Honouring the people who gave this land its name
September 5, 2003
IN HIS message to mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous People in August 1996, Mr Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations exhorted this present generation to do more than apologise for the wrongs indigenous peoples have faced over the decades, and to help them to take their rightful place as full participants in the community of nations. Noting that discrimination, oppression and disease have all taken a terrible toll on indigenous peoples around the world, Mr Boutros-Ghali urged, “Theirs is a unique suffering, compounded by centuries of misunderstanding, discrimination and neglect. The international community can do more, however, than apologise for the wrongs of the past. This will require a conscious shift in national and international priorities…. Our starting point must be that of the indigenous peoples themselves … to uphold, respect and promote legitimate demands for basic human, political and economic rights.”
The UN Secretary-General conceded that at the national level, many states were already encouraging the direct political involvement of indigenous peoples to combat racism and discrimination and to alleviate poverty and environmental destruction. “At the international level,” Mr Boutros-Ghali said, “we can do more to ensure a coordinated, informed and committed response to the unique challenges faced by indigenous people around the world.”
Seven years after these pronouncements, and nine years into the UN Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004), the words of Mr Boutros-Ghali still argue relevance for humankind. While we must concede that within the last decade, the situation of Aboriginals has been improving at a rapid pace through greater consciousness-raising and the advocacy of scores of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on every continent, Mr Boutros-Ghali’s radiant vision of indigenous peoples taking their rightful place in the community of nations is yet to be realised. There are countless cases of Guyanese coastlanders migrating to the hinterland, and in the process of earning their livelihood, perpetrating acts of exploitation and sexual and physical abuse on Amerindians. As recently as the 1990s, middle-class matrons in the Capital would voice their wishes to acquire the services of “good, Amerindian girls” to be live-in maids -- the assumption being that such persons would be docile, biddable, and not liable to demand the level of earnings commensurate with the chores they are asked to perform.
Such exploitation diminishes the inherent dignity of Amerindians and pays no homage to the fact that Guyana’s nine tribes of Aboriginals are the true people of the New World. Their presence here predates not only the much-celebrated arrival of the Genoese navigator, but also by thousands of years the birth of Christ. The late Guyanese scientist, artist and archaeologist, Dr Denis Williams, who conducted excavations at Barabina in the North Western region of Guyana, established with the authentication of the Smithsonian Institute, that Amerindians began peopling this country over 6,000 years ago. It was they, who named this portion of South America ‘Guyana’, which means “Land of Many Waters”.
As we have noted in this column before, it would be difficult to list all the contributions Guyana’s first people have made to this nation, which possesses one of the richest amalgams of the melting-pot society in this hemisphere. Our Aboriginals have had a distinctive hand in defining this nation’s material culture as well as the broad poetics of myths, lore, prehistoric petroglyphs and creation stories. Those coastlanders, who have had the privilege of visiting Guyana’s hinterland, would know that for many Amerindians, time is measured by the movements of the sun and the moon and the rising of the dark river waters. Amerindians commune instinctively with the environment, and for them the rivers, the rocks, the forests and the mountains are sources of legend and inspiration as well as sustenance.
It is meet and right that a period of time has been identified annually for the observance of Amerindian cultural activities. Let us hope that the other groups that comprise this society find the time to reflect on the many ways in which Guyana’s first people have enriched the ethos of this country.