Andrea Tipungwuti, Ainsley Kerinaiua, Nicole Miller-Mungatopi, Shem Alimankinn and Buffy Warlapinni. Image sourced from ABC News: Avani Dias, 2017.
The Tiwi Island transgender dance group ‘Sistergirls’ are all about spreading their message of love and acceptance across the country, and especially across their remote home islands. The Tiwi Islands are located 80 kilometres north of Darwin, there are two islands, Bathurst (Wurrumiyanga community) and Melville (Pirlangimpi and Milikapiti community) (Tiwi Islands Regional Council, 2021). The Tiwi people have a strong affiliation with their land, a distinctive language and culture, and, surprisingly, have the highest population of trans Indigenous people in Australia.
Wurrumiyanga Sistergirl dancer Shaniqua Kerinaiua (2017) informs VICE Australia in an interview:
“Sistergirls is a respectful way to refer to a person who identifies as ‘Yimpininni:’ anyone who identifies as LGBT.”
The Sistergirl community comprises 50 lovely ladies who are living amongst a population of only 2500 other Islanders. Most of the Sistergirls live publicly as women and observe their local indigenous traditions and culture (NITV, 2016). Unfortunately, they have faced many hardships, and it’s taken them over 15 years to reach a place of recognition and acceptance within their community (ABC News, 2017).This was especially after 15 Tiwi Sistergirls took their own lives in the early 2000s. After a much needed community meeting was held, the Elders gave them the permission - that the Sistergirls seeked - to perform traditional women’s dances during ceremonies. For the Sistergirls, this was the first major step in the fight for acceptance within their community, particularly because all issues were divided into men’s and women’s business (VICE, 2017).
Crystal Love, an Auntie in the Tiwi Sistergirl community, poses for a photo shoot with NITV, 2016. Image source NITV: Bindi Cole, 2016.
Growing up as Cyril Johnson in Lajamanu in the Northern Territory, Sistergirl Crystal Love always felt she was meant to be a woman. So, when she was driven away from her community by her father, she moved to her mother’s country in Bathurst Island. At 16-years-old this was very challenging and confronting for her, but she gravitated towards the Sistergirl family instantly.
In an interview with VICE Australia (2017), Crystal Love stated:
“I was the first indigenous, transgender, female impersonator in Darwin and I performed in Melbourne, performed in the Mardi Gras...and so when I came back I came back with a dress…It wasn’t easy, you know, I had to face my brothers and my uncles, you know, discriminating me…”
Crystal Love (2017) continues:
“When the community changed about 20 years ago...all the families started accepting their children. We don’t want them to commit suicide. We have a high rate of suicide here on Tiwi Island. That was a shift.”
In an interview by ABC News (2017), Crystal Love said in relation to the suicide issue:
"We thought about suicide and why did they do that, and I tell the Sistagirls, 'they're not dead, they're still alive'. We believe in spirits, they're still with us 24/7. That's the thing about Indigenous people, we have our spirituality."
Crystal is relieved that since the ceremony, the Sistergirls and their community are on good terms and she hasn’t lost any more Sistergirls. For those who don’t have their family’s support of their gender identity, Crystal (2017) believes that she and her fellow Sistergirls are “trying to be their family and support other LGBTIQ Indigenous kids out there.”
The women screenprint their outfits for the 2017 Sydney Mardi Gras. Image sourced from ABC News: Avani Dias, 2017.
In 2017, the Sistergirls had the opportunity to travel from the most remote corner of the country to the glitz and glamour of Sydney’s Mardi Gras to debut in the renowned parade. After numerous fundraising campaigns, both on the Tiwi Islands and nation-wide, they travelled over 4,000 kilometres to represent their community. For many of the Sistergirls it was the first time that they had travelled beyond the Tiwi Islands. The Sistergirls made headlines with their performance of traditional Tiwi songs and glow-in-the-dark screen-printed outfits emblazoned with traditional graphic patterns and totems (ABC News, 2017).
Crystal Love told ABC News (2017) that the point of the visit was to show the wider Australian community, and to those watching worldwide, that:
“To go to the Mardi Gras is to showcase our culture and our people, how Tiwi people evolved in this generation and how we became stronger in our community."
Here, you can watch the Sistergirls as they prepared for the Sydney Mardi Gras. NITV, 2017.
After making their debut in the Sydney Mardi Gras parade in March, 2017, the group returned to Sydney to perform in the Indigenous dance competition Dance Rites at the Sydney Opera House. Sistergirl Shaniqua Kerinaiua informed SBS News (2017) about the competition:
“Dance Rites is a totally different thing to Mardi Gras. We’re trying to take every opportunity we can, and try to create better pathways for other indigenous LGBT mob that are struggling with identity, struggling with community, struggling with language and culture.”
Through their appearance at Dance Rites and the Mardi Gras, the Sistergirls hope that they have made an impact on the younger LGBTIQ+ generation.
Check out the 'Tiwi Sista Girls' Facebook page to see their sharing of stories and Tiwi culture, and updated coverage on their latest adventures here!
At Yarn, we are constantly learning and sharing about First Nations’ cultural diversity and the intersection of traditional culture and identity. Our garments and accessories celebrate a wide range of artistic styles from Indigenous Australian cultures, nationwide. Check out our range of unisex polo shirts here. In the future, we would love to reach out to artists from the Tiwi Islands and share their beautiful, unique culture and traditions across a range of our products.