The 3500 people who live on the Tiwi Islands are looking forward to life after covid with enormous optimism.
They have handled the coronavirus crisis with skill and are now working towards making the Indigenous-owned islands an even better place.
The Tiwi Islands Regional Council still has strict covid procedures – vigorous cleaning, hand sanitising and keeping distance – but the travel ban has been lifted.
Mayor Leslie Tungatulum shakes his head when asked what the effect would have been if covid had got onto the islands.
“Devastation,” he says. “Devastation.”
The regional council took part in a covid plan with the Tiwi Land Council and Health Department.
A doctor explained the dangers of covid at a mass community meeting.
The council is enthusiastic about the proposed $73 million upgrade to Melville Island main roads in partnership with the Territory Government and Tiwi Partners.
“This is a priority for the council because our major connector roads are the primary connection between communities,” says chief executive Valerie Rowland. “They are used by residents to access health, education and cultural services.
“In the wet season these dirt and gravel roads become impassable. Major investment is required to upgrade the roads in the form of sealing roads or raising the level of the roads that have dropped after years of grading.”
The council is already upgrading bush roads, but the major project later this year will be a massive improvement to transport throughout the islands.
Mayor Tungatulum says: “Even when you can get through on bush roads during the wet season, it’s hard work.”
The regional council has been busy on a wide range of other projects during the covid crisis, including:
Using a Federal Government grant to upgrade telecommunications in all three main communities – Nguiu, Pirlangimpi and Milikapati – which met covid safety measures and reduced travel expenditure by making video conferencing possible.
Buying a new ferry to carry passengers and freight across the often-treacherous Apsley Strait between Bathurst and Meville islands.
Using Federal grants to install hand sanitiser stations in and around all council facilities.
Improving financial accountability within the council.
Removing dangerous trees, upgrading the sports hall, building a grandstand at the sports oval, refurbishing toilets, and installing a water system at the beach and cemetery at Pirlangimpi.
Much of the work at Pirlangimpi was long overdue.
Mr Tungatulum says the water stations will make life more pleasant and hygienic for families enjoying a barbecue by the beach or visiting the cemetery.
He says the excavator will be used at the cemetery and to do minor works, such as putting in bollards.
The council’s ability to create wealth is limited – unlike some communities, there is no mine on the Tiwi Islands so no royalty payments.
But the council is trying to increase its revenue by hiring out equipment, including the Pirlangimpi excavator, and renting out the two-room motel, six-room workers’ accommodation and spare housing.
The council employs 140 people, 87 percent of them Tiwi, which makes it the largest employer of Aboriginal people on the islands.
There is a constant drive to employ more Tiwi.
The Tiwi Islands Regional Council is a progressive employer – it employs more than 100 Tiwi and has promoted many capable women.
Chief executive Valerie Rowland is renowned as a good administrator.
She has introduced a range of measures to make the council more financially accountable.
The council went through a torrid time a few years ago, but Ms Rowland has played a key part in stabilising the local government organisation, making it more transparent and forming a strong partnership with the land council.
Lynette De Santis is a proud Tiwi woman who belongs to the Lorrula (rock) skin group.
She was raised in Darwin and after completing her education at Cabra Dominican College and Nightcliff High School, she relocated to Milikapiti in the 1980s.
In 2008, Lynette was elected the Mayor of the Tiwi Islands Shire – becoming the first female Mayor.
She is now the Deputy Mayor of the Tiwi Islands Regional Council.
Lynette plays a pivotal role within the community as a leader, mentor and role model.
Earlier this year, she started studying for a Certificate IV in Aboriginal Primary Health Care through the Batchelor Institute.
Mary Dunn, who has six daughters and eight grandchildren, is a member of a legendary sporting family.
She has represented the Pirlangimpi ward on the council since 2017.
Mary’s full-time job is with the Aboriginal Interpreter Service, which sees her and her team interpreting at meetings and court hearings.
She is president of the Tiwi Bombers and is a driving force behind the move to introduce a team into the AFLNT women’s competition.
“Football is more than just a sport to Tiwi,” she says. “It is healthy, good for our wellbeing and keeps us connected with each other.
“Every boy on the islands dreams of playing for the AFL.”
Leonie “Lilly” Carpenter is the council’s senior infrastructure administration officer.
She began playing soccer “just for fun” and in 2002 became the first Tiwi to play in the Women’s National Soccer League.
Lilly loves her council job.
“There’s always plenty to do,” she says. “Infrastructure is an important part of the council’s work.”
Lilly took part in the First Circles Leadership Program in 2019.
Jackie McSkimming has one of the toughest jobs on the Tiwi Islands – youth diversion coordinator.
Her job is to stop youths who have got into trouble reoffending.
The work includes victim-offender conferences.
“I tell the kids that no matter who you are – rich or poor, black, white or brindle – when you are robbed, the pain is the same.”
Henrietta “Netta” Hunter, the executive assistant to the chief executive, has every reason to admire strong women.
Her father died of a heart condition when she was only 12 and her mother Maureen was left to bring up 11 children on her own.
“Mum is my mentor and inspiration,” she says.
Maureen is 88 and still living in her own home in Palmerston.