Recognizing Amerindian culture
A GINA feature
Guyana Chronicle
September 21, 2003

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"You must never feel that your culture has a lesser part to play ..." President Bharrat Jagdeo

IT IS during the month of September, that Amerindian Heritage Month is observed and Amerindian culture is brought to the forefront and given significant recognition. This is not to say that Government does not focus attention on the development of Amerindians in any other month of the year. There are noticeable developments in every Amerindian community and in every conceivable sector of these communities.

While there is still a lot of work to be done for Amerindians, many Amerindians recognize that the Government is doing its best with limited funds available. But even as Government seeks to promote sector developments in Amerindian communities it also recognizes and promotes Amerindian cultural practices.

September is used merely to highlight some of these developments and to allow Amerindians to showcase their involvement in the development process to the rest of the Guyanese society a little more than usual. Most of these activities are culturally based.

They showcase, among other things, Amerindian dishes, dress, dances and art and craft. Amerindian Heritage Month has now become part of the national calendar of cultural events and so Guyanese look forward, especially to this month, to acquiring their treasured pieces of art and craft intricately produced by specialized Amerindian techniques.

Amerindians for many decades were seen as 'people of the forest' whose culture was confined to the "bushes." However, late President Cheddi Jagan, committed to having their culture and their other contributions to Guyana recognized at the national level, in 1995 dedicated September as Amerindian Heritage Month.

Minister of Amerindian Affairs Ms. Carolyn Rodrigues says Dr. Jagan knew that one day was far from adequate to recognize and highlight Amerindian culture and contributions to the society.

Amerindians throughout the country have been clamoring for a national holiday in their honour. While this has not yet been achieved, the designation of Amerindian Heritage Day and Amerindian Heritage Month should be seen as a major achievement in their favour.

President Bharrat Jagdeo has been very supportive of developmental initiatives benefiting Amerindians. He along with a five-member delegation of Government Ministers traveled to the remote Amerindian Heritage Village at St. Ignatius in Region Nine (Upper Takutu/Upper Essequibo) to participate with villagers in the cultural and other activities in observance of Amerindian Heritage Day.

"We are celebrating an integral part of the Guyanese culture, not something alien not something different ... but an important part of the Guyanese culture," President Jagdeo said at the Heritage Day celebrations.

The President said among the areas his Government had prioritized for the indigenous population was to raise awareness about their culture. "Many people and even some Amerindians themselves thought that this wonderful, rich culture was backward and people were sometimes ashamed of practicing it," President Jagdeo said, "but that is not true. This is a rich and important part of Guyanese culture," he emphasized.

In her address at the launch of the month-long activities, Minister Rodrigues said that "since our late President designated this month to the Amerindian people we have witnessed an increased consciousness and pride that is moreso expressed when September comes around.... I believe out of all these celebratory type activities that will be seen in September, there is a strong message to all - Amerindian People are a proud people and they are happy to express that pride."

The Head of State stressed that what the country is trying to forge is one nation, one culture that is uniquely Guyanese, "that identifies all of us as equal Guyanese."

"You must never feel that your culture has a lesser part to play in this national culture. It has an equal part to play in the forging of this culture," President Jagdeo told the thousands of Amerindians who gathered at St. Ignatius for the Heritage Day celebrations. "At the same time we have to create opportunities for the preservation of their culture."

The Sand Creek Culture Group, which performs mainly traditional Wapishana dances and songs gained prominence at the recently-concluded Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA) V111 which was held in Suriname. The group was part of the Guyana contingent. It was selected last year during the cultural extravaganza, which culminated Amerindian Heritage Month 2002 celebrations.

Following its outstanding performance in Suriname, there have been requests for the group to perform at another festival in French Guiana later this year.

Mashramani, a national occasion observed in celebration of the country's Republican achievement, can be seen as a major contribution by Amerindians at the national level. Mashramani, was derived from the Arawak dialect which means cooperation after hard work.

Amerindians of Arawakan ancestry engage even up to today in some communities, in cooperative community work, after which they use their local traditional drinks to celebrate their achievement. The Amerindians call this "cayape", group or community work.

To further promote Amerindian culture, Government is pursuing a pilot project to integrate some Amerindian dialects in the schools curricula. The Rural Women's Network, (RWN) a women's group that was instituted by the Government in 1998 also promotes Amerindian culture, especially their food and craft products.

Earlier this year a few Amerindian women traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to share their expertise in craft production and food processing, among other things. Some other hinterland women also traveled to Jamaica to share their expertise in extracting and utilizing the juice of cassava. Mrs. Bibi Andrews, Coordinator of the RWN said the Jamaicans used the cassava and discarded the juice, which in Guyana is used to create bi-products such as casareep and 'tapioca' a starchy substance, used for making porridge.

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