The opportunities afforded by Amerindian Heritage Month should be exploited Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton

Stabroek News
September 19, 2004

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Basil Rodrigues and his Arawak charges from Santa Rosa, Region One before their performance at the launching of Amerindian Heritage month activities at the Umana Yana. (Stabroek News file photo)

Amerindian Heri-tage Month 2004 was launched with the usual opening cere-mony followed by exhibitions and festive activities at the Umana Yana. This five-day festival started off the heritage commemorations in George-town, but a number of other prominent events have been taking place at various locations around the country, and at the National Cultural Centre. The launching event in the city had exhibitions and sale of crafts, art, food and drinks accompanied by popular musical entertainment on stage.

It was overwhelmingly popular, attracting more visitors than the compound could hold. That was encouraging, since this is supposed to be a national occasion highlighting and celebrating Guyana's Amerindian heritage. It is observed as an honour to the nine nations of indigenous peoples, to pay tribute to them, showcase their culture and traditions and educate Guyanese about them. Most importantly at this specific time, it is supposed to make a statement about Guyanese nationhood.

This Heritage Month assumes greater importance at this time because of the contemporary plague of problems involving race, ethnicity and the national reluctance to inherit the rainbow spectrum of nationhood. Loud chorusing of Arecuna or Arawak ethnicity in Guyana is still not entirely free of politics, but flouting of indigenous traditions is the least contentious and the least controversial of national ethnic festivals in this country. At least it is not torn by the bitter political rifts that accompany aggressive assertions of African or East Indian racial identity.

It is easier to promote things of the Wai Wai or the Warrau as Guyanese and items of affirmative action pass without fuss. The opening glee of September 1 to 5 was less colourful than some of the cultural displays of previous years when there were more indigenous music, dance and traditional dress. But it deserves a high place on the national calendar and is of great significance.

The same argument as is made for the other ethnic celebrations and traditions holds for the Amerindian. It is one part of the important national fabric and Guyanese culture; observance of the month is not exclusive to the one group, but is the concern of all. The value is in the richness of each group with its different distinct identity. However, unless the national significance of each is accepted, if each is kept strictly exclusive, they will all remain competing factions occupying the same space, rather than factors of a nation and will prevent Guyana from properly achieving nationhood.

The persistent problems in the national mainstream that confront Amerindianness have to do with the stereotyping and petty prejudices within the population that descend upon a minority. But there is little hesitation in accepting the indigenous heritage as representative of Guyana. Why?

There are explanations to be found in the different racial politics and the different struggles for power that rack the major racial groups and their different relations with the minority Amerindians. But it also has something to do with the understanding that the indigenous peoples are the oldest known settlers of these lands with an undisputed claim to the territory. Theirs is the culture that most belongs, that was not imported or transplanted; they named the country and gave their names and language to most other things in it. These include place names, the names of rivers, food and folklore.

Guyana still takes pride in the distinction it shares with Belize. These countries are unique in the anglophone Caribbean for having Amerindian peoples who survived in relatively large numbers from the pre-Columbian era. There are languages and other cultural forms that are found in Guyana and not elsewhere, even though some of the languages are under pressure. These people with their life patterns are often associated and identified with much that belongs to the natural heritage and natural resources of the country. Included among these are the rainforests, the savannahs, traditions of hunting, farming, mining, fishing, canoeing, cattle rearing, ranching and the rodeo.

Much of the Amerindian mythology and folklore are signature features for Guyana. The greatest and oldest stock of myths, folktales and legends that belong to this country are theirs. This great tradition has provided a mighty literature. It intrigued most of the European missionaries, administrators, writers and scientists who visited, made records and added volumes to that literature. Of interest here is the work of anthropologist Audrey Butt Colson, whose empathy was greater and her attitudes more sympathetic than most of her predecessors. She appreciates the theatre, the social roles, and, above all, the considerable humour to be found in shamanism, while earlier writers viewed the shaman with suspicion, dismissing him as a charlatan.

Many attitudes to Kanaima were similar, recorded by writers who were certainly sceptical of the indigenous belief system. Of course, the Guyanese creative writers bring something quite different to this literature. They found many new roles for Kanaima in contemporary Guyanese fiction, which cannot begin to repay the debt it owes to Amerindian culture. The same may be said for the poets, the painters and the sculptors, whose extensive explorations of the ethos, the myths, the cosmology, the 'interiors' of landscape and mind, the 'languages of El Dorado' go deep in the formation of a literature without exhausting the possibilities given to it by Amerindian culture and heritage. Moreover, one cannot do justice to this theme without going into such areas as botany, ethnobotany, medicines, agriculture and forestry.

Yet this vast, unfathomable store of language, traditions and social structures is in grave danger of fading into disappearance. The writers and scientists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries left their valuable records, and serious research is now taking place in some of these areas.

Many ideas towards language preservation and a project for re-education in hinterland communities were started in the University of Guyana's Amerindian Research Unit. But none of these have prevented the Arawak language from going into decline.

Despite its indisputable importance to Guyana, there are several powerful factors competing to undermine the foundations and the fabric of Amerindian heritage. Observance of the Heritage Month provides opportunities that should be taken advantage of to develop the country's tourism product. There is obvious potential in this heritage, in the development of a colourful festival, which, of course, will not suddenly explode as an attracter of arrivals, but, in time, has undeniable potential.

If anything, Amerindian Heritage Month needs greater depth, more intense efforts to exhibit the great wealth of an El Dorado that can be rediscovered. It could be a larger annual festival which brings out the traditional headdresses and the cultural traditions to which they belong. The spectacle is powerful and the impact of a diligently organised festival can transcend the visual, can help to educate the nation and cause further multiplications of the immeasurable contribution made by Guyana's Amerindian heritage.