Paying homage to our Amerindian heritage

Guyana Chronicle
September 2, 2000

ONCE again, the national spotlight is trained on Guyana's aboriginal peoples on the occasion of Amerindian Heritage Month. This observance causes us not only to recognise anew one of the ethnic groups that makes up our wonderful Guyanese tapestry of peoples, but it helps us to reflect on the myriad ways in which this particular group of Guyanese has contributed to the material culture of the nation.

Like their siblings in the rest of the Americas, Guyana's first people crossed the Bering Straits during the fourth ice age as hunter-gatherers. In the early 1980s, the late Dr Denis Williams, archaelogist and anthropologist, excavated scores of skeletons and dozens of pieces of potsherds at Barabina in the North West District, where Amerindians of antiquity lived. This historical evidence was later confirmed by the Smithsonian as being over 5,000 years old, which establishes the fact that our indigenous people lived in this land millennia before the birth of Christ.

With the arrival of the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus and his `huge burdened caravels' in the late 15th century, the methodical decimation of the native peoples of the Americas began in the name of European kingdoms and Christianity. Over the following centuries of European expansionism, the indigenous peoples were enslaved and robbed of their lands and many of their priceless artefacts. Thousands died resisting enslavement, many were displaced. For instance, the Caribs of St Lucia were forced to make their way to other lands and to this day, their descendants, the Garifunas of Belize, who appear to be black, complain bitterly of their forced exodus 200 years ago.

In the modern history of the Americas, Guyana is one of the few territories in which the population of indigenous people was increasing. And although the last administration was accused of neglecting the welfare of the first people, many hundreds of Amerindians were trained as teachers, nurses, midwives, Medexes, religious and artists. However, we are saddened to admit that discrimination, exploitation and sexual abuse are still the lot of some Amerindians who have had the misfortune of seeking employment in certain places. Many otherwise respectable citizens, wittingly or unwittingly still import Amerindian young women from the hinterland to be their live-in workers. These women are assumed to be naive and unworldly, unlike their urban sisters, and therefore would not quibble about the amount of pay or protest long hours of work.

Thanks to a new consciousness of their worth, aboriginals the world over are net-working and making their voices heard in most councils where their concerns and aspirations are listened to respectfully and not patronisingly. Here we must recall the words of Mr Boutros-Boutros Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations, who exhorted society to do more than just apologise for the wrongs indigenous peoples have faced. He admonished that tribals must be helped in taking their rightful place as full participants in the community of nations.

For this to happen, Boutros-Boutros Ghali said, the starting point must be that of the indigenous peoples themselves. And it will require a conscious shift in national and international priorities to uphold, respect and promote legitimate demands for their basic, human, political and economic rights.

We salute all Amerindians on the occasion of Amerindian Heritage Month.

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