The Tiwi Islands − Bathurst Island and Melville Island − lie about 80km north of Darwin, and are home to the Tiwi Aboriginal people. The Tiwis ('We People') have a distinct culture and today are well known for producing vibrant art and the odd champion Aussie Rules football player.
Tourism is restricted on the islands and for most tourists the only way to visit is on one of the daily organised tours from Darwin.
The Tiwis' island homes kept them fairly isolated from mainland developments until the 20th century, and their culture has retained several unique features. Perhaps the best known are the pukumani (burial poles), carved and painted with symbolic and mythological figures, which are erected around graves. More recently the Tiwis have turned their hand to art for sale − carving, painting, textile screen-printing, batik and pottery using traditional designs and motifs. The Bima Wear textile factory was set up in 1969 to employ Tiwi women, and today makes many bright fabrics in distinctive designs.
The main settlement on the islands is Nguiu in the southeast of Bathurst Island, which was founded in 1911 as a Catholic mission. On Melville Island the settlements are Pirlangimpi and Milikapiti.
Most of the 2700 Tiwi Islanders live on Bathurst Island (there are about 900 people on Melville Island). Most follow a mainly nontraditional lifestyle, but they still hunt dugong and gather turtle eggs, and hunting and gathering usually supplements the mainland diet a couple of times a week. Tiwis also go back to their traditional lands on Melville Island for a few weeks each year to teach and to learn traditional culture. Descendants of the Japanese pearl divers who regularly visited here early last century also live on Melville Island.
Aussie Rules football is a passion among the islanders and one of the biggest events of the year (and the only time it's possible to visit without a permit or on a tour) is the Tiwi football grand-final day in late March. Huge numbers of people come across from the mainland for the event − book your tour/ferry well in advance.