How Footy Transformed the Tiwi Islands

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Apr 13, 2017

Outsiders were sent packing by the people of the Tiwi Islands – until footy bridged the gap between cultures, writes Ben Mckelvey.

It’s believed that, for some time, the people of the Tiwi Islands thought they were the only people on Earth. Although lying just 80 kilometres north of Darwin, the Tiwis – comprising the inhabited Melville and Bathurst islands and nine smaller, uninhabited, isles – were isolated from other indigenous cultures for thousands of years.

But in 1824, a company of soldiers, convicts and freemen, led by English naval captain James Bremer, sailed from Sydney with hopes of colonising northern Australia. They landed on Melville’s north-west coast and established a fort. The locals and climate were unwelcoming, to say the least, and the settlement was abandoned after five arduous years.

Other Europeans came – and all went the way of Bremer and his men until, just before World War I, a Catholic mission was established that refused to be dislodged. It brought God, Western education and Australian Rules football, with the latter being the most enthusiastically embraced.

In 1941, a missionary named John Pye arrived on Bathurst and, seeing the islanders playing a game that involved kicking and running with a ball (its exact rules have been forgotten), he taught them how to play the Australian game.

“I could see that they were that kind of people – athletic, spritely and springy... their kind of football [was] lightning fast, and [now] it’s almost like a religion with them”, Brother Pye told ABC TV current affairs program Stateline in 2006.

He lived most of his 102 years on the island and helped the sport become a bridge between the Tiwi Islanders, the Church and the mainland. He was buried on the islands in 2009 with the honour of being the only whitefella inducted into the Tiwi Islands’ football hall of fame.

Tiwi Island Fast Facts

80km north of Darwin, Northern Territory

Population About 2300

No. of Grand Final spectators Up to 3000

Billed as Island of Smiles

Pictured at top: Footy is a way of life for Tiwi children, many of whom go on to play in state and national football leagues.

Today, the Tiwis are believed to have one of the highest football participation rates in the country (estimated at 400 regular players from a population of about 2300) and also, perhaps, the greatest concentration of champions per capita. Brother Pye helped bring the game to Norm Smith medallists Michael Long and Maurice Rioli and they, in turn, instilled a love of footy in Hawthorn player Cyril Rioli (nephew of Michael and Maurice), who won his own Norm Smith Medal in 2015.

“Football is Tiwi pride,” says Cyril’s mum, Kathy Rioli, who works on the ferry between the mainland and the islands. “Everyone plays so everyone owns footy and the success stories.”

Tiwi art is also thriving, with a number of centres on Bathurst and Melville islands supporting dozens of artists who paint on canvas, bark and wood. Tiwi painting is known for its geometric patterns, straight and crossed lines, dots and circles – often across a canvas of black. The palette used represents the vivid colours of the islands, which are brown-red, tropical green and azure blue.

Such colours are no longer off limits to travellers. Nicknamed the Island of Smiles, the Tiwis now welcome everyone. The biggest smiles are reserved for two occasions: when the epic Island of Origin match is held each January; and in March, when the Tiwi Islands Football League season culminates in its grand final and the best player is awarded the Brother John Pye Medal.