In the past 10 years, this tiny community, a 20-minute flight from the
malls and casinos of Darwin, has acquired the highest suicide rate in
the world.

We skim across the Clarence Strait from Darwin in a 10-seater prop
plane on May 8, the day of Gordon Pilakui’s funeral. Bathurst and
Melville Islands are cloaked in forest and fringed with spiny
mangroves. From the air it seems barely believable that this was the
scene of such tragedy. Travel is normally strictly controlled, but the
local council has issued us with a permit to visit, hoping that
publicity may shock the community back to its senses and jolt the
Australian government into mounting a proper inquiry.

At 3pm, mourners, some of them bandaged and bloodied, emerge silently
from their houses and pad barefoot across the scorched yellow field. At
3.30pm, Gordon’s coffin arrives in a flatbed truck, escorted by friends
puffing on spliffs and sporting mirrored sunglasses, their limbs and
faces smeared with white ochre. Since the day of Gordon’s death, no one
has uttered his name, fearing that to do so would distract his spirit
on its onward journey. At 4pm, Gordon’s girlfriend, purified with white
ochre, is led to the graveside, sobbing uncontrollably.
An old couple suddenly notice us, sitting in a patch of shade. They
introduce themselves – Elaine and John Tipura, Gordon’s aunt and uncle
– and they are desperate to talk. “There was no warning,” says Elaine,
in English. John nods: “We talk to our kids, ‘We are distraught that
you are taking your lives.’ More than 30 deaths so far. The young ones
have become haunted. In a trance. Everything has become distorted.” For
centuries, the Tiwis glimpsed mainland Australia across the Clarence
Strait, as far away as England is from France, and called it
Tibambinumi, the home of the dead. “Today we live in the land of the
dead,” John says.

A siren wakes us before first light. A barge from Darwin has arrived at
the jetty: the weekly grog ship that supplies all of Nguiu’s alcohol
needs. We watch as 100 kegs of beer are offloaded, alongside 100
cartons of ready-mixed drinks. In only 15 hours of trading this week, a
couple of hundred people will drink up to 7,000 litres of alcohol in
the social club.


So grim are the choices for Tiwi men – to be bashed, drunk or dead –
that some islanders, including one of Boniface’s sons, have abandoned
masculinity and its dreaded expectations altogether. Homosexuality
remains taboo in all Australian Aboriginal societies, yet on these tiny
islands there are now at least 70 “sister girls” – young, ponytailed
men who dress and see themselves as heterosexual women and look to
attract straight male husbands. “We are not men any more,” one of the
sister girls says. “We are women and live as women. It is the only way
to survive.”


The local Aboriginal council is for the first time led by an Aboriginal
who is fighting to pull the Tiwis from freefall. Lawrence Costa shows
us his plans for recovery. Tiwi people, he says, are like a driverless


Gawain Tipolura the President of Nguiu Council is the best to contact for comment. 08 8970 9500.
To contribute an article, advertising or for more
information, please contact the editor Samanti de Silva (Sam) at the TILG
Office on Bathurst Island. Ph: 08 8970 9500 or email [email protected]
(email sent)

Lawrence Costa’s number is 0428842606 or 08 89709501 t

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey