Celebrating Guyana's First People

by Sharon Lall
Guyana Chronicle
September 10, 2000

I am the fire of time.
The endless pillar
that has withstood death.
The support of an invincible nation.
I am the stars that have guided lost men.
I am the mother of ten thousand dying children.
I am the fire of time.
I am an Indian woman.

Untitled, Niki Paulzine

THEY have left a legacy for us all. A people whose ancestry is the fabric of the nation, the true guardians of the `land of waters', and as mysterious still as the realm of night.

As custodians of `El Dorado' they have come a long way and are currently the subjects of an unprecedented volume of outside attention.

These are our friends, neighbours, classmates, leaders, brothers and sisters. A `silent clan', as I prefer to call it, who cling to family and are among the most humble of ethnic groups.

Amerindians in Guyana number 49,293 or 6.8 per cent of the population, according to recent statistics.

Guyana, the name that springs from an Amerindian expression, is home to nine Amerindian tribes. Some tribal designations refer to the descendants of several, formerly linguistically distinct groups like the Wai-wai and Wapishiana.

The majority are of the Carib linguistic branch. True Caribs, Akawaio, Patamona, Arecuna, Makushi and Wai-wai, coastal Arawaks, more accurately termed Lokono, and Wapishiana speak Arawakan languages, and the Warrau are Guyana's sole representatives of the Warrau branch.

Guyanese Amerindians appear to be largely favourable when compared to their neighbours in Brazil and Venezuela.

This country has four separate Amerindian organisations: Guyana Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP), Amerindian People's Association (APA), the National Amerindian Council (NAC), and The Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG).

Organisations like these have sprung up in recent years because of the growing sense of Amerindian identity in Guyana and throughout the Americas.

Numerous Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are operating projects in Amerindian communities, including Conservation International, Red Thread, Voluntary Service Overseas and Youth Challenge International.

Amerindian Heritage Month observances are under way in all regions of Guyana this month and there has been the declaration that all Amerindian students are now eligible for full financing to access tertiary education.

Amerindian students proceeding to the University of Guyana (UG) can access the finances as full scholarships with the expectation that after graduation they would offer their services to the nation for appropriate periods.

With education as the gateway to development, one foresees some of the difficulties in them identifying and getting guarantors for student loans as something of the past.

Two Amerindians, Ms Roxanne Campbell and Amerindian Affairs Minister, Mr Vibert DeSouza are Members of Parliament with the governing People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/Civic).

And about two others from other political parties add their voices when the time arises, to the tide of debate that so often frequents the National Assembly.

Despite having changed markedly over the last five centuries, Guyanese Amerindians have largely retained their sense of tribal identity and have adopted a sense of unity as Amerindian peoples.

The Wai-Wai are indigenous Amerindians, sometimes referred to as the legendary White Indians about which many famous tales have been told.

Living on the banks of the Upper Essequibo River in the far south of the country they are perhaps the last Indians of the Amazon Basin to have been contacted.

To date, this small tribe numbering about 229, continues to live as traditional hunters, renowned for their fine handicraft, deadly arrow poison and their packs of tiny, fierce hunting dogs. As masters of the wilderness, they obtain almost all their needs from the dense tropical forest and the headwaters of the Essequibo River.

Their nearest neighbours, the Wapishiana tribe, can only be reached by a three-week journey in canoes and on foot.

In 1996, at the invitation of the Guyana Government, a Scientific Exploration Society (SES) team flew into the isolated village of Gunns Strip 350 miles south of Georgetown. (Gunns Strip is being abandoned because of heavy rains that flooded the village this year.)

The team catalogued the fauna and flora of this rarely seen part of Amazonia and studied the possibilities of what could be provided as beneficial aid for the future.

The government declared the project "an outstanding success...the impact will continue to be felt long after the team has departed these shores..." and invited SES to carry out similar projects in the future.

The Wai-Wai are keen on improving their material well-being, especially as it relates to health and education facilities, while conserving as much as possible of their unique cultural heritage.

Guyana's indigenous peoples occupy and have legal title to some 1.4 million hectares of forested land. There are about 40,000 Amerindians holding that much forested land.

Some hinterland communities have undertaken commercial harvesting of the forest resources, and in such cases the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) provides technical and financial advice to those stakeholders.

Greater consultation is also being promoted between larger timber companies and the local Amerindian communities that either live within or adjacent to forest-leased areas.

The Amerindian Act, Chapter 29 of the Laws of Guyana, guarantees all Amerindian communities rights to above-ground resources in reservations designated in their areas of occupation.

They are a gifted people - in more ways than one.

In the last century, anthropologists Walter Roth and Richard Shomburgh, writing about their exploration of the Guianas, were great admirers of the Wapishiana hammock.

Roth portrayed the beauty and artistry of the Wapishiana creation in detailed drawings in his book, Amerindian Art and Craft.

The hammocks - modest, practical, elegant and tasteful are among the few wonders of the textile world today, ranking alongside the highest technological developments. Its design and manufacture has evolved through centuries of use.

Wapishiana handwoven products are made by the Rupununi Weavers Society (RWS), an export-ready group of Amerindian women and men living in villages spread across some 5,000 square miles of remote grassland and rainforest in south-western Guyana bordering Brazil and Suriname.

Each hammock is woven individually in the homes of the women in the RWS from cotton sewn, reaped and spun by some 150 spinners in numerous villages across the savannahs. The cotton is softer and stronger than any machine manufactured cotton.

It takes about 12 pounds of hand spun cotton to make one hammock.

Yet by 1990, the ancient art of hand woven cotton hammock was almost lost. Many Amerindian homes had old traditional weaving frames but they were no longer in use.

Few Amerindian women retained the skills for weaving and were too poor to give their time and energy to such an intricate task.

However, a year later an English Volunteer Service Organisation volunteer, Matthew Squires, with the help of Amerindian translator and Rupununi native, Alma O'Connell, and skilled Waspishiana weaver, Clarista Adrian decided it was time to revitalise this traditional pastime.

In 1994 the British Museum's Acquisition Board purchased, from RWS, a hammock for their collection of tribal fabric art.

Like a twist of fate, in the same year, one of the world's largest hotel chains purchased two as a gift for British royalty, Queen Elizabeth of England and her husband Prince Phillip.

Other proud owners are the Smithsonian Institute, South American Textile Art Collection, the Cambridge Museum and Indigenous Woven Art Collection.

Although the Caribs might have introduced cotton as a weaving material to Guyana's interior Amerindians, it was the Wapishiana who perfected it.

Today, old ladies talk of mothers and grandmothers who, for months, patiently spun, wove and plaited beautiful works of tribal art. And, although every woman was expected to be able to spin and weave, a clever weaver was, and is, regarded with great and genuine respect by her contemporaries.

The contribution - what has been, and can be attributed to by Guyanese Amerindians is immeasurable. But we hail their sterling performance and admire their strength. For they are, in fact, our brothers and sisters. The true people of the soil. The thread in the spool that keeps the nation intact.

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