Photos of Aboriginal Ceremonies from the Tiwi Islands, Australia

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Aboriginal Ceremonies from the Tiwi Islands

Although the Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Island have been under the influence of the Catholic Church since the arrival of the missionaries in 1911, they have kept many aspects of their traditional culture, especially their art and crafts and clan dances. Their language, Tiwi, is unique and seems to be unrelated to any other (although there are theories about possible common traits with mainland languages), a result of their long isolation. The language is still spoken by all, although it has changed over the years under the influence of English.

Pukumani poles, Karslake
Kurlama (yam) ceremony
Tiwi elder
Eating a yam
Cooking a yam
Cooking yams
Pukumani painting
Funerary ceremony
Mourner at ceremony
Dance with
Pukumani poles
Clan dance
Clan dances
Pukumani dance
Children in clan dance
Tiwi elder
Pukumani decoration
Pukumani paint-up
Funerary ceremony
Tiwi boy
First Holy Communion
Holy Mass in Nguiu

The main traditional Tiwi ceremony is the "Ilaninga" connected with death; it is, during and after the Christian burial, still performed to a large degree. Carved and painted poles, commissioned by the family of the deceased, used to be placed around the grave but are nowadays displayed on the site where the funeral dances take place, near the house of the dead person. The place is named "Pukumani", a term that means something like "taboo": the name of the dead person may not be spoken and his or her belongings also become "Pukumani". There is dancing and singing, believed to give guidance and protection for the deceased. While the actual burial is now a Christian one, those clan dances are still done near the grave.

The only other traditional ceremony that is sometimes performed is the "Kurlama" or yam ceremony, held at the end of the wet season when a certain kind of yam is harvested, cooked in a specially made earth oven, indicated by sticks placed around it and eaten by the men. Particular songs are sung by men and women, accompanied by tapping sticks at this ceremony. At each interval there is wailing as people think about the past and relatives who have passed away. In the old days certain initiation ceremonies for young men and women were held too, but these have been abandoned. The women's ceremony was a fairly short one, when she came of age; for boys it took several weeks at least and was held during the wet season, when they would be introduced and indoctrinated by their elders into tribal ways. The Tiwis never practiced circumcision however.

Nowadays it can be argued that these initiation ceremonies have been replaced by the children's First Holy Communion and, at a later age, Confirmation into the Catholic Church. The children are dressed in new clothes and are decorated with headdresses of cockatoo feathers for boys or woven pandanus rings for girls. Their relatives perform clan dances for them, they are given presents and it is a very joyous day. Other Christian celebrations are given a distinct Tiwi flavour: at Easter the children perform the Stations of the Cross, dressed in loincloths, their faces painted; here too, clan dances are an important part of the performance.