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Dance and Ceremonies


‘Art and dance are very important to us. They keep the traditions alive, they help us show the world who we are.’

Patrick Puruntatameri

Yoi, or dancing, is a part of everyday life on the Tiwi islands and is integral to all ceremonies. Each Tiwi person has their own dreaming, or totem, and associated dance which they inherit from their father. Totems include Yirrikipayi (Crocodile), Jarrangini (Buffalo), Kitirika (Turtle), Tartuwali (Shark), Tarangini (Snake), Yingwati (Sugarbag), and Kirilima (Orange-footed Scrub Fowl). A Tiwi may not kill or eat their dreaming – it has a significant relationship with them that must always be observed and respected. Children are encouraged to learn their dreaming dance at a very young age.

Different dances are performed for different reasons. Some dance spontaneously happens at celebrations, as an expression of emotion, or some in a more structured manner at ceremonies. Dancing plays an important role in ceremonial events. During the Pukumani ceremony the dances performed reflect the relationship to the deceased.

Narrative dances are performed and can depict everyday life or historical events. The bombing of Darwin in the Second World War has been portrayed through song and dance, as have many other significant events. Singing always accompanies dancing, and new songs are continually being created.

The Tiwi traditionally paint their bodies for ceremonies using natural earth pigments known as ochres. This tradition of mark making is the foundation for modern Tiwi art. Tiwi painting, in its origins, is nothing but the transcription of marks traced in ochre on the bodies of dancers in ceremonies;


Ceremonies play a very important role in Tiwi culture. Traditionally each ceremony had its own form, which varied depending upon events, and these were transmitted orally. Current ceremonies reflect these traditions, while taking account of modern day circumstances. There are two important Tiwi ceremonies:

  • Pukumani 
  • Kurlama


Purukaparli made a big Pukumani ceremony for his dead son. Now we Tiwi people have Pukumani ceremony all dressed and painted up for any deceased person. We also sing and dance for them.’

Pedro Wonaeamirri

The Pukumani, or burial, ceremony is considered the most important ceremony in a person’s life: it ensures that the spirit of the dead person goes from the living world into the spirit world. The Pukumani, which takes place months after the deceased has been buried, allows Tiwi full expression of their grief and provides a forum for artistic expression through song, dance, sculpture and body painting.

The Tiwi believe that the dead person's existence in the living world is not finished until the completion of the ceremony. The final Pukumani is the climax of a series of ceremonies that traditionally continue for many months after the burial of the dead. There is usually one iliana (funeral ceremony) at the time of death and then many months later the final Pukumani. The ceremony culminates in the erection of monumental tutini or Pukumani poles around the burial site. Tutini are carved from Kartukini or Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys) and take many months to prepare. They are decorated to celebrate the dead person's life, status and spiritual journey.

Participants in the ceremony are painted with natural ochres in many different designs, transforming the dancers and providing protection against recognition by the spirit of the deceased. Those participants closely related to the deceased wear pamajini, decorated armbands, during the performance. Pamajini are woven from the leaves Miyaringa (Pandanus spiralis) and are decorated with natural ochres and the white feathers of Yinkaka (Sulphur-crested Cockatoo). Yinkaka’s association with the Pukumani ceremony extends beyond the use of its feathers; it keeps a sentinel eye on wayward spirits lost on route to the island of the dead. During all ceremonies, a series of yoi, dances, are performed: some are totemic and some serve to act out the narrative of newly composed songs. Aside from creative and illustrative performances, there are those that certain kin - such as the mother, father, sibling and widow - must dance.

At the end of the Pukumani ceremony when the last wailing notes of the amburu (death song) have died away, large ceremonial baskets called imawalini made from Jukwartirringa (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) are upturned on top of the tutini. This marks the end of the gathering for the deceased and prevents the spirit from wandering. The grave is then deserted and the tutini allowed to decay.


The Kurlama, or yam, ceremony occurs each year towards the end of Jamutakari, the wet season. It is an annual celebration of life and involves three days and nights of ritual body paintings, singing and dancing complete with the eating of yams according to a ritual custom.

Not long before the death of Purrukapali, when all animals and birds were still men and women, Purutjikini, a Boobook owl man and his wife Pintoma, a Barn owl woman decided to perform the first Kurlama ceremony. The White-bellied Sea eagle, Jirakati, was the first initiate and still wears the ceremonial paint. At the close of the creation period, the spirit performed a second and complete Kurlama ceremony. This included the preparation of the Kurlama yam (Dioscorea bulbifera) for food and the performance of all stages of initiation. At its completion, they agreed that this form of ceremony should always remain the same. When a gold ring forms around the moon towards the end of the wet season, Japara the moon man is performing Kurlama. Inside this ring a multitude of star people sing and dance Kurlama songs. This is the time to prepare for Kurlama, the annual celebration of life.

The Kurlama yam is found in monsoon forests and is ‘cheeky’ or slightly poisonous when not properly prepared. While the yams soak in fresh water the earth oven is prepared. Sand and grass are pushed outward from the centre of the ceremonial ground and a large hole is dug. Dry sticks about one metre long are pushed upright into the ground around the oven and a fire built up of sticks, grasses and crumbled termite mounds. When the fire has burnt down to a bed of coals the oven is ready. The yams are placed on the coals and covered with paper bark and sand. On the third day the yams are eaten, ensuring good health for everyone until next year. During Kurlama many new songs and dances are performed. The composition of songs and dances was traditionally one of the duties of new initiates however, initiation is no longer a part of Kurlama or a part of Tiwi social structure. The song and dance performances express the wishes and desires of the participants for a healthy and prosperous future. Concentric circles often appear as the main element of contemporary Tiwi patterns, representing the Kurlama circle or ceremonial dancing ground.