This is a guest post by author Marie Munkara, of Tiwi, Chinese & Rembarranga descent. She has extensive family connections through Arnhem Land, the Tiwi islands and Darwin*.

Aboriginal Studies Press, the publishing arm of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), and the Vatican Museum, have recently launched a co-publication entitled Australia: The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection.

It is an interesting collaboration to say the least, but on reading that this Indigenous collection is largely comprised of materials from the Kimberleys, New Norcia and the Tiwi Islands, a faint hum of disquiet reverberated in my brain. Yes, these three places are all sites of Catholic Missions.

Further reading revealed that one of the earliest set of Pukamani poles (tutini) from the Tiwi Islands is held in this particular collection. There is a history of the vandalization and removal of tutini as Hermann Klaatsch, the first anthropologist to set foot on Melville Island on the 20th of September 1906, so happily points out in a report of his visit entitled Klaatsch and the Tiwi. Klaatsch’s Account of an Expedition to Melville Island in 1906 (translated from German to English).

… another one was cut open in its centre, so that only two thin poles were left as a connection between the lower part and the upper one, which also ended in a high pointed tip. I cut of the upper part of this monument and took it with me; now it is one of the best pieces of my collection …. However due to the smallness of my boat I could not transport more examples (p68)

And as further tutini were discovered:

It was of the type with a hole in the middle and an upper addition, connected to the lower main part by two thin poles only. I cut off the upper part and took it with me (p70)

But Klaatsch’s interest was not solely confined to tutini:

Luckily we remained unnoticed by the blacks in our grave violating enterprise (p69)

The desecration of the Munupi, Wulirankuwu, Jamulampi and Marruwawu family grave sites by Klaatsch was related to me by my Aunty Beatrice many years ago and concurs with Klaatsch’s description of events. That is except for Klaatsch omitting to mention the shots fired over our countrymen’s heads to keep them at bay by Harry Cooper, the brother of Joe Cooper the buffalo shooter, while Klaatsch interfered with the grave sites.

So I’d like to clarify that earlier statement, and say this – at the thieving whim of the Catholic church this is one of the earliest set of Pukamani poles to be wilfully and shamelessly stolen from their rightful owners, the Tiwi people.

There, that sounds more like it.

And they’d all have you believe it was done in the name of god of course.

But every Tiwi custom they killed was another thread of the past being cut off.

Because the mission saw us as pagan savages to be subjugated and shaped to their will they made decisions about us that were not in our best interests.

By using psychological warfare the missionaries corroded our ancient beliefs.

They bribed people with food so they would attend church services, and so they wouldn’t initiate the young boys because they had Catholicism now to replace their savage ways, and so that marriages between young girls and old men would stop.

By destroying our beliefs and the cycles of initiation and the ancient marriage traditions, they destroyed the structure of Tiwi society as we had known it for thousands of years. Another decision of the missionaries was allowing researchers to study us like exhibits in a zoo.

Nobody asked us if we wanted it and none of the research was of any benefit or consequence to us either, but now the hard part of taming us was over and we were behaving like good little blackfellows our role was to satisfy the curiosity of the white man.

And so the process of dehumanisation began, from human beings we became objects to be researched and interpreted.

But has it all been worth it, have the written words of the murrantawi turned out to be accurate and respectful representations of the knowledges that we carried in our collective memories pre-colonisation and shared with them?

Well I don’t have to think too hard about this.


The more you read the more you discover that researchers have reverently recycled and perpetuated the discrepancies of early anthropologists like C.W.M. Hart until anything relating to Tiwi research has become a murky and incestuous soup of misnomers.

I don’t know whether to laugh at the absurdity of it all because this stuff is being taught in educational institutions all over the world, or to cry because of the blatant disregard they showed for our knowledge.

And so the Catholic church fed us their food and they fed us their bullshit, and they had us right where they wanted us.

That’s where the Tiwi life and values of family started to unravel. So will they take any accountability for this failed human experiment with the original inhabitants of the Tiwi Islands?

The silence is deafening – but they are doing what they always do. We are used to this.

They have palmed this tricky situation over to a 2,000-year-old illusion named god to sort out, like they always do.

And with all responsibility washed from hands that will forever be stained by their injustices they are free to tut and shake their heads at the sorry state of Tiwi society where Christian beliefs and values have not taken root in Tiwi ground and flourished, as had long been hoped.

Where their sooty brethren are not spending their days suffused in a state of ecclesiastical exultation, but are instead self-harming and bashing their families to death.

Where because of chronic health problems the numbers of would be converts are dying out so fast that no-one can keep count anymore of who has seen the light and who hasn’t.

And now after the Catholic church has spent over a century stripping us of everything they could get their thieving hands on including our culture and our children, they have managed to find themselves another role to play.

To add insult to injury they now present themselves to the world as the preservers and keepers of Tiwi culture.

Yes, I’m finding it difficult to comprehend, but the very culture they tried so desperately to obliterate from the face of the Tiwi Islands is now the object of preservation.

The Tiwi language is currently being recorded by Anne Gardner and her sisterly cohorts despite the fact that C.R. Osborne, linguist, recorded the language in 1974 for his PhD thesis.

Why it has to be done again can only be a matter for unholy speculation.

Then we have the Vatican proudly displaying their stolen Tiwi objects to the approval of the world and more disturbingly AIATSIS who in all their wisdom have a photograph of my long dead aminay on the cover of the new publication.

I would have thought as an Indigenous organisation they’d have had more respect for those who have passed on.

I can only shake my head and ask myself what these cultural thieves and manipulators will think of next to justify their existence on the Tiwi Islands.


Marie Munkara was born on the banks of the Mainoru River in central Arnhem Land and spent her early years on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin. Her first book (see  here, and my two-part interview from 2009 here and here) Every Secret Thing won the David Unaipon Award in 2008 and the NT Book of the Year Award in 2010. Her second novel, A Most Peculiar Act was published by Magabala Books in 2014 and was followed by children’s books published by Oxford University Press. 

Marie Munkara’s memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers That Run To The Sea was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award in 2017. Marie is working on the mini-series for Every Secret Thing.


Photo of Tutini (Pukumani grave posts) from the Art Gallery of New South Wales.