Celebrating the culture of our Amerindian siblings
September 10, 2003
TODAY, hundreds, and perhaps thousands of persons will gather in the Village of St Ignatius in Region Nine (Upper Takutu/Upper Essequibo) for Amerindian Heritage Day observances. Today, September 10, has been designated Amerindian Heritage Day, and St Ignatius has been chosen as this year’s Amerindian Heritage Village. Senior Government officials led by President Bharrat Jagdeo are expected to join an ingathering of Region Nine residents, officials of the Regional Administration, representatives of Amerindian villages and communities from the coastland and other areas of this vast country to pay homage to one of the ethnic groups that comprise the Guyana mosaic. A packed programme of formal speeches, cultural presentations, sports events, food and handicraft displays is scheduled to unfold from mid-morning to late evening, when there will be music and dancing and much merry-making.
St Ignatius is part of the breath-catching landscape of the vast Rupununi, which to the uninformed Coastlander can seem to be an entirely different country to the rest of Guyana. Sweeping savannahs are dotted with villages and hamlets in which some groups of Amerindians live and pursue their culture in much the same way their ancestors did. Although many indigenous persons embrace most aspects of modern life, there are others who prefer to follow their forebears in eking out an existence from hunting game, fishing, and the subsistence cultivation of cassava.
Apart from cassava and other crops, residents of the Rupununi also cultivate cashew nuts, whose taste and texture can be described as superior to the imported variety. With the assistance and expertise of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and various international agencies, several economic enterprises such as hammock making have blossomed in Rupununi communities over the last dozen years. At the turn of the 1990s, groups of Region Nine Amerindians recalled and re-learnt their latent skills of growing, spinning and dyeing cotton, and then weaving the cotton into hammocks, decorated with intricate designs and tribal motifs. The products of this industry fetch gratifying prices in Europe and North America.
Other mediums of handicraft include balata, which is fashioned into various miniature representations of everyday objects. Of course, there are always demands for the casareep, cassava bread and farine that are the traditional cottage industries of Amerindian communities. The casareep, which to all appearances is a distinctive invention of Guyana’s indigenous people, is the unique ingredient for a unique local dish called ‘pepperpot’. And although dozens of other communities produce this condiment, most people accept the casareep produced by Amerindians as the ‘genuine article’, which they seek especially at year-end for their Christmas pepperpot.
The Rupununi is also famous for the Timehri Petroglyphs and cave art that are believed to be one of the great pre-Columbian mysteries in South America. These miraculous markings have attracted many archaeologists over the decades and they do give credence to the view that the Amerindians were the first humans to people this land in the millennia following the Fourth Ice Age. Those early inhabitants were the descendants of Asian tribes who crossed the Bering Straits and made their way to the Americas. While some of the hunter-gatherers stayed in North America, others made their way down to Central America and the Caribbean before reaching South America.
Over generations Guyana’s aboriginal people have made meaningful and life-enhancing contributions to the national ethos. Not only did they bequeath to us the delicious pepperpot, but they also blessed our consciousness with the songs of David Campbell, and the cosmic art, poetry and ceramics of Stephanie Correia. David Campbell and his late sister Stephanie Correia were the offspring of the late Stephen Campbell - the first Amerindian to be a member of the British Guiana Legislative Council.