Tancredo’s dream opens the eye to
Life in a typical Amerindian community

by Linda Rutherford
Guyana Chronicle
September 21, 2003

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PIAI Man; Medicine Man. What difference does it make?
A sight lot, it would seem, according to master artisan, Mr George Tancredo, whose epic in balata, ‘A Dream of my Ancestors and the Past’, which has been on permanent display in a special room on the ‘attic floor’ of the National Art Gallery since 2000, was opened briefly to the public at the onset of Amerindian Heritage Month as part of a month-long programme of activities to mark the occasion.

It’s one of those rare topics you would want to explore further, but for Tancredo’s thrift in the use of information.

A depiction of a typical hunting scene. (Pictures by Quacy Sampson)
An important man himself in his South Rupununi village, Nappi; the Touchau (Captain), no less, Tancredo does let on, however, that both the Piai Man and the Medicine Man are skilled in the use of herbs, and, in the case of the former, is versed in the art of ‘blow(ing)’ his people, which is another way of saying he has the knack of casting powerful spells which can be used for either good or evil.

Another trait of the Medicine Man’s, it transpires, is his skill in the art of blood-letting, which he achieves by making a series of cuts on the skin, so as to relieve his patient of any evil he or she may have picked up.

Tancredo also has a very interesting observation to make about the dreaded Kanaima, whose path, legend has it, no one in his right mind would want to cross unless he is suicidal.

Boat-building at work.
He is “a special kind of assassin,” he says, who has the ability to adopt different forms, like the giant anteater depicted in one of the displays, and can be hired by one’s enemies to bring about their demise.

One supposes there is also the female version to this fiendish character, just as there is in the case of the Medicine Man, as shown in the scene where a matronly woman ministers to one of her patients, as two mongrels, long thought of as a trademark of any Amerindian family, look on disinterestedly.

But the exhibit is not just about the paranormal, one finds, as what it does is strive to show life in a typical Amerindian village – from the women going about their daily chores, whether it is to do with the various by-products that can be had from the humble bitter cassava, known in the medical field as Manihot esculenta; to the forbidding sight that is a Macushi warrior dressed for battle; the scenic vista presented by sweat-drenched, bare-backed boat-builders down at the water’s edge; or the lively Hummingbird and Parishara dances in celebration of a particularly good haul following a hunt.

Amerindian woman weaving cotton.
There is also something to be said about the wealth of information it has to offer, such as the fact that boats made from the bark of a tree have but one weakness, this being their vulnerability to the sun, which can be overcome by their being submerged in water when not in use.

According to a brochure put out by the Nappi Balata Artisans, an organisation founded with the help of Conservation International Guyana (CIG) back in the early 90s, and to which Tancredo belongs, balata is derived from the bullet-wood, a hardwood tree that grows in abundance in the foothills of the Kanukus, a mountain range in southern Guyana.

It is harvested, during the months of June to October, by carefully making criss-cross markings on the bark of the tree, which aid in the release of the milky sap therein, the proper term for which is latex.

Another hunting scene.
The resultant stream of sap is then caught in a canvas bag attached to the base of the tree, following which it is poured out into shallow wooden tubs where it is left to dry.

As it dries, the brochure says, the sap hardens into a skin of about a quarter of an inch thick, at which point it is removed from the tub and hung to dry in the sun, when it is it develops the rich brown hue balata is known for.

“The balata is now ready for crafting,” it says.

According to the leaflet, the Macushis, one of the nine nations common to the north/south Rupununi, traditionally used balata to make storage and other domestic utensils and figurines, but were on the verge of losing the art until CIG stepped in and helped preserve it with the aid of Tancredo, who was one of the few members of his village who had retained the skill.

A DREAM OF MY ANCESTORS AND THE PAST: Another of Tancredo’s balata forms.
Thus, the group was founded.

Today, membership stands at 12, and, with continued support from CIG, it has been able to develop skills in quality assurance, management and computer literacy among others.

They have also been able to secure markets both locally and overseas for their products, which range from rainforest animals, indoor games such as chess and nativity sets, which are very popular at Christmas-time.

As part of the exhibition, which ran from September 2 – 7, Tancredo also gave a talk and demonstration of the methods he uses for modelling figurines from balata. The talk was held on the ground floor of ‘the Gallery’.

The event was a collaborative effort of the Guyana Heritage Society, CIG and the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs.

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