Voices from the Past (Copyright ©2011)

Zing Magazine, April 2011

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It’s hard not to be intrigued by the diversity of indigenous communities that exist throughout the islands, each with a unique mix of cultures, customs and traditions. And yet how much do we really know about our ancestors and the communities of their descendents still living in the Caribbean and struggling to preserve their traditions and way of life?

In the Beginning The Carib Indians (Kalinago) and Arawaks were among the earliest indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean, having arrived here nearly six thousand years ago from Central and South America.

Over the years the two nomadic groups invaded each other’s spaces and often the Kalinagos took control of the islands they populated. As a result, cultures and languages became fused and their simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle continued peacefully for hundreds of generations before the Europeans arrived. The appearance of the Spanish in the Caribbean in 1492, was the beginning of the decline of the indigenous peoples.

The Kalinagos and the Arawaks were gradually wiped out by the Europeans, with the peaceful Arawaks suffering the greater loss. Because of their ability to defend themselves, the Kalinagos were the last defenders of the resistance against the European colonisation of the islands. A mere 400 Kalinagos had survived the struggle by 1686.

Today Five hundred years later we have come to know about the Caribbean’s indigenous people through the descendants of those who did survive and who continue to honour their rich heritage and pass it on to forthcoming generations.

Dominica is the only island with the last remaining tribe of Carib Indians. However, there are several hundred ethnic Caribs in St Vincent, Trinidad, Guyana and in South American countries such as Venezuela, Guatamala, Colombia, Brazil, French Guiana and Suriname.

Human cultures are constantly changing and the Carib heritage is no exception. Advancements in technology and communication, modern medicine and other developments have altered their way of life tremendously, and many aspects of the indigenous culture have either disappeared or are in serious danger of extinction. However, there are members of each community who are determined to uphold and preserve their traditions and culture.

Dominica At present approximately 3000 Kalinagos inhabit a 3700-acre territory on the north-eastern coast of Dominica. For many years, the Kalinagos lived a simple life in their respective communities, carrying on the many traditions of their forefathers.

In February 2006, the local Carib Council launched the Kalinago Barana Autê a Carib cultural village within the Carib Territory, where visitors can get a glimpse of their ancestral roots, especially from their crafts, canoe building and traditional culinary activities.

Visitors to Dominica can see live demonstrations of traditional craft production such as such as basket weaving, calabash-and-wood-carving, and pottery. Canoes are still made in the traditional design, dug out from the trunk of gommier trees, and are now used mainly for fishing. The Kalinago Barana Aute serves to instil pride in the history and culture of the Kalinago people and provides employment and revenue to the community.

The Kalinago diet today is still very similar to that of their ancestors, comprising various root vegetables, tropical fruits, nuts and beans. Cassava was the main staple food for the early Kalinagos and cassava bread making is still very popular in Dominica; this can be seen at the cultural village.

Fearing the erosion of their cultural heritage, the Kalinagos in Dominica have formed the Karifuna and Karina cultural groups to revive and maintain Kalinago tradition through song and dance, and to bring Dominica’s culture to stages around the world.

During performances, the Kalinagos paint tribal markings on their bodies and wear small ornaments of bones and shells around their necks, hands and feet, reminiscent of their ancestors.

Language preservation is also of paramount importance. Although the Kalinago tongue has long since disappeared, a few words still permeate the local vernacular such as agouti, avocado, barbecue, canoe, cassava, guava, hurricane, iguana; and place names — Waitukubuli (the Kalinago name for Dominica), Colihaut, Layou, Mero and Mahaut.

While efforts are being made to preserve the heritage, customs and traditions of the Kalinago people; all which have contributed to a sense of belonging, it is felt that more needs to be done to keep their legacy alive, particularly as only a relatively small number of Kalinagos today are 100% pure bred.

In 2010, members of the Kalinago community, including Kalinago Chief Garnett Joseph, declared they now want always to be known by their original name - the ‘Kalinago’, not as Caribs.

Two years previously they also expressed concerns regarding the preservation of the Kalinago heritage and, somewhat controversially, stated that in order for the Kalinago culture to grow, indigenous people should stick to their own kind and refrain from marrying or having children with other external races.

St Vincent The indigenous peoples in St Vincent are descendants of Carib Indians and a group of shipwrecked African slaves who sought asylum on the island in the mid 1600s. These people are known as Garifuna, meaning ‘cassava-eating people’, or Black Caribs, a name given to them by the Europeans as a way of differentiating them from the Native Amerindian Caribs.

Today, the Garifuna are an integral part of Vincentian society; although most of them live together in traditional Garifuna communities such as Rose Hall, Owia, Fancy, Rose Bank and Greiggs.

As many of the original Garifunas were massacred by the British and forced into exile in Central America in the late 1700s, their cultural practices in St Vincent faded in the ensuing years. Nonetheless, traces of their culture can still be seen in various aspects of Vincentian society.

Presently, indigenous crops such as yams, cassava, arrowroot and corn are grown in abundance for subsistence as well as for sale in the local market. Locals continue to use traditional medicine to cure minor ailments while pine straw baskets and other crafts are also produced for the tourist handicraft markets as well as for use at home.

Ten years ago, realising the importance of preserving their indigenous heritage before it becomes extinct, the Garifunas formed The Garifuna Heritage Foundation with the aim of promoting the cultural heritage of the Garifuna People on the island and in the diaspora.

Moreover, there is currently a resurgence of young people becoming involved in preserving their culture. Some are learning the Garifuna language and local cultural groups partake in musical traditions such as dancing, drumming and story telling.

Trinidad & Tobago Trinidad & Tobago is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures with a population made up of Africans, Chinese, Indians, and Whites, and the Caribs of Trinidad form a significant part of the melange of cultures that exists in both islands. While most of the Indigenous people have integrated into mainstream society, a few choose to keep their identity separate and settle in their own Carib community.

Approximately five hundred Carib people — a mix of Amerindian tribes — live on reserved land in Santa Rosa in Arima, a small city in north-central Trinidad. While they do not speak the language of their ancestors, efforts are being made to revive and incorporate Carib words into the local lexicon.

The native people in Trinidad have constructed a community centre to stage cultural performances and various workshops. The Caribs here understand the importance of keeping music and dance traditions alive, and cultural groups perform on a regular basis.

Twenty-one years ago, the island natives hosted their first Amerindian Heritage Week which is now an annual festival and attracts other indigenous groups from Belize, Dominica, St Vincent and Guyana.

The Festival of Santa Rosa is also celebrated every year and brings together Caribs from all communities to share their talents in music, dance and traditional cuisines.

The Santa Rosa Caribs are part of the Caribbean Organization of Indigenous Peoples (COIP). They work alongside other indigenous peoples’ organisations all over the world and play a significant role promoting the heritage of the region’s indigenous people.

Guyana Guyana is different from the islands, in that it is home to the largest surviving groups of Carib people in the region with an estimated population of about 4000. There are nine resident aboriginal tribes in Guyana, which are further divided into three distinct linguistic groups, namely the Arawakan, Cariban and Warrauan. These are the descendants of what was once the most powerful tribe in the Orinocco and Guyana region.

By the 1990s all of the Guyanese Amerindian tribes had assimilated into mainstream society, sharing many cultural features with Afro-and Indo-Guyanese .

Despite rapid changes in aboriginal communities, most Amerindians seem to get by outside the national economic system and still continue the hunter-gatherer lifestyle adopted from their ancestors.

Some indigenous languages, like Karinya, are still spoken, mainly by elders, but most indigenous people speak English. The cultural aspect of Guyana is similar to other islands in the Caribbean, and this is manifested through participation in the Caribbean Festival of Creative Arts — CARIFESTA — which attracts a wide range of creative artists from Caribbean and Latin American countries.

The continuance of traditions and the formation of cultural groups among the Caribbean’s indigenous people will undoubtedly help preserve the identity of the original inhabitants of the Caribbean. Popular culture is here and will continue to develop, but the hope is that it does not replace the indigenous Caribbean heritage that has been treasured for thousands of years.

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