousins of Australia’s Aborigines, own the islands and visitors come only with the permission of the ruling Tiwi Land Council, elders’ committees or are shadowed by a Tiwi who takes responsibility for a stranger’s conduct.


The islands are lush in vegetation and a biological wonderland that is only now being catalogued by scientists. The eastern half of Melville is still largely inaccessible. Separated from the mainland 8,000 years ago, the islands have yielded several markedly different species of bats, snakes and rats that may yet turn out to be unique, and a range of plants never seen before.



Biologist John Woinarski of Northern Territory’s Conservation Commission said the islands are replete with life and largely untouched by man, unlike much of the mainland: “It’s entirely odd to find a patch of Australia still relatively the same as 200 years ago,” he said.


In the wet season, generally November to March, clouds hang low and the humidity is stifling, shrouding a visitor like a suffocating plastic bag. When the rains break the temperature drops, one can see rain clouds approach and depart, the rain envelope drawn behind them like watery streamers.


Tiwis have a distinct culture, nurtured through thousands of years of isolation from the mainland, and their own language. In their tongue, Tiwi means ‘We People’.

When younger, Tungutalum used to stand in front of a mirror crooning Presley songs and swivelling his hips. Grinning at the memory, he then broke into an American-accented rendition of ‘Love Me Tender’.

Their dances, mostly portraying local animals like snakes, sharks and turtles, have been handed down for generations, although some dances now show signs of Western influence. There is the sailing ship dance, the frigate dance and oddest of all – the hangman dance.


“That’s from that movie, Hang ‘em High. The mob saw that movie and made a dance,” said Tungutalum, vice-president the community council of Nguiu, population 1,700.

Leonard Tungutalum and son

Another big Western influence is Elvis Presley, a favourite among the older generation. Driving a reporter around Bathurst Island, the smaller island, Tungutalum told of how when younger, he used to stand in front of a mirror crooning Presley songs and swivelling his hips. Grinning at the memory, he then broke into an American-accented rendition of ‘Love Me Tender’.


But Tiwis are worried about their future. Their culture and self-respect has remained relatively intact despite 204 years of white settlement – until videos came. In a place where there are some 20 cars, a dozen telephones and no cinemas, videos have grabbed the imagination of younger Tiwis.


What concerns the elders is that some youngsters who watch violent films have taken to wearing camouflage and vandalising property, and “getting up to no good”. Once serious, the problem has recently been brought under control by elders who have reproached youngsters in traditional ways.


Alcohol abuse is a problem, as in many Aboriginal communities. There is only one “watering hole” in Nguiu, the social club, where a patron is only permitted to drink inside the concrete and wire-fenced premises, and must have his own glass which is left behind after use. Tiwi divide themselves into enthusiastic drinkers or abstainers, and say there is no in-between. Asked why, they have no answer.

Some youngsters who watch violent films have taken to wearing camouflage and vandalising property, and “getting up to no good”.

Many Tiwis are social welfare beneficiaries, or receive nothing at all. They are self-sufficient for food, and only need cash for imported modern goods.


Tribal councils delve out punishment. Whereas this might once have involved spearings, transgressions are now mostly dealt with by a ban from drinking at the social club or collective reprimands of individuals by the community.



Like most traditional Aborigines, there is a special reverence for the dead. If someone dies and another Tiwi has the same first name, he or she must alter it for a year. At the end of this period, relatives and friends paint themselves, gather in a spot circled by decorated totem poles, and dance and sing in a traditional farewell ceremony that sends off the spirit of the dead to the mainland. Tungutalum himself lost his name when a friend died, and for a year was known to everyone as ‘Elvis’.


Tiwis are prolific artists, and export t-shirts, totem poles, dresses and wood carvings to the mainland and overseas. These are decorated in geometric and abstract designs, unlike mainland Aborigines who mostly use figurative representations. Wood carvings are made with deft knife strokes, and then finished off with an electric sander.


“It’s a good life here. No noise, no traffic,” said Tiwi Land Council member John Pupangamirri. He said whatever benefits Western life brings, “the main thing is, that it doesn’t affect our culture, that we don’t lose it.”

Wilson da Silva is a foreign correspondent for Reuters.

© 2019-20 Wilson da Silva. All rights reserved.