Tiwi - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tiwi religion focuses on ancestral spirits of those who have lived in the recent past and including those who, in "the Dreamtime," created the land, sea, and all that is found within. The Catholic church is a strong and consistent element of daily life in Nguiu and Parlingimpi and to a lesser extent in Milikapiti. At the present time there is open acceptance of Tiwi ceremonial life by the church and church Members, although in the past this was not so.

Ceremonies. The annual kulama yam ceremony is held near the end of the wet season (November-March). The three-day ritual involves the digging, preparation, cooking, and eating of the kulama type of wild yam. The yam symbolizes reproduction and maintenance of life, both human and nonhuman. Participants must, in addition to carrying out the preparation and cooking of the yams, compose and sing more than a dozen new songs throughout the three days. Other major ceremonies include the celebration of the transition of the living to the world of the dead. In connection with funeral rituals, elaborately carved and painted poles are commissioned and paid for by the close kin of the deceased, and for related activities painted bark baskets and spears are also manufactured. In the songs and dances of these ceremonies, historic and mythological events as well as contemporary events and problems (complaints or explanations) are remembered and marked. To both compose and understand the sung metaphoric poetic allusions to significant elements in Tiwi culture requires an extremely high level of verbal skill in the Tiwi language.

Arts. With the slow erosion of Tiwi language in favor of fluency in English in postcontact times, the verbal arts are in danger of substantial loss, whereas the visual arts (painting, sculpture, and dance) are being maintained, as they not only are an essential part of the ceremonial life (reinforcing the Tiwi worldview) but also are being translated to the commercial production of wood sculpture, textiles, clothing and Pottery design, and other related enterprises.

Medicine. Traditionally, good commonsense medical knowledge among the Tiwi utilized the curative values of the island environment. Although some men and women were said to have greater knowledge of particular plants, animal parts, and other curative items, there were no full-time or even part-time curers. Magical death, sorcery, bone pointing, and kidney-fat theft are considered to be illnesses caused by mainlanders and are believed to be cured only by mainland curers. The spread of these illnesses is a feature of Contemporary Tiwi life, and the people seek cures from non-Tiwi specialists on the mainland.

Death and Afterlife. The most important myth of the Tiwi deals with the permanence of death, after the death-by-neglect of Purukupali's son. This culture hero walked into the sea with his son's body, declaring that henceforth all Tiwi shall die and never return to life. The spirits of the deceased reside in the country where they are buried, although to accommodate the increased mobility of Tiwi (over to the mainland and overseas) the spirits are said to be able to travel back to their "homeland" as well. The life in this spirit world mir- TOTS that of the living, in that the dead hunt, fish, and hold parallel ceremonies with the living.

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