How the world’s oldest living culture is evolving, surviving and thriving

The skin group of a Tiwi is matrilineal; it is inherited from the mother and determines the marriage line. Photo: Kerry Klimm/Australian Red Cross

Gawin Tipiloura wears many hats in his community. He’s a Community Development Officer for Red Cross, ensuring programs supporting young people and people with mental health worries are working in the community.

Gawin is also co-ordinator of the Skin Group Project, which aims to keep culture strong.

Gawin is a member of the Tiwi Regional Council, chair of the Tiwi College, president of the Tiwi Bombers AFL club and is studying community services.

The busy 39-year-old is from the Tiwi Islands, a 20 minute plane ride from Darwin in the Top End of Australia, across the turquoise waters of the Arafura Sea.

Gawin Tipiloura is passionate about creating positive change for his people. Photo: Kerry Klimm/Australian Red C ross

Three thousand people live on Tiwi’s two islands of Bathurst and Melville. Tiwi is the first language, English the second.

The islands are pristine, untouched by development and the many modern features that come with it. There are no traffic lights or round-a-bouts, no cinemas or coffee shops.

It’s hot, humid and sticky in summer, when the community is also vulnerable to the seasonal cyclones, with destructive winds and heavy rainfall.

The winters are mild. No woollies needed. Well for visitors from the south anyway. The community itself is small and within walking distance along red, dusty roads.

Tiwi is like many Indigenous communities across Australia, battling the detrimental impact of colonisation, past government practices and policies and community attitudes.

The impact on people’s social, economic, cultural and spiritual lives has been devastating; reduced life expectancy, poor health outcomes, limited education, high employment and over-representation in the criminal justice and welfare systems.

For Gawin, his many hats help drive his passion for positive change for his people.

The Tiwi Skin Group supports Red Cross programs making sure they are culturally appropriate. Photo: Kerry Klimm/Australian Red Cross

The Tiwi people have lived on the islands since time immemorial. Every Tiwi is born into one of four skin groups or family groups: “Wantarringuwi” (Sun), “Lorrula” (Stone), “Miyartiwi” (Pandanus) and “Takaringuwi” (Mullet). The skin group of a Tiwi is matrilineal; it is inherited from the mother and determines the marriage line.

It determines their identity, relationship to every other Tiwi and who you can and cannot marry. It resolves disputes, discusses important issues and is essential to community cohesion.

Lynette Johnson from the Pandanus Skin Group works for Red Cross supporting Tiwi people with mental health worries.

Lynette explains how skin groups resolve disputes.“Sometimes each tribe has a difference and we have to work it out, especially if there’s fighting going on. Like, for instance, Stone, this tribe, if they end up fighting, we can’t stop them or interfere.

“We can just listen. So Stone can sort it out, get their family to sort it out. If it doesn’t (work) then Sun can come in. If that doesn’t (work) then the whole skin group, Pandanus, Mullet, Sun and Stone, try to work out what is the problem, how can they stop.

“So Mullet and Pandanus they can’t just go in and say ‘you mob shouldn’t be fighting’. We can’t. They (Stone) got to do it on their own. Or then Sun.

“When everything’s settled down, then later we get together. The Elders get together or Strong Women, Strong Men get those people that are fighting to say sorry. Get together and then there’s special healing.

Lynette Johnson says the skin groups play an important role in resolving disputes. Photo: Kerry Klimm/Australian Red Cross

If there’s a meeting with the whole community, then we separate Pandanus one side, Mullet one side, Sun one side and Stone one side. Get together and talk about it.”

The impact of colonisation and western models of governance has over time eroded the role of skin groups.

Red Cross is supporting the revival of the group to engage with the local community on cultural and community issues.

Manager Kevin Doolan says there’s been great interest and support in getting the Skin Group Project going.

“It’s only early days and we’ve had a couple of meetings, but those meetings have had strong attendance.”

“The meetings are looking at a variety of issues, not just about Red Cross programs, but programs, services and issues across the community, from school attendance to public safety and rubbish removal.”

Kevin thanks his team who have been instrumental in reigniting support, keeping that momentum going and building on each meeting.

Tiwi Skin Group determines identity, relationships and who you can and cannot marry. Photo: Kerry Klimm/Australian Red Cross

In his role as Red Cross Community Development Officer, Gawin coordinates regular meetings with the four skin groups to discuss issues and find solutions.

“The skin group is important; you’re talking to the families, four tribes. It’s for looking at the needs of community, solutions and new projects,” he says. “It’s the best way to get community involved. They drive outcomes of what they want, we listen to them.”

Being sensitive to local conditions and local culture, listening and responding to local needs is at the heart of Red Cross’ work in communities.

Tiwi Islands is one of 10 communities across Australia where this place-based community development approach is having positive results tackling entrenched and multiple disadvantage.

Red Cross’s relationship with Tiwi began 15 years ago, flying a worker over from Darwin during the school holidays to deliver a program for the kids. The program aimed to keep children active to prevent boredom leading to more significant problems like taking drugs and drinking alcohol, vandalism and fighting.

Red Cross now employs 11 local Tiwi staff who run programs including community capacity building and supporting the elderly and people with mental health worries. Most staff are trained in mental health first aid which many of the youth workers incorporate in their work supporting young people on Tiwi.

After school activities help prevent boredom leading to more significant problems. Photo: Kerry Klimm/Australian Red Cross

Staff also support the community during the cyclone and wet season so they are ready if disaster strikes.

With nearly 40 percent of the Tiwi population under the age of 24, working with young people continues to be a large part of Red Cross’ work on the island.

Staff talk to students about making positive, healthy choices, organise after school activities like football and basketball and host cultural activities such as hunting and fishing and cultural camps for girls and boys during the holidays.

Gawin says the Tiwi Skin Group support for Red Cross programs makes sure they are culturally appropriate and that’s vital to success.

“We look to them for how they can support our work. Things like improving community safety and ensuring children are going to school every day.”

Gawin is excited about the future of the community and the Tiwi Skin Group.

“The skin group gives me focus, to set and achieve goals. They drive me; push me to work hard for Tiwi.”

Words by Kerry Klimm, Australian Red Cross

Sign up to our newsletter for more stories like this.