Tiwi: Traditions in Austrailia by Holly Peters-Golden

Table of Content

Tiwi: Traditions in Austrailia by Holly Peters-Golden covers the major points in the tribes lifestyle. She covers their social organization and their religious and expressive culture. Under social organization fell kinship, marriage, Tiwi wives, power and prestige; religious and expressive culture covered beliefs, taboos, kulama , sickness-reasons they became sick and how healing is common knowledge, death and pukamani . The most important points I believe this author has tried to make about this particular group of people is everything pertaining to their social organization, religious beliefs, death and pukamani, and sickness and healing.

The relationships between the Tiwi is remarkable and rather interesting. It’s believed that pregnancy occurs when a man discovers an unborn spirit belong to its mothers matrilineal descent group, which is then called their “skin. ” They believe that the unborn spirits live in or near bodies of water and when a man discovers one of these spirits while he dreams he sends it to his wife but the clan origin of the wife must be the same as the spirits. The Tiwi social system is based off of the belief that everyone is related to everyone else.

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There are two types of ‘kinships’ those that live close and those that live far. Nowadays the Tiwi marriage is based largely off the influence from the Catholic missionaries who came to live on the island after World War II. But understanding the original marital patterns of the Tiwi was very important to how the social, political and economic system of the Tiwi worked. Traditional culture mandated that all women be married, this belief was more extreme than the tribes of the mainland. Mainland tribe believed marriage was expected but not necessarily required and not set for the baby girl before birth.

The Tiwi believed that there was no such thing as an unmarried female they don’t even have a word in their language to describe the concept of an unmarried female. Since, they believe that the woman gets pregnant because a spirit enters her body and a man really doesn’t play a part in the actual conception of the baby they took it a step further. By betrothing every female even before birth-every child would be assured a father. Also, after a woman has been married and her husband dies she has to sit at his gravesite until she is married again.

Fathers were the ones to betroth his infant daughter but did it not only for her but for his well being as well. The future of his economic, political and social advantage hung in the balance since baby girls were not promised to baby boys their husbands were 20-40 years older than them. The fathers chose men who he thought was a friend or an ally but if he chose someone younger then himself he would have chosen a man in his 20’s that showed the promise of one day becoming a powerful and wealthy man. Some men continued to get bestowals of baby girls into their 70’s.

By the 1950’s the Catholic missionaries did away with polygynous marriages by buying women and having them pick someone in their own age bracket sometimes with their fathers help and negotiations would begin. Even widows were encouraged to not marry anymore but to go back home and care for her father. Tiwi wives I believe held the most power. As they went through their series of marriages her status and influence increased. Women ran the house, older women were key players in the economy, and as a senior wife she was center in a powerful social and economic that included not only herself but her daughters and co-wives.

Mothers also had great influence over their sons. Hart et al. (1988:58) “in the final analysis it was the control of the women that was the most tangible index of power and influence. Women were the main currency of influence and struggle. ” This, to me means that without women the men could never achieve their ‘big man’ status without the subsequent horde of women to elevate him to that status. Religious beliefs emphasize the relationships between people rather than the relationship between people and the supernatural. To them there are three different worlds.

There is the world of the unborn, the world of the living, and the world of the dead. Everyone goes through all three of these worlds but they still only have one life in each. Tiwi religion is primarily set around the taboos of everyday life, such as death (pukamani) and male initiation ceremonies (kulama). Individuals who are pukamani cover themselves head to toe in a white clay and the clay isn’t washed away until after the ceremony is finished. They also take pandanus leaves and tear them into strips turning them into armbands the reach the length of both arms and the more that are on you the closer you were to the deceased.

Kulama or the yam ceremony is meant to symbolize reproduction and good health, after they dig up this yam they are cooked and eaten by the individuals partaking in the kulama ceremony after it has finished. Sickness and injury was caused by breaking taboos, improper performance of a ritual or breaking a social custom. They did understand that accidents happen and when things happen to kids it’s not the childs fault but the parents for not teaching the child properly. Tiwi believed that sometimes departed loved ones would send bad, luck, sickness, accidents, or death upon them out of loneliness.

Though on occasion, if a Tiwi hurt another Tiwi on accident the Tiwi who hurt the other inflicted the same wound upon himself to show that it was only an accident and nothing more. Their medicinal knowledge consisted of knowing that burning sticks could cauterize a wound rather efficiently and to bleed the area around a snake bite so the poison didn’t spread. The only remedies taken internally were either a concoction of boiled grass or having the patient drink his or her urine.

I believe she selected this group to write about because their culture is rather different and interesting compared to what we as Americans are used to. I found the article to be full of information and found myself looking up more information on the internet about them because the way they were and the way they are now intrigued me. Holly Peters-Golden described the way they lived, married, religious beliefs, I think the author feels is the most significant about this group of people is between the marriage (power of women) and religion.

Both of these things both have and had great meaning to the Tiwi. Their religion explained life, death, and the afterlife. Pukamani played a key role in the death and strangeness of people that they couldn’t describe. Also, the roles that women played in the marriages to the men in the tribe and that without them they’d be nothing. I’ve never even heard of the Tiwi before today, but I’m glad I picked them. I didn’t know the way they believe in things would blow my mind.

For such a simple nomadic people (until now) their beliefs were involved and well thought out, their portrayal of life and death I found to be very interesting strange. But I liked it nonetheless. Also, I didn’t know that the amount of wives to a man in a tribe could give men more status in the community. Though the idea of getting pregnant by spirits and not by the husband was a little strange but I thought it was different way to look at it. But, again the Tiwi people are quite remarkable in their beliefs and everything about them is rather very interesting.

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Tiwi: Traditions in Austrailia by Holly Peters-Golden. (2018, Jan 29). Retrieved from


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