The Tiwi Islands were once known as the Sentinel Islands because of their strategic location approximately 100km north of Darwin in the Timor Sea. The most easterly of the two, Melville Island, covers 5,788 square kilometers, and Bathurst Island 2,200 square kilometers.
The Apsley Strait, which is about 64 kilometres in length, separates Melville and Bathurst Island. Melville is the largest Australian island after Tasmania. Combined the area of the islands is so large that they actually create their own weather pattern within the tropical monsoonal zone.
The climate on the Tiwi Islands is tropical. The Tiwi describe three distinct seasons; the dry (season of smoke/kumurrupunari), the build up (song of cicadas/tiyari) and the wet (storms/jamutakari). The seasons frame the lifestyle of the Tiwi people, dictating the food sources available and their ceremonial activities.
The Tiwi Islands is made up of eight landing owning groups, based on the ‘fathers side’. A child inherits their land, dance and totem from his or her father.
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” (meaning sun), “Miyartiwi” (pandanus), “Marntimapila” (stone), and “Takaringuwi” (mullet), although each has 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.
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. These avoidance rules apply at school and even in group-photographs.
The Tiwi feel that maintaining their language is vital if they are to retain their culture. Most Tiwi speak to each other in their own language, not in English. Former Tiwi Land Council (TLC) Chairman Robert Tipungwuti deplored the decline of what he called “real or old” Tiwi; he said that only a handful of older Tiwi knew how to speak it. When he was asked if Tiwi would be taught a language at the new college, he said ; “It is the Tiwi’s job to teach the Tiwi Language at home to their children not at school.”
The language spoken today incorporates many Australian, and indeed some international expressions and words. Like all modern languages it is constantly evolving. Over the years a number of people have produced dictionaries and teaching guide on the Tiwi Language including Dr C R Osborne, Marie Godfrey and Sister Tess Ward. Today the literacy Centre at Nguiu produces Tiwi Language guides, some of which are for sale.