A tribe clings to its language for survival of its culture By Neil Marks
Guyana Chronicle
April 16, 2006

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THE PAKARAIMAS speak of the legendary Old Kai whose name identifies Kaieteur Falls. Here, the great Makanaima breathes life for his mountain people, said to be the most prolific at living in the jungle. And then, there is the mystery of the contradictory powers of the medicinal Piaiman and the deadly Kanaima.

However, and perhaps more significantly, the Pakaraimas also speak of the Patamuna people, whose traditional way of life now borders on extinction.

“It’s glaring,” says Desrey Caesar-Fox, curator of the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, of the loss of the Patamuna culture.

“Sure it makes me sad, because you don’t get the essence of who you are,” laments Tony Melville, a Patamuna, who has been chief of his village Chenapau, and chief of chiefs for the villages of the Pakaraimas.

The Patamunas, like the Akawaios, have little written in history about them. The 19th century European explorer, William Hillhouse, is among the first believed to have spotted them, recognising them as great mountaineers.

They are known archaeologically from pottery collections in the Yawong Valley and the upper Siparuni River. These collections suggest an affiliation with Akawaio groups. The burial urn, guarded by a serpent, is a characteristic artifact of Patamuna pottery.

The Pakaraimas, interestingly, means “really huge testicles.” Dr. Fox, who is also Coordinator of the Amerindian Research Unit at the University of Guyana, jokes that you could put it as “XXX testicles.”

Believed to have been formed 300 million years ago, the Pakaraimas have unique fauna and flora consisting of grasses, bushes, flowers, insects, and small amphibians

The largest of Guyana's three geographical regions is the interior highlands, a series of plateaus, flat-topped mountains, and savannahs that extend from the white sand belt to the country's southern borders. The Pakaraima mountains dominate the western part of the interior highlands. In this region are found some of the oldest sedimentary rocks in the Western Hemisphere.

One of the most famous Patamuna stories is the legend of Kaieteur, which is very often told, though in different ways.

Bill Pilgrim’s legend is that an old Patamuna man named Kai chose not to be a burden to his people in his old age and asked his people in desperation to sacrifice him over the 741 feet waterfall. He saw this as an act of freeing his people from all the bad times they were having.

His people thus said a haunting goodbye and pushed Kai over the falls that is today described as `Kai’s mountain house’, meaning Kaieteur.

Kaieteur Falls is considered the crown jewel of Guyana’s tourism product.

To the present time, Dr. Fox says, the Patamunas still believe that Old Kai lives within the huge cave over which the falls cascade. The mist emanating from the falls is sometimes explained as the smoke from which Old Kai is cooking his food. The belief is that Old Kai still lives and is happier where he is.

“It was this belief that made Kaieteur a special spiritual place for the Patamuna people and is therefore their spiritual shrine,” Dr. Fox explains.

She believes too this has been their mainstay long before British explorer and geologist Charles Barrington Browne was said to have discovered the Falls in 1870.

There are many other stories associated with the legend of Kaieteur. There is one which talks about the last two extinct tribes of Guyana, the Parguaza and the Amacao, who reportedly committed mass suicide by leaping over the cliffs above Kaieteur because an oracle proved false. And there is but another that tells of Kaieteur Falls, being named for a long-gone Patamunas chief who, by legend, paddled himself in a dugout over the scarp to win the favour of the gods in a war against the ferocious Caribs.

As Dr. Fox posits, we will never know which one of the varying legends of Kaieteur is true. The place to look for the history lies with the Patamuna people. However, their own identity is now barely recognisable among the present generation.

Before the fourth Pakaraimas Mountain safari revved off, my own curiosity was that of meeting the Patamuna people, one of the last nine remaining tribes of Amerindians in Guyana. Their traditional dress, their body markings (or what we call tattoos), their revered Piai man, and albeit hesitantly, the Kanaima, were registered in my mind.

I first got a hint that none of what I expected to discover would materialise at the Morabaiko creek, where the team from the 16-vehicle safari camped for the night.

As he fastened his hammock rope to retire for the night, Chairman of Region Eight, Senor Bell, sounded the alarm. Patamunas were becoming more and more interested in the coastland way of life.

When Minister of Local Government and Regional Development Harripersaud Nokta commissioned the safari team across the Echilibar River crossing from Region Nine into Region Eight, therefore, the Pakaraimas beckoned a different invitation. To me, it was a call to see how its people had changed.

At Bamboo Creek, even the welcome was tainted. The Amerindians traditionally serve drink, in this case, mango drink. Everyone is expected to sip from the same portion as a friendship gesture. However, it was not served in the customary calabash, it was plastic bowl!

The Patamunas no longer cling to their culture and Dr. Fox believes this is because the spirituality of these “people of the sky” was uprooted by Christian missionaries.

“It’s glaring. The root of our culture, our spirituality, was cut down very early by the Christian invasion,” Fox declares.

Before, the missionaries, the Patamunas practised a nature religion of sorts. They believed in strong contact with the environment.

“We actually lived in an environment where we abided by the rules of nature. We respected the environment and it somehow respected us,” she says.

That bonding with the forest and mountains meant there were rules and regulations that governed their way of life.

Before going into a forest, it was customary to chant a prayer, more or less a password, to appease the spirits for passing through their territory. If not, problems could arise.

“You could get lost in the forest. You would go hunting and get no game. You could get into an accident,” Dr. Fox explains.

And once into the forest, there were rules to follow.

“You shouldn’t be laughing and screaming aloud. If you cook food with pepper, you don’t throw it in the water. You don’t urinate in the water in these areas,” Dr. Fox informs. This, however, has changed completely.

“Some people don’t even know that this existed,” she asserts.

Among the natures giants that was revered by the Patamunas is the sun. They called him Father Sun, portraying him as the very source of vitality, and of life itself.

In fact, the way the Patamunas and other Amerindians built their houses represented the spiritual value they placed on the sun. But even this aspect of their life has been transformed.

The benab houses that are representative of Amerindian dwellings, usually allowed a sun roof, in that, a small portion of the dome roof would be exposed to allow the sun to shine through into the house. That part of the house where the sun penetrated was believed be to be sacred ground. In fact, the whole idea of building a house was of deep spiritual significance.

One such significance is of it being a fertility symbol, a body metaphor.

The dome, or cone shape of the house signifies the vagina of the female and the centre pole that keeps it up portrays the male phallic symbol.

Dr. Fox agrees, saying this signifies continuity of life basically.

“Of course, it doesn’t happen like that now because they don’t live in houses like that anymore,” she quickly adds. The Amerindians now build some of their houses coastland-style, abandoning the benab style.

The clothes the indigenous peoples developed were tailored to suit Guyana’s tropical climate. The women wore bead aprons, made out of seeds, just to cover the front, and, in the initial stages, wore nothing anything at all.

In that period, body painting was very important. If the “tattoo” as it is called today, is applied properly, you really didn’t see “anything.” However, unlike today’s tattoo craze, you couldn’t just tattoo your body willy-nilly.

“Everything had a meaning. Certain groups had distinct markings,” Dr Fox says.

“The oldest woman in Chenapau died two years ago. She had tattoo whiskers. This told you that she was a brewer. She could make the strongest drinks,” Melville adds.

In a similar vein, different markings meant different things, and the men were known to dress more elaborately than the women.

The men once used a `penis sheet’, “so if you go fishing or hunting, or running around the place you would not get injured,” Dr. Fox laughs.

“It doesn’t happen anymore. They know how to do it. We still know older people who know certain things, but we have to act quickly before they die out,” she adds.

Apart from the penis sheet, males wore beaded aprons and donned an Awino, a special upper body crossing, designed in an X-shape. It was a macho thing to be dressed like that. Added to that were the cacique crown, arm and anklet bands and special feather across the nose.

The females just wore beaded aprons to cover the front.

“I laugh today because people are so fond of thongs, but that is what Amerindian women used to wear,” Dr. Fox says. Added to that, the women painted their bodies.

Consistent too with the way of dressing were distinct hairstyles, for both the males and the females.

However, the Pataumas and most other Amerindian groups do not dress traditionally anymore.

Melville speaks of the people of Monkey Creek, situated within the village of Kaibarupai, 50 miles from Orinduik, who try very hard to preserve their culture. He says there the older people still wear traditional loin cloth.

He remembers back in 2001, when he was head captain, receiving a lot of complaints that Christians had tried to move in and were condemning the people for their way of life and inferring that they are “punishing” because their culture was not right.

Tony says he wrote the authorities in Georgetown to register the concerns of the people

“At Monkey Creek, they perhaps still hold the cream of traditional knowledge,” he says.

Dr. Fox contends that Christianity shares majority blame for the loss of Amerindian culture.

“They were told they look like animals. Christianity told them that this kind of living is not good, its paganism. So they brought them clothes and groomed their hair, gave them shoes to wear. They really said it was not good, they were told you look like savages,” Dr. Fox asserts.

Why were the Amerindians brainwashed?
“Because they were told they can’t go to heaven like that. Amerindian culture was outlawed and is still outlawed in some communities like Waramadong and Kako. Everybody ise now Seventh Day Adventists. You can’t have medicine man in the villages to cure people - that’s being sinful,” she contends.

“The Wai Wais were thought to be the most unadulterated group. That is not so. I was there last October. Wai Wais are Christian brethren. They dress like you and I. These were the people who dressed the way you see them in pictures. They no longer do that,” Dr. Fox asserts.

“When we asked them why they cut their hair and so, they said the missionaries told them it was not good, they have to stop doing that,” she adds.

She says the only time they do that now is on holidays, when they keep people out of their community to practice their traditions.

“Imagine that, now they have to hide to do that!”

“They were totally brainwashed. It is a case of a dominant culture wiping out the culture of other people. They say if you do this and do that, you would be accepted as normal people. That has not happened,” Dr. Fox says.

“No matter how high and low you climb, you are still an Amerindian. In the eyes of people, you are still an Amerindian. And the kind of ways in which they define you and look at you, it’s still the same way. It doesn’t matter if you have a Doctorate behind your name, the discrimination continues, I’m sorry to say, but it happens,” Dr. Fox posits.

The Patamuna language is the most dominant element of their original way of life that remains, but this too is being tainted by the English Language.

“That is why we are still Amerindians. Language is something that defines people. That is the saviour to us. Through your language you can express and interpret your world. That is the element of our culture that we have retained in some instances that has kept us,” Dr. Fox asserts.

“We speak our language, it’s part of our identity, it’s who we are as against other people. It has kept us as a people,” she adds.

It is common to hear Patamuna people speak their own language. But it is being changed a little bit, with English slowly seeping in.

“That is the first indication towards language death,” Dr. Fox posits.

She says part of the problem may be that native Amerindian language is not used as medium for instruction in schools.

“It is something we should seriously look at or else we would loose the language in small populations,” she suggests.

“Sure it makes me sad, because you don’t get the essence of who you are,” Melville says of his lack of ability to communicate fully in his own language.

“People say times change, but in the Pakaraimas, you see beauty and life. You know you can live with nature, animals, water, but because of losing your language, you loose what your real traditional culture is. You must feel sad,” he says.

Tony says he cannot speak fluently in his native Patamuna language, but he can understand when he hears his elders speak.

‘But you feel sad when you can’t rattle and prattle like they do,” he says.

Melville wants to see action fast to preserve the Patamuna tongue. He would like to see something similar to what is happening in the Rupununi region, where Makushi is being taught in schools.

He feels the Government should play the most important role in this preservation.

Christians are now translating the Bible from English to Patamuna. Melville doesn’t like that.

As the safari team passed through some Patamuna villages, there is evidence of houses burnt to the ground. Safari leader Frank Singh informs that it is a custom when someone dies for the house to be burnt to the ground.

“They believe that if you burn the house, you let the spirit of the person go in peace,” Dr. Fox adds.

The house is brunt along with all every single thing the person owned. If that doesn’t happen, they believe his spirit would linger around. The custom applies to the death of anyone, young or old, male or female.

However, this practice too is facing extinction. With thatched roofs and mud houses, it was no big deal to observe this ritual, but now Dr. Fox points out some Amerindians build wooden houses, so they don’t burn it down, they just move out and build another house.

Another belief of Amerindian new to me was that some of them do not like to have their picture taken, because they feel you could trap their spirit when you do that. This became clear at Karukubaru, the highest point we would reach in the safari, 3, 000 feet up in the mountains.

Some of them literally ran away when I attempted to take a picture of them sitting under their thatched roofed houses. They see it as spiritually detrimental. But not all Amerindians believe that and the majority are all the more too happy to have their photograph taken, and especially when they could see it right away from the digital cameras that almost all the adventurers possessed.

The Kanaima is the most dreaded of what outsiders believed to be Amerindian folkflore. However, it is not a legend, attests Dr. Fox. They really still exist, mutilating and poisoning their victims as part of gruesome and highly ritualised murders. She describes them as belonging to a sacred society, more like a killer cult, targeting their enemies.

University of Wisconsin anthropologist Neil Whitehead never intended to study them until they came after him.

In the early 1990s, when Whitehead first travelled to Guyana, he had no interest in hearing about such stomach-turning practices, just to catalogue artifacts and sites of anthropological interest. On the first days of that research trip, Whitehead unknowingly triggered the ire of one or more Kanaimas. That, he believes, incited them to poison him, ultimately pushing him to understand what had happened.

And so, a few years later, Whitehead sat surrounded by men who presented him with a dilemma - one we might call an "invitation problem." As a rule, anthropologists try to immerse themselves in the cultures they study, and living among - even working with - research subjects is a consecrated habit.

However, he soon discovered that discussions about violence are surrounded by taboos. “Our attitude and knowledge about violence are where they were about sex, thirty to forty years ago,” he says.

Indeed, Whitehead's new book, `Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death’, contains descriptions of Kanaima horrendous enough to be taboo in many publications. This story, too, avoids some of the harsher details, but interested readers can consult the book for more explicit descriptions.

Kanaimas, Whitehead learned, usually didn't immediately kill their victims, preferring to first maim and intimidate by breaking victims' fingers or dislocating their necks. After the victim endured a few months or years of pain, the Kanaimas would mount a ferocious killing attack, piercing the victim's tongue with snake fangs, mutilating the mouth and anus with sharp objects, and inserting toxic plants into the anus.

“The sheer violence of the attack,” Whitehead says, “is meant to drive out the life force of the person.” Even with medical treatment, victims die an excruciating, lingering death.

The professor and his Patamuna associates entered a cave that held a solitary, ceramic urn containing several old bones. The Patamuna treated the urn with awe, and refused to touch it. Whitehead, however, not only moved the urn to take a photo, but also removed one of the bones. That action, as it turned out, sealed his fate, guaranteeing that he would soon have a deeply personal interest in Kanaima.

The Patamuna interpreted Whitehead's behaviour as an announcement that he was either a Kanaima himself or one of their enemies. His actions, he believes, motivated his new enemies - presumably directed by Kanaimas - to poison him. Their intent was not murder, Whitehead says, which they easily could have accomplished through their knowledge of natural poisons. Instead, he believes, their goal was to threaten him about being too nosy.

The attack, delivered in the form of a meal, caused several weeks of serious gastrointestinal problems. He revisited the area, talking with the families of victims and buying interviews with a few men who claimed to be Kanaimas. The work culminated with the publication of the chilling account of `Dark Shamans’.

Dr. Fox says the Kanaimas were essential to Amerindian warrior communities. They were the elite force to wipe out the enemy from other tribes.

“However, with the whole idea of Christianity, the whole body of language went underground,” she says.

However, Dr. Fox notes it is the only aspect of the Amerindian culture that has not been infiltrated by anything else because people are so scared to investigate, letting it remain mysterious. But she warns it is not mambo jumbo. She likes to call it “a body of highly classified information.”

She herself investigated the Kanaima for her university dissertation. According to her, when a Kanaima kills, they attack the two ways of how energy is distributed in body: through your mouth and anus.

When they attack they slit under your tongue because you might have seen or known the killer, she says. Even if they don’t do that and you can talk you would never be able to say who exactly did it.

“They mess with your mind,” she says. If they have targeted you, she says, they will lure you.

“They hit you with their hand behind your neck, break up your bones, slit your throat, pull out your rectum and put in a piece of wood and then feed you with all kinds of herbs. You get fever, hallucinations, vomit blood. You die in three days,” Dr. Fox explains.

With Christianity, thankfully or not, the Kanaimas are slowly disappearing. Christian missionaries taught the Amerindians that the practice was evil and they would not win favour with the gods.

“When the Christians came, they realised this could tamper with spreading their message, and they started converting people,” Melville pints out.

However, he knows of some Kanaimas existing now and some of those who have passed it on to their children.

Given its highly spiritualistic complex, he estimates that it takes some 15 years for a grandmaster to pass on the knowledge to his sons.

The Patamunas believed in the power of their Piai man to use his spiritual art to ward off attack, by the Kanaima, but they, too, are now in short supply.

With the Patamuna culture and that of other Amerindian tribes disappearing, is there hope of its revival? Dr. Fox feels so. So does Tony Melville.

“We believe in a circle of life and maybe we were caught in the middle, searching for identity. I know now the whole world is looking back at the indigenous world to learn something,” Dr. Fox insists.

“I believe you take five generations to loose your culture and 25 years to retain it. We are about three and a half generations into losing our culture; it is now virtually extinct,” Melville says.

He feels leaders in the communities have a major role to play in preserving Amerindian culture.

With the Pakaraimas becoming more and more opened up, the cultures of the Patamunas can disappear even faster.

“The Patamunas always respect their environment. They wouldn’t destroy their environment, knowing they have to live with it. But now, they are seeing modernised equipment, like power saws. Now, they want to cut bigger farms,” he says.

He is now into tour guiding and when he flies across the Pakaraimas, he notices more patches of land being cleared.

“The power saw makes work lighter, but it also clears away land much faster, and destroys the environment. Our leaders have to be more conscious,” he says.

“Our actions now must be on answering this question first: If we do this, what will happen thirty, forty years from now?”

The safari to the Pakaraimas was made possible because of the completion of the road to Orinduik.

Roads linking the villages of Region Eight from Maikwak to Monkey Mountain never existed. Similarly, there were no access roads from Karasabai to Yurong Paru in Region Nine. The villages of the Pakaraimas were landlocked and the easy way to commute was by air.

The Patamunas and the Makushis (who inhabit but three of the villages in the Pakaraimas) traverse these mountains, rivers and plains for days and sometimes weeks to possible market places.

Men and women have no choice but to carry their belongings in traditional Warishees slung across their backs and tied to their foreheads.

It is said that these people, who primarily engage in farming, hunting and fishing, suffered social and economic stagnation due to a lack of market for their produce. They live and survive by eking out their own subsistence.

Recognising the need for an access road linking the villages of Regions Eight and Nine, the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development developed the project to cut a road through the Regions.

First, it was a rough pathway traversed only by two tractors and trailers. In December 2000, monies were made available to complete the last portion from Morabaiko creek in Region Nine, to its last village Young Peru.

As a result, the safari was able to travel from Karasabai in Region Nine to Orinduik in Region Eight.

Minister of Local Government Harripersaud Nokta answers the question of why a safari, by noting that it provides the opportunities for coastlanders to learn more about the way of life and the difficulties of the people. He says it is a way of promoting tourism and of garnering income for the communities.

More than that, he sees greater potential for agricultural development in the interior and opportunities for scientific research.

He feels with the road opened up, the Amerindians could have easier access to their land and it could also spur competition among those who sell goods from the coastland at exorbitant prices.

In terms of agriculture, Minister Nokta says the soil could provide yields of white potatoes, onion, garlic, teas and grapes because of the temperate climate and natural fertilisation.

With the coastland under threat to global warming and floods common, he sees an economic and social shift to the interior as an alternative that has to be seriously looked at.

Melville knows of the benefits of the road, but he is fearful of the adverse effects it could have.

“Tourism can be good and it can be detrimental also. Some people don’t have the same respect for environment and what remains of the customs of our people,” he says. Then there are other negative consequences that could follow, he worries.

Melville and Dr. Fox fear that soon the traditions of the Patamunas would be just a past-time for these people.

So if you go on the next safari to the Pakaraimas and you see the Patamunas perform their Humming Bird or Parishara dances, know you are getting a hint that they yearn for their culture to stay alive. What remains of it, that is.