Amerindians’ challenges and contributions: an enigma of survival


One peculiarity of Guyanese history is that we know very little of our cultural heritage before the arrival of Europeans in 1492. What we know of ourselves in that historical period are accounts of Europeans, because our Amerindians did not leave much written record of themselves and the environment they lived in. Do not be confused, however, by the spurious argument that Europeans discovered Guyana. Instead, they revealed to the world the existence of a place named Guiana – a land of waters – that was inhabited for many centuries by people unlike themselves.

Few will disagree that the Amerindians are the first inhabitants of Guyana. The Amerindians, however, are also transplanted people, like any other Guyanese ethnic group. This is acceptable only if you agree with the diffusion theory that the ancestors of Amerindians are thought to have crossed the Bering Straits (Ice Bridge) about 20,000 years ago, dispersed gradually throughout North and South America (Guyana included) and migrated from the Orinoco and northern Amazon Basin to the Caribbean about 10,000 years ago.

Their disposition before the arrival of Europeans into their interior domicile can be described as accommodating, rather than conquering, nature and life, although there were bouts of warfare among the many different Amerindian groups. Their disposition after the arrival of Europeans can be described as one of resistance against foreign intrusion, and pressing for the resurgence of their own way of life.

The Europeans saw the Amerindian rainforest territory as a place and opportunity for trading in dyes, and later establishing plantation colonisation schemes. The European scheme failed due largely to Amerindian resistance to slavery, the inhospitable interior terrain, and tropical diseases. The Europeans, mainly Dutch and British, abandoned their interior operations and moved to the Atlantic coastlands, where they developed large-scale plantations. Unlike their brothers and sisters in the Caribbean islands, where they suffered a genocide through the encomienda slave system, the Amerindians in Guyana were inadvertently “saved” when the Europeans shifted their colonising interests from the interior to the coastlands. African slaves were imported to provide labour for European plantations.

Robert H. Schomburgh, in 1840, placed the Amerindian population to be around 7000 in 1839, although this figure was disputed by other researchers as being too small or large by a few thousand. The Guyana Population Census in 2002 recorded the Amerindian population around 68,675, about 9.2 per cent of the 751,223 overall Guyanese population. Interestingly, Amerindians are certainly a minority within the overall Guyanese population, but a numerical majority in the vast interior region.

In modern times, the Amerindians have been engaged in an endless struggle to receive land titles, better social services, and to be treated as humans; to be free from environmental degradation, and to stop the encroachment of various diseases in their communities. They are Guyana’s second-class citizens, although there have been some improvements from their deep-seated poverty and backwardness in the past decade.

In spite of these bad chapters, there are some bright pages to be recorded about Amerindian history in Guyana, namely their contributions. Their mere survival is a contribution to human diversity that Guyanese should be proud of. Historically, they helped their enslavers to survive in a foreign land by sharing their knowledge of tropical cultivation, the use of various plants, such as cassava, cotton, maize (corn) and other indigenous plants, not only for consumption but also for medicinal purposes. These practices are still prevalent in Guyana.

Guyanese are not shy to speak about pepper pot, the cassava bread, cassava balls, and cassareep which have graced our homes; but I am not sure if we have stopped for a moment to think that they are Amerindian contributions to Guyana’s culinary make-up. Their linguistic input in Guyana’s everyday lexicon is also often overlooked. Canoe, hammock, hurricane, tobacco, to list a few, are Amerindian words we use almost every day. I am surprised that the Amerindian word for gold did not make it to the list of words we use today in Guyana, since it was gold coupled with glory and God that prompted Europeans to come to Guyana.

The preservation of their rainforest environment is by far one of their finest contributions to Guyana and the world at a time when environmental sustainability takes a secondary place to unscrupulous economic gains.

I conclude by saying their main challenge and concern is the failure of the modern nation-state system to recognize their indigenous and grassroots system, as is evidenced by the clarion call of The National Toshaos Council (NTC) to have the current regime establish a separate commission to deal with land rights of the indigenous peoples, rather than conflate it with the African Guyanese internal land reparation movement. What a national ethnic shame! ([email protected])