SUMMARY REPORT OF THE RESEARCH CARRIED OUT ON THE GLI GLI CARIB CANOE PROJECTS RECENT EXPEDITION FROM DOMINICA TO GUYANA.
The Gli Gli expedition was hosted by the Carib community of Santa Rosa in Arima, co-ordinated by Ricardo Hernandez-Bharath and Christo Adonis, The United Nations agency ELAC, coordinated by Izola Garcia and Trinidadian Artist Johnny Stollmeyer.
The Caribs of Trinidad form a significant part of the “melting pot” of cultures that make up the present day inhabitants of Trinidad and Tobago. Those who maintain the separateness of their identity now live in the Carib community of Santa Rosa in Arima. Here about 500 Carib people live, on lands originally set aside for them by the Catholic church. This community are descendants of a mix of Amerindian tribes that survived the Spanish colonizers who had been slaughtering and slaving their people through out the early colonial period. The Amerindian history of Trinidad is rich with accounts of their brave attempts to repel the invaders, often with the help of the mainland tribes and Island Caribs from Dominica and St. Vincent. On many occasions Caribs chose to commit suicide rather surrender to slavery and Christian indoctrination.
The current population do not speak the Carib language, however research is being carried out by Ricardo Cruz, a descendant of the Karinia Caribs of Venezuela, who was born in Trinidad. Ricardo speaks Karinia and has compiled an extensive word list of the language. Music and dance traditions have been kept alive, largely through the works of the Santa Rosa “Parang” group, who perform regularly. The style of the music, dance and instruments is heavily influenced by Spanish music of the colonial times, though the songs often recount tales of Amerindian origin.
Traditional rituals are not performed any more, having been stopped by the missionaries, however a revival is underway through the work of Christo Adonis and Ricardo Cruz, who have begun performing “smoke ceremonies” in respect of the ancestors.
Traditional medicine is not practiced to the same extent as the in the past, even so there are many people through out the island who continue to use it. It appears to be increasing in importance due to the expense and general dissatisfaction with modern medicine.
The Santa Rosa Carib community was in many ways one of the most organized of the Carib groups that we met. They have constructed a community center, where cultural performances and work shops are regularly put on. Every year they celebrate the Festival of Santa Rosa, an event originally organized by the church. These days it serves as an annual Carib gathering, where there is music, dance and traditional foods. Since 1990 they have organized an annual “Amerindian heritage week” that now attracts representatives from Guyana, Belize, Dominica and St. Vincent. Being a leading member of the Caribbean Organization of Indigenous Peoples(COIP) the Santa Rosa Caribs have done a great deal to correct the commonly held belief that indigenous people are extinct in the Caribbean. Through their work they are claiming their basic human and civil rights, reinforcing a positive self image and fostering exchange amongst indigenous peoples, to correct the inequalities and deprivations that is traditionally meted out to minority people. They now have contacts with other indigenous people’s organizations in the USA, Canada, Central America and South America.
The Trinidad and Tobago government are generally supportive of their efforts and provide an annual grant of 30, 000$TT for the community. However a long-standing request for the return of a portion of Carib land, for the creation of a new village, is continually ignored.
The Gli Gli crew gained two more members in Trinidad, Fay Patrick, a woman of Carib descent and the artist Johnny Stollmeyer.
Sadly due to the restrictions of time and money, the Gli Gli was unable to visit the surviving Carib groups of the middle Orinoco, known as the Karinia. This tribe is the last remaining group of Caribs that once dominated the Orinoco and the Guyanas, prior to and during the early colonial period. Their skills in war and trading made them very difficult to subdue. They regularly invaded Spanish settlements and missions, often assisted by Dutch and English forces who used the Caribs as “allies” to harass Spanish colonies. The trade in European goods that arose through these alliances served to reaffirm the Caribs dominance over the region, and made them the most feared of tribes. The Caribs where however eventually “reduced, " by warfare, new diseases, and the continued effort of the missionaries.
The present day Karinia do still speak the Karinia /Carib language as well as Spanish.
Whilst in the Orinoco the Gli Gli expedition spent some time with various different groups of Warao people. These small scattered groups of people live in much the same way as they did in pre-Columbian times, except for metal tools, torches and the occasional out board motor. They live in open walled, thatched houses that are raised up on stilts to stay above the tidal floods of the river. The only transport is the canoe, which are dug out in much the same way as the Dominican Caribs, though they do not have the “pince” and the boardage of the ocean going canoes. They some times use sails, which in earlier times where made of cotton or palm fiber materials, now are made from scraps of plastic sewn together or the original sail the palm frond is still as practical as ever.
The Waraos live by fishing and farming small seasonal plots, growing traditional crops. Alot of groups still migrate with the annual flood season for fishing. They produce basket work and hammocks, mostly for home use, as there is very little access to markets Traditional medicine is in common use, made from forest plants and cassava juice. Still there is a lot of suffering from cholera, malaria and snakebites. They are very poor in terms of the Venezuelan economy, and suffer from classic indigenous people’s land rights disputes with the government and multi-national oil companies, who are in the process of discovering huge new oil reserves in the delta. The towns on the upper delta have increasingly large squatter towns developing on the riverbanks, where conditions are drastic.
The Waraos generally speak their own language as well as a bit of Spanish. We did not encounter any distinctly Warao music, although Spanish style quatro playing is common.
The Gli Gli expedition was hosted by the Carib community of the upper Pomeroon coordinated by captain Charles Thomas, Jennifer Wisheart of the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology and Minister Desuza of the ministry of Amerindian Affairs. An escort was provided by the Guyanese Military and Coast guard.
Guyana is home to the largest surviving groups of Carib people in the region with an estimated population being about 4000 people, centered around areas of the upper Barima river, Barama river and the upper Pomeroon. These communities are descendants of what was once the most powerful tribe in the Orinocco and Guyana region. Due to the transformations of the colonial period it cannot be said that these people are all ethnically pure Caribs. Their involvement in the slave trading of other Amerindian tribes and the mixing of tribes that resulted from the European intrusion has resulted in a mix of tribal blood that renders the Caribs of today little different physically and sociologically from other tribes in the region. However the Caribs are historically considered to be of lighter skin, even “white” in comparison to the Arawaks and Waraos. In general they inhabit the interior of the north west region, and are still considered more “wild” than the coastal Arawaks, who were more easily overcome by the missionary influence.
As stated before, the Caribs had emerged as the most powerful tribe in the area as a result of their trading links with the Dutch and English colonists. They secured the monopoly on European goods (such as scissors, axes, cooking pots and firearms). This position allowed them to dominate and capture slaves from other tribes. The slaves were sold to Dutch plantations that were developing in the Esequibo region. The colonist used the Caribs as “allies” to fight the Spanish settlements of the Oriocco. due to their own insufficient numbers and the Caribs skills at this type of warfare. This latter developed into a Carib "police force" that helped the colonists control the interior, through a network of captaincies. They where often used for the retrieval of runaway slaves.
The Gli Gli expedition could not visit the upper Barima Caribs due to their inaccessibility and reports that they are not welcoming to outsiders, even those of their own tribal stock. They live in isolated jungle villages, though still migrate periodically as resources become scarce. Amongst this least contacted of groups they still speak the Karinya language. Hunting, fishing, gardening and forest gathering, continue much as in pre-Columbian times, although as with most interior tribes there is increasing disruption to their way of life, from the encroachment of logging and mining companies. Hence their distrust of outsiders.
The Barma Caribs are still very isolated, but live within the sphere of the St Bedes mission. They speak the Karinya language as well as English. Hunting, fishing, gardening, logging, gold mining and the trapping of forest birds for sale, make up their livelihood. The Caribs of this region are suffering from the increasing intrusion of “coastlanders, " who are coming to exploit the gold and lumber. Apart from the social disruptions caused by the loss of tribal lands to logging companies, that have been given large concessions by the Government, the Caribs are suffering from an alarming increase in malaria an other diseases bought in by outsiders.
The upper Pomeroon Carib community that the Gli Gli expedition stayed with numbers about 800 people, and is centered around the villages of Santa Monica and Karawab. In many ways this community is very similar to the Carib community of Dominica in its level of cultural survival and economic marginalization. The chief and council are elected every four years. They differentiate them selves from the Arawak community that live down river by family and kinship ties, however physically and sociologically they are very similar to their neighbors. Schooling for the children is at Kabakaburi, the Arawak mission six miles down river.
The Caribs generally live a subsistence lifestyle from traditional crops, fishing and the occasional hunting. Logging and work on the gold fields draws a number of young men away for seasonal work, whilest others move to Georgetown or overseas for employment.
Basket work such as the “matapi”(cassava strainer) sieve, fans and little baskets are still made in the traditional techniques. Hammocks are made from twisted palm fiber, hats and ceremonial clothing are made from coconut fiber mixed with gum from the Balata tree, pottery is produced from local clay, fired in open fires and beautiful wicker work furniture is made from forest vines. These crafts are either used domestically or sold to traveling craft buyers who take it to the limited craft markets in Georgetown, though buying it at very low prices. The work is generally produced by the women, who have been encouraged to maintain this aspect of their culture by the church and economic necessity. Canoes are still produced on occasions, but not as much as before due to the availability of planked flat bottom speed boats, that are produced by East Indians, down river. Those canoes that are made are constructed in the traditional dugout method with an ax, adz and fire. The dug out hulls are then fired to harden the wood, paddles are made from forest hardwoods and then painted with a wood ash and tree gum paint. Canoes in the upper river do not apply any boardage, however those in use nearer the coast have ribs and boardage to deal with the rougher water. These canoes are very similar to the Dominican canoes except for the “pince, " which is a characteristic peculiar to Island Caribs. The coastal canoes are often powered by a sail (made from scraps of cloth or bedsheets), either in a sprit or lateen rig.
Other surviving cultural activities include music and dances performed by the community dance group. Although based on traditional dances the music and some of the sequences are heavily influenced by the European style of the last century, which were taught by the missionaries. One of the most unique of these dances is the “monkey dance, " in which the dancing partners scratching each other, in imitation of monkeys.
Traditional bush medicine is still in common use, due to the difficulties in accessing modern hospitals. Even so most villages on the Pomeroon have a medical officer of some sort. Serious cases are taken to Charity or Georgetown.
The Karinya /Carib language is spoken by a small percentage of the population, mostly elders and those who have spent time in the interior with other Carib groups. When comparing the Karyina as spoken today with the Carib dictionary that was compiled by Breton in 1666 in Dominica only very few words seemed to be the same. This is probably due to the fact that the Carib language in Dominica had been seriously corrupted by the Arawakan language that was spoken in the region prior to the Caribs arrival. Since the invading Caribs had kept the conquered Taino (Arawak)women, a mixed language developed. This was confirmed when showing the old Carib dictionary to Father Bennett (the author of the most recent Arawak dictionary), who lives at Kabakaburi, who was able to identify an understand many of the Arawakan words. The Gli Gli project also had a copy of Ricardo Cruz’ Karyinia word list, which was compiled in Venezuela. This was much more readily understood by the Caribs of the Pomeroon, though many words that were not understood could be due to regional variations in the pronunciation and the fact that there is no strict rules of spelling, words having been recorded how the informant pronounces them.
The Gli Gli expedition was successful in achieving its intended objectives. The Carib peoples of the Southern Caribbean have been symbolically reconnected by the Gli Gli’s journey and for the first time it has been possible to compile a report on the contemporary situation of the Carib tribe as a whole.
The tribe has undoubtedly suffered immensely through out the 500 years of colonial occupation in the region. The population has diminished from pre Colombian estimates in the hundreds of thousands to present day estimates around 10, 000. This depopulation mostly occurred in the early colonial period as a result of new diseases, slaving activities, collective suicides, military and economic oppression. The ethnic purity of the tribe has been compromised over the centuries, mostly through mixing with the introduced Negro populations. Cultural activities have almost completely been destroyed through the efforts of European powers in the region and the effects of the imported African population. The Carib language is totally extinct in all groups except those in Guyana and a few words (mostly place names )that are kept alive as novelty. Ceremonial and religious activities have long ago been replaced by the Christian faith, forcibly introduced through the missionaries. There is however a renewed interest in researching into and reviving ancient ceremonial practices. Traditional medicine, although still active, due the expense and unavailability of modern medicine, is not as powerful as in the past. This is mainly due to the conscious efforts to debase its value by the practitioners of modern medicine and the church, who associate it with witchcraft. Subsequently a lot of important knowledge has been lost. More research is necessary to record what knowledge remains. Shamanic practices are all but extinct for similar reasons, although there are reports of it surviving in the interior groups of Guyana. Crafts are the strongest surviving Carib tradition, due to their continued importance in daily life through out the colonial period and their inherent value as trade goods in the modern economy. This aspect of Carib culture looks fit to survive into the future, as craft items are still valuable within the local economy and to a greater extent in the tourist markets. Music and Dance traditions remain an important part of community life, however the instruments, music and sequences have been severely effected by the introduction of European folk and church music. Efforts to revive and recreate traditional musical activities, though positive for the community, often only find regular expression in the tourist market, resulting in a clinched pastiche of the ancient traditions. The construction of canoes is undoubtedly strongest in the Carib territory of Dominica, The craft has survived due to the continued importance of canoes during the colonial period for the transportation between the coastal plantations. Today they are still in regular use by fishermen all around the island. The Guyanese Caribs still produce canoes out of necessity, but as with all the groups we met with, fiberglass or planked boats are becoming increasingly common.
To sum up it can be observed that Carib people of the region are still suffering from the usual effects of economic marginalization that minority populations around the world experince. Most Carib groups the Gli Gli expedition encountered were bordering on extreme poverty. The culture and heritage is a continued source of pride that is often mixed with a sense of sadness at the loss of significance it has in the modern world. There is a general feeling of resentment towards the perpetrators of this loss, most often expressed towards the Government. The maintenance of craft traditions and the formation of cultural groups helps to save the identity of the Caribs and connections with other indigenous peoples organizations around the world will help to draw attention to social and land issues.