‘What do we mean by Amerindian heritage?’
--Asks Carol Ann Marcus of the Amerindian Peoples Association
Guyana Chronicle
September 10, 2002

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THIS is Amerindian Heritage Month and I want us to look at what exactly do we mean when we talk about Amerindian Heritage?

There have been changes in our ways of life over the years with more drastic changes taking place during the colonial period and after. It is often said that culture, which for us, is also our way of life, is constantly evolving and this is indeed true for Amerindian culture. It would be unrealistic to think that our culture would have remained as it was six hundred years ago. Yet most of the changes that took place among Amerindians were not voluntary changes but were mostly impositions occurring because of external intrusions and pressure beginning with the accidental landing of Christopher Columbus on the islands, which are now called the West Indies. For all of the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere, this meant the decimation of their populations and the destruction of their cultures. They were told that their cultural practices were barbaric and "uncivilised", and were forced to practise forms of religion not understood by them, to speak through languages completely foreign to them and to forgo forms of government for systems introduced by their "conquerors". The majority of the indigenous peoples throughout the western hemisphere were not spared these impositions and the Amerindians of Guyana were no exception though this began taking place somewhat later than others.

For us, various waves of imposition have meant new systems of education, health, government, and more generally, a changed culture. Upon all of this we have lost the majority of our lands or have seen its destruction through the careless extraction of its resources. Today we are grappling with a number of issues including the resuscitation and revitalisation of our culture, the legal titling of our traditional lands, appropriate and adequate forms of education for our children, proper health facilities to maintain our population, proper representation of our peoples, adequate government systems, and better transportation and communication systems, among others.

Even though we are celebrating Amerindian Heritage Month, and there is some cause for celebration in that we have managed to maintain various forms of our culture, we cannot truly celebrate until we have legal recognition of our lands which is the basis of our culture, until our languages are recognised in the formal school systems, until the school curriculum includes teachings on our culture and the things that are most important to us as Amerindians, until more education facilities are provided for our children in the environment in which they are most comfortable, until the health and medical care systems ensure that communities are properly serviced, until it is recognised that we can govern ourselves and that we do not need to be treated like children or have others make decisions on our behalf.

Many have spoken about integration into the wider Guyanese society but what are we talking about - adopting other people's culture to the detriment of ours? This must never happen. We can be Amerindians and yet be Guyanese. As an Amerindian I would like to urge all of us to look into ourselves and see where we are and where we want to go. We would like to have our own doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals and I urge the youths to strive towards achieving these goals, but I also urge you to recognise that our languages, our relationship to our lands, our music, our dances - to sum it up, our way of life -- is what makes us a people and we must never lose sight of these.