Amerindian history and the schools
September 1, 2000
September is Amerindian Heritage Month, and as is now customary various activities are scheduled to showcase indigenous culture, and sensitize non-Amerindians to the way-of-life of Guyana's first inhabitants. That is all very admirable, but how much impact does it have when there is no reinforcement during the rest of the year? Do the other ethnic groups in Guyana, for example, really identify with the Amerindian experience as being part of their own history, and see the coming of the first indigenous peoples to this country (perhaps some 11,500 years ago) as marking the starting point of Guyana's past?
Raising the level of consciousness about other groups starts in school. But although it is the Amerindians who give this nation its dimension of antiquity, in most schools pre-history is either not taught at all, or is not perceived as constituting an integral part of the historical thread that connects everyone who chose or was forced to make their home here. The deficiencies of the primary Social Studies syllabus have been noted in another editorial, but it is worth repeating again that that syllabus is particularly inadequate in the area of history.
Are the children of Guyana taught, for example, that as far as is known at present the Warraus are the oldest of the identifiable Amerindian nations still living here? Do they know about their life-style thousands of years ago? Do they know when the Arawaks arrived? Or the Caribs? Do they know the names of any of the tribes who no longer live within Guyana's borders, but who once did, and what happened to them?
Do they know what happened when the Dutch arrived? Are they still parrotting that when the Europeans came the Amerindians escaped into the interior? Do they know that for most of the Dutch period the Amerindians outnumbered the combined African-European population? Do they know that there was once an Amerindian slave trade in this country? Do they know that Amerindians from some nations worked as slaves in Guyana until 1793 - the date of the abolition of indigenous slavery? Have they heard about the combined Arawak-African rising in Berbice of 1687?
Do they know about the other nations which currently live within Guyana's borders? Do they know about many Macushis and Wapishanas fleeing to the Rupununi after leading uprisings in the Portuguese missions of the Rio Branco at the end of the eighteenth century? Do they know about the Dutch-Carib alliance, and why it lasted so long? Do they know that the Caribs guarded the Essequibo frontier for the Dutch? Do they know what happened to the Amerindians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when the British were here?
There are usually two stages to putting 'history' in the public arena. The first is the undertaking of primary research, usually at the university level; and the second is the popular stage, where information based on that research is made generally available to a wider audience and to schools. Currently the schools are sadly lagging behind in terms of their access to up-to-date historical data.
The history of this country - especially Amerindian history - could be made meaningful and exciting for children if some effort was made to produce material which was readable and which homed in on events and personalities. In other words, children need to be told a story. And there are plenty stories to tell in Guyana's history. Made interesting in this fashion, it would be something with which all pupils could identify as being part of a common past, rather than an abstract account which had relevance only to the group to which it directly pertained.
Perhaps students at UG who have had exposure to Guyanese history, under supervision, could assist the Ministry of Education in the production of booklets reflecting more recent research - about the Amerindians as well as every other group.
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