March Books: Approaching Tiwi Culture

Towards the end of each month I try to put together a short essay about books that I’ve read recently. Sometimes they are books that are newly published. At other times, I’ve taken something down from my bookshelves that I bought when the chance to acquire it came along far in advance of the time available to read it. Often these older books surprise me with the insights they offer about events in today’s newspapers. This month a trio of monographs on the Tiwi not only taught me a great many particulars about a culture of which I was comparatively ignorant, but also offered a new perspective for me on the topical issues–to put it bluntly–of sex and violence. 

Several weeks ago I cast an eye on an older book with an intriguing title: A Death in the Tiwi Islands: conflict, ritual and social life in an Australian Aboriginal community, by Eric Venbrux (Cambridge University Press, 1995). Venbrux went to Melville Island in 1988 to conduct fieldwork for his dissertation, and this book is the result of what he unexpectedly encountered there. A few months into his stay, one of his informants was murdered. This book charts the background of the conflicts that may have led to the slaying, the police investigation into what remained an unsolved killing, and the extensive rituals that followed the death. 

Although the book began compellingly, I soon found reading it to be a hard go. While Tiwi culture differs from that of mainland societies in many ways that Venbrux makes clear, something fundamental seemed to be missing from the text. I had an abundance of detail, but the picture in the mosaic wasn’t coming together for me. It was clearly time for some background reading, so in search of the clues I needed I turned first to the work of two anthropologists who clearly had been critical to Venbrux’s research. By the time I was done, there was still much in Venbrux’s book that I had a hard time processing, but my overall understanding of the traditional Tiwi life that informs his writing had increased significantly.

At a slim 140 pages, The Tiwi of North Australia by C. W. M. Hart and Arnold R. Pilling (Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1960) is a classic in the field and provides a readily accessible introduction to the main features of traditional Tiwi social organization and ritual. Academically speaking, the book is something of an odd lot. Hart conducted his research in the late 1920s, when the Catholic Mission at Nguiu had barely begun to take hold in the Islands. Many of the men with whom he worked had grown up, prospered, and established themselves as leaders prior to significant intrusions by Western institutions into their society. Pilling’s research was conducted twenty-five years later, in the 1950s, and his contributions to this monograph deal mostly with the history of contact between white men and the Tiwi. Still, they decided to collaborate on this book. Despite the long interval between their fieldwork, the authors point out in their preface to the 1960 edition that “they were both astonished at how little basic disagreement there was between them.”

Hart was a native Australian whose professional career ultimately took him to the United States and the University of Wisconsin; Pilling was an American who studied at the University of California at Berkeley. If I have a complaint about the book, especially Hart’s chapters, it is that is was clearly written with that American audience in mind and the metaphors Hart chooses to describe aspects of Tiwi life are too often derived from suburban American culture. They somehow seem to be reaching a little too hard and end up seeming ridiculous. But this is a minor gripe about a book that is stylistically clear, sympathetic to its subject, and, near as I can tell, more than reasonably accurate in its vision.

The central facet of Tiwi life as described by Hart and Pilling is what I would describe as the economics of wife bestowal. Put baldly, there is no such thing as an unmarried female in Tiwi society, and wives are the primary source of prestige and wealth for Tiwi males. Like many Aboriginal societies, the material culture of the traditional Tiwi is relatively simple, and like many Top End communities, natural resources are relatively plentiful. Unlike other societies, particularly those of the Desert regions, the society is closed: it is literally insular. The Tiwi do not have the luxury of removing themselves at any great distance to avoid tensions that arise in the community. And until the twentieth century they had successfully repelled the incursion of non-Tiwi (or non-human in their thinking) peoples onto their shores. Marriage customs play a significant role in the ordering of relations among countrymen in this delimited society.

Tiwi females are promised at birth–and sometimes earlier–to a future husband. Young girls remain with their parents until puberty, and then typically go to live with their husbands. When a man dies, his wives are remarried, often to his brothers, but occasionally to other men who are able to negotiate for them. Even women who are old and past child-bearing age are given away to younger men, who frequently obtain their first wives in this manner. Tiwi sons have almost no social standing in the community until they are able to secure wives for themselves, which typically does not happen until they are in their thirties. Often a man’s first wife is a widow passed on to him at an older brother’s death. When he receives a wife, he also becomes the father of her children and in recognition of that fact, he bestows new names on all of them. If he is astute, and has made good connections with older and more prestigious men in the community, he may be able to begin to negotiate for more wives on the basis of his new family. There may be young daughters, already promised; but if the man to whom they are betrothed dies, the new father may be able to work this situation to his advantage. If his new wife is still of child-bearing age, potential daughters may increase his status in the community as other men now begin to seek betrothals from him.

An interesting consideration in all this is that when a man counts his wives he is not limited to those presently sharing his household, but includes those who have been promised to him (born or unborn), those who may have died, and those who for one reason or another are otherwise not resident with him. While the advantages of numerous women and their children to help supply the family economy are the greatest material benefit of a large number of wives, it is the acquisition of wives that in itself confers status. The ability to negotiate relationships, to gain the favor of older men who may bestow daughters (or at some point widows) is key to a man’s long-term success. A man who has not been able to secure at least a few wives by the time he is forty is unlikely to ever gain the prestige to accumulate more. In most other indigenous societies that I’ve read about, the acquisition of knowledge confers prestige. The process of mastering what is loosely called the secret/sacred continues for a lifetime. Among the Tiwi, such ritual knowledge is largely gained through the initiation process that culminates in the early twenties of life, at which point young men are allowed to begin seeking wives. It is not the sacred knowledge that enriches them, but the women.

This does not mean that the Tiwi possess an impoverished ritual life, or that such rituals do not also present the opportunity for acquiring prestige through outstanding skills in singing or dancing. Ritual, as in many other indigenous societies, provided a means for bringing people together and an arena in which hostilities could be overtly and safely expressed and potentially resolved. But Hart and Pilling spend relatively little time on ritual, encompassing these activities in a single chapter entitled “The Collective Life.” This chapter also discusses the formal fights or duels (as they style them) that were along with ritual the chief means of sorting out disputes in this island society where the simple expedient of moving away was not an option.

The changes in Tiwi society brought about by the establishment of the missions early in the 20th century are the subject of the final chapters of Hart and Pilling’s book. They are also treated in some detail in the next work I picked up, Jane Goodale’s Tiwi Wives: a study of the women of Melville Island, North Australia (University of Washington Press, 1971). Given that Hart and Pilling’s book takes the politics of wife bestowal as its major theme and area of investigation, I thought it would be interesting to read about the subject from the feminine perspective, the more so as Goodale announces early on that her research revealed significant differences from that of the earlier study. In fact, the chief difference that I discerned was in her assertion, contrary to Hart’s, that initiation ceremonies exist for women as well as men, and that they follow a roughly parallel course. And although roughly half of Goodale’s monograph also investigates the system of wife bestowal, she does not seem to differ greatly in her descriptions and conclusions. In her later chapters, however, she provides a much richer examination of the two major rituals of Tiwi society.

The first of these is the kulama or yam ceremony. Kulama is a poisonous yam that matures near the end of the wet season, and whose preparation for consumption requires extended leaching in water before roasting. The ceremony centered on the kulama is part of the men’s initiation process, but it also has a sort of therapeutic function designed to ward off illness and insure general good health throughout the year. Goodale’s discussions of the kulama ritual lead to the exposition of another interesting and atypical aspect of Tiwi society: the general lack of sorcery. Unlike most other indigenous people that I’ve read about, the Tiwi apparently did not ascribe death (other than revenge killings) to the malevolent intentions of a rival person or family. Although the violation of taboos can lead to injury, illness, or death, these outcomes seem to be rooted in a larger cosmological scheme rather than being the result of malfeasance and magic.

Mortuary rituals form the second great category of Tiwi ceremony. The Tiwi story of the origin of death is probably the best-known “myth” in Australian Aboriginal cosmology. Briefly, the story tells of Purukaparli, whose wife Bima was consorting secretly with his brother Taparra. Heading off for a clandestine liaison in the bush, the lovers left Bima’s infant son Jinani unattended. The sun, incensed by this carelessness, burned the baby to death. Purukaparli, informed of the demise of his son, fought with Taparra, who is identified with the moon. Purukaparli speared his brother, whereupon Taparra begged to take the child up into the sky. He promised return him alive in three days (the period of the new moon). But Purukaparli refused, saying instead that since his child had died, all men would henceforth die. Before taking the lifeless Jinani in his arms and walking into the sea, Purukaparli instructed the people in the mortuary rituals that they should perform. These rituals are commonly referred to as pukumani ceremonies, although the term generically means taboo and refers to the severe restrictions placed upon the mourners.

Goodale provides a long, detailed description of the pukumani based on a number of ceremonies she observed during her years in the Tiwi Islands. She details the various stages of the ceremonies, some of which may be conducted weeks apart. These include the commissioning of the mortuary poles or tutini that are the best known examples of Tiwi art; the gathering of food for the participants, who will be great in number in most cases; and the extensive performance of songs and dances designed to speed the ghost of the deceased into a sense of belonging to the spirit world, and thus reduce the chance that it will exert a continuing and potentially malevolent influence on the living. (I read this chapter in Goodale in company with the superb photographs of mortuary ceremonies in The Goddess and the Moon Man: the sacred art of the Tiwi Aborigines (Craftsman House, 1995) by Sandra Le Brun Holmes.)

Beyond providing such information on aspects of traditional society, both Hart and Pilling’s and Goodale’s studies detail the significant changes to Tiwi society that ensued from the establishment of the Catholic mission on the islands. Chief among these was the pressure to replace the polygamous foundation of the social order with monogamy. Bishop Gsell, who became famous in the newspapers of his day as “the Bishop with 150 wives,” was the notable architect of this change. He was able to barter Western goods for young women, taking them to the convent school and out of the sphere of influence of the older men to whom they had been betrothed. He was able to further undermine the old order by making these young women available to men in their twenties–an age when they could not have hoped for regular, sanctioned partners–in return for a promise of monogamy within the Catholic Church. This imposition of Western cultural values had the predictable domino effect of weakening other aspects of the culture. For instance, without the economic benefits of a large household, it became more difficult to arrange large ceremonies at which the host (e.g. the family of mourners) would provide food and other forms of compensation for the workers who prepared the ceremonial grounds, conducted dances, and carved the tutini

However, despite the efforts of the Church to reform Tiwi society, Pilling notes that in many ways, the old logic of the culture survived. The incidence of monogamy increased, men married at a younger age, and women had more apparent choice in marriage partners. But underneath, men still made arrangements for the marriage of their daughters. The girls might be freer to choose a partner, but those choices were still circumscribed by traditional patterns of kin relationships and limited to a set of men deemed suitable by their fathers. Similarly, traditional ceremonies survived, although perhaps in a form that appeared more secular to outsiders (as Colin Macleod described in Patrol in the Dreamtime). Later, as the influence of the Church declined with the transfer of administration for the Islands to the Australian government, there was a resurgence of ritual activity, which Goodale ably describes.

Had I learned the lessons imparted in these two monographs first, I would doubtless have appreciated Venbrux’s A Death in the Tiwi Islands more than I did. In Venbrux’s work I often found myself adrift between the poles of the particular and the general. There is a great mass of detail presented without context (context which he perhaps justifiably assumed his audience, knowing previous ethnographic studies, would appreciate). For example, in mortuary ceremonies, singers often adopt a role: they speak not as themselves, but as the deceased or as another member of the family. Venbrux conveys this role-playing parenthetically, for example writing “(Dead man saying)” without offering the context that explains why a former lover of the dead man would be speaking in his voice. Similarly, these funeral songs often take as their subjects contemporary events and technologies which seem deracinated, and sometimes even inappropriate unless one understands the importance accorded to innovation and creativity in the composing of songs and dances in Tiwi culture. Someone approaching this book with the conventional notion that innovation in Aboriginal artistic practice in generally frowned upon is at a loss to understand why these contemporary allusions are present. 

Those complaints aside (and I really only have myself to blame for them in the end, for Venbrux makes his debt to Hart and Pilling known early on), A Death in the Tiwi Islandsoffers the reader a wealth of information about life in contemporary Tiwi society. He brings great depth to topics that are treated sparingly in Hart’s work. The role of revenge killings in pre-contact and early contact days is grippingly examined as essential background to the murder that is the focus of Venbrux’s investigation. The impact of dislocation from traditional countries within the Islands is similarly explored, as is the tension between the inhabitants of Melville and Bathurst islands that has resulted from the far greater impact of the Catholic mission on the social structures and lifestyles on the latter. Perhaps most significantly for the present moment in time, the book offers insights into the question of violence in an Aboriginal community, into concepts of justice and evidence, and into the ways in which these issues are resolved in the logic of the indigenous sphere. In combination with the insights into sexual relationships that are provided by the earlier monographs, there is much here that would profit the discussion of contemporary indigenous mores, were the pundits inclined to understand Aboriginal society in preference to simply condemning it.

In many ways, as I’ve alluded to above, Tiwi culture is as different from mainland indigenous societies as is that of the Torres Strait Islanders, who are much more commonly recognized for their distinctiveness. In the realm of material culture, for example, the boomerang is unknown. Ground burials were the norm, but the subsequent disinterment and treatment of the bones was not practiced. Revenge killings may have been common, but the quarrels were generally over resources and not precipitated by accusations of sorcery. Innovation in ritual performance as well as in the creation of designs in the visual arts has always been prized. Taken together, these three monographs provide a comprehensive and revealing introduction to a society that remains surprisingly unfamiliar today. 

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One Response to March Books: Approaching Tiwi Culture

  1. Pingback: Tiwi: Art, History, Culture | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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