Guyana-born author publishes guide on indigenous peoples
Guyana Chronicle
April 28, 2002

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AT LONG last, Guyana-born Lal Balkaran has made it possible for not only Guyanese, but also the world at large to have a greater understanding of the Amerindians in Guyana with the compilation of the ‘Dictionary of the Guyanese Amerindians and other South American Native Terms’.

The edition, an A-Z guide to the indigenous people’s anthropology, cosmology, culture, exploration, history, geography, legend, folklore and myth, is a result of Balkaran’s profound interest in Guyana’s Amerindians in particular, and their South American counterparts in general.

An indispensable reference tool on Guyana’s Amerindians containing over 5,000 entries, it also defines and explains those unique notions relating to their acculturation, belief systems, ethnobotany, ethnography, ethnology, ethnohistory, religion, legend, music, and politics including other South American native terms.

For instance, words like quinine, curare, coca, pepperpot, cassareep, hammock, cannibal, barbecue, buccaneer, ‘Amerindian’ itself, kanaima, peaiaman, shaman, maloco, balata, pegall, corial, woodskin, paiwari, parakari, the syncretic Alleluia Indian religion, and thousands of others are all explained.

Amerindians have a unique relationship with the forces of nature, the cosmos, the environment, the forests, rivers, mountains, animals, plants, trees and people of other races.

Colourful stories have been woven to explain all of these including: creation myths; reason for animals; the forces of nature; the different Indian tribes and races of mankind; the songs and plumage of birds; shapes of boulders and mountains; origin of strife; trees and many other natural phenomena.

In Balkaran’s compiled guide, rare legends of Roraima, Shiriri, Kanuku, Essequibo, and the more common Kaieteur and El Dorado, are all dealt with.

The book also profiles Amerindian organisations and many who defended and promoted Amerindian causes over the years including:

The early explorers and missionaries - Keymis, Gravesande, Brett, Schomburgks, Hilhouse, Waterton, Cary-Elwes, MacLintock, Peberdy, and McKenna;

Early anthropologists - Brett, Im Thurn, and Roth;

Amerindian ‘Who’s Who’ - Stephen Campbell, John Bennett, Basil Rodrigues, George Simon, Stephanie Correia, David Campbell, and others.

There is also a Time Chart of major Amerindian-related events from 11000 BC right up to 2001 AD, three maps and sixteen appendices.

As a bonus, there are 22 photographs showing the various faces and scenes of the current nine Guyanese Amerindian tribes - Ackawaois, Arawak, Arekuna, Carib, Macushi, Patamona, Wai Wai, Wapishana and Warrau.

Balkaran, an internal auditor by profession and an author who has written several books and articles on a diverse range of subjects including management, business, Third World issues, corruption, travel, education and music, has provided broad-based information that, for the first time, has been carefully researched and accumulated in a single volume.

His work has been published in various periodicals from around the world.

His very first job since leaving high school in 1970 was that of a primary school teacher among the Wapishana Amerindians in Guyana between 1970-75, which has reportedly been a defining period for him.

As a result of those years, he developed a profound interest in Guyana’s Amerindians in particular and their South American counterparts in general, accumulating a wealth of rare material relating to these indigenous peoples over the years.

This guide is the result of that collection, interest and years of research on the subject, through which Balkaran has made more than a useful contribution towards a greater understanding of Amerindians in Guyana.

You may not have known that ‘Alleluia Indians’ is an Amerindian religion that started in the 1870s blending Amerindian animistic belief systems with elements of Christianity.

In his collection, Balkaran explains that this syncretic mixture resembles, to some extent, Macumba of Brazil and Santería of Cuba, both these sects blending elements of Christianity with West African beliefs.

Alleluia is now known as the Areruya Church and was started by a Macushi named Pichiwöng (Pisiwöng, Bichiwöng) who lived near the Kanuku Mountains in the 1870s.

Did you know that a Babracot is a kind of wooden grill? Well according to Balkaran’s guide, it was used by Indians throughout South America and consists of a small stage of green sticks built some two feet above an open fire.

Early Spanish settlers observed Taino Indians from Hispaniola using a similar wooden grill they called barbacoa, a term which the Spanish quickly borrowed and corrupted into ‘barbecue’.

And Arekunas called Mount Roraima. Roroyima, is a word that means ‘Mother of the Great Waters’.

Other Venezuelan Indians name it Loloima and Dodoima. According to Venezuela’s Pemón Indians, the correct name of Mt. Roraima is Roroima where roro means bluish-green and ma means big.

The Makiritare Indians of Venezuela say that the mountain is the remains of a giant sacred tree, felled by mythical animals in order to create the cassava and all other fruits.

Also outlined in the guide are the varying minerals, animals and main timbers in Guyana, its waterfalls/rapids, rivers, mountains and mountain ranges, coupled with a wide range of photographs and illustrations.

The guide has since received much recognition from acclaimed authors and distinguished persons including Dr. John Hemming, a former Director of the Royal Geographical Society and world-renowned author of several books on the conquest of Peru, Brazil’s Amerindians, and El Dorado who noted that it is “a valuable reference book on the subject.”

According to Tony Montfort - Jesuit Missions, London, England, it is “A very useful study and a good read”. He said Balkaran is to be commended for his zeal and industry. “We wish him well and are proud to be associated with this excellent production.”

Dr. Frank Birbalsingh, Professor, York University, Canada, stated, “This well researched and convenient Guide to the history and culture of the Guyanese Amerindians restores awareness of a long forgotten people, and invests them with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

And Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador of Guyana to the United States of America, said “This book provides easy information for anyone who wants to learn about the Amerindians of Guyana, and furnishes enough background data for the serious researcher who may want to indulge in more in-depth research into the history and culture of these proud people.”