where sport meets culture

For one day a year Aussie rules football gives everyone access to Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, in an enthusiastic celebration of sports, art and family. The island is only 2600 square kilometers, 50 km east of the capital Wurrumiyanga. In the Tiwi Islands Football League’s annual grand finale, the Walama Bulldogs met the home team against the Imalu Tigers, who traveled from the Pirlangimpi to the largest of the Tiwis, Melville Island.

Melville and Bathurst are the best known, but there are nine other uninhabited islands in the Tiwi Island chain located in the Timor Sea. A population of 2,700 is spread over the 8,320 square kilometer area of ​​the archipelago, where most of the population lives in Wurrumiyanga. More than 90% of Tiwi’s population identify as Aborigines living in the other three main communities Milikapti, Pirlangimpi and Wurrumiyanga, and in the small suburbs of Wurankuwu, Pickataramoor, Paru, Taracumbi, Yimpinari, Takamprimilli, Pitjimirra and Four Mile.

A permit is usually required to travel to the Tiwi Islands, but the big day on the last day is an exception. Once a year, usually in March, the islands are open for people to visit and experience culture, art and history, as buses filled with people are transported between the airport, football pitches, museum and art centers. It is a long awaited day for all Tiwi islanders who will travel to Wurrumiyanga from across the region to gather for the grand finale spectacle and welcome travelers from the mainland to see the passion and excitement of Tiwi football.

The big final weekend is not just about football. It is an opportunity to show the culture of the Tiwi Islands to the rest of Australia and the world. “We have people who come to the island and experience football at its best, along with our culture, art and society itself“, explains Brian Tipungwuti, cultural advisor. “We welcome, with open arms, the world to come in and experience football and culture with us. Our culture is different from everyone else on the mainland. Our culture is unique … and whatever you want to experience on the Tiwi Islands, you can experience it on this day“. He smiles and adds:”There’s no one here to bite you. We are all just Australians“.

Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory. Credit: Tourism NT / Mark Fitz

The islands are famous for their artists, all of whom produce distinctly different pieces from mainland styles. It may seem unusual, almost blasphemous in some circles, that football and art meet on a weekend of equal importance. But in the Tiwi Islands, they both play an important role in the culture. Art is linked to the ancestors of creation, stories and ceremonies. It is a form of social interaction, self-expression and cultural tradition.

Football is like a religion for the Tiwi peopleSays Brian. “It started with the Catholic mission. The Catholics brought a guy named Brother John Pye from Victoria – he was one of the Catholic brothers who started playing football. He saw a lot of talent in the Tiwi players, in the people of the Tiwi Islands, so he sent them all to Darwin in St Mary’s Football Club. It started there and got bigger and bigger. “

In addition to important documents about Tiwi Dreamtime, the Catholic mission and history, the Patakijiyali Museum is known for having an entire exhibition dedicated to the islands’ sporting heritage, with particular emphasis on Australian football rules. The Tiwi Football League is the second largest in the area, after the Northern Territory Football League. There are eight clubs which are loosely based on country groups. “All the teams here on the islands represent all their country. We have eight groups of landowners. My team is Ranku Eagles, that’s where I belong. This is my country“Explains Brian.

It’s not just a football issue, it’s the traditional home of our team, our people. The Imalu tigers come from Garden Point (Pirlangimpi) on Melville Island and it is called the land: Imalu“. He adds grinning:”But of course we do not have tigers. That’s what makes it unique, we not only play for our team, we also play for our country. Let’s play for our ancestors“.

After the start of the match, one and a half minutes was enough for the first goal scored by the Bulldogs player, who wears Guernsey number two and sends the crowd in a roar of joy. Minutes turn into hours, and the slide of emotions from the sea of ​​yellow and black and blue, red and white is reflected by the repeated thunderstorms.

In the end, the Bulldogs win: a crowd of fans rushes onto the field. It is a true demonstration of community, family and kinship. Children run into the arms of their fathers. A group of women in the center start dancing and waving animated flags to celebrate it.

Australian Rules Football is not just a game. It is part of the structure of culture. And in the end, despite rivalry and competition, football is as much about the community as it is about the numbers on a scoreboard. In the Tiwi Islands, football is more than just a game.

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