Tiwi - Orientation

Identification. The word "Tiwi" means "people" in the language of the Aboriginal inhabitants and owners of Melville and Bathurst islands of north Australia.

Location. Melville and Bathurst islands are located 40 kilometers north of Darwin at 11° 30′ S and 131° 15′ E. The land (approximately 7,500 square kilometers) is relatively flat with a low central ridge on Melville Island running west to east. Running south to north from this ridge are nine rivers. On Bathurst there is less elevation and draining rivers are small and largely tidal. Along the tidal reaches of rivers and smaller streams are mangrove forests, while mixed eucalyptus and cypress forests characterize much of the uplands. At the freshwater headlands of the larger rivers are small areas of true rain-forest vegetation and along the coast are areas of sandy beach and rocky reef. This varied environment makes for a varied and rich diet for the Tiwi today as in the past. The rainfall is monsoonal, with heavy rains occurring between November and March. Almost no rain falls from June to September; the nights are cool and the air is filled with smoke from the fires of hunting parties. The range of temperatures is only a few degrees during the monsoon season, averaging about 27° C, while during the dry season the range is greater.

Demography. In 1986 the Tiwi population of the islands was about 2,000, divided between the Bathhurst Island township Nguiu with 1,300 and the two Melville Island townships of Parlingimpi and Milikapiti with 300 and 400, respectively.

linguistic Affiliation. The Tiwi speak a distinctive Language, distantly related to other Aboriginal languages. At Nguiu there is a bilingual literature center producing texts in Tiwi language for use in the local primary school. At the Parlingimpi and Milikapiti primary schools education is in English. Both Tiwi and English are used by nearly everyone. However, elders bemoan the loss of fluency in Tiwi among the younger generations. In the past, fluency in Tiwi was an important marker of full adult status, enabling both men and women to participate fully in the important ceremonial activity of composing and singing songs.

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