Friday, October 12, 2012

Amerindians, speaking up!

As you probably know if you're reading this, I live in an Amerindian village in Guyana. Amerindians comprise something like 12% of Guyana's population and live mostly in the interior of the country. They are Guyana's indigenous people.

In the past 50 years modern development has significantly impacted the lives of Amerindians in villages like mine, those with relatively easy access to the more developed coastal areas. Here, houses are made of wood, cement, and zinc, no more roofs made of leaves. A few villagers follow the laborious process to make cassava bread and sell it around the community, but it's not a staple food for most families anymore. Arawak, the native language, is spoken fluently by only a few old people, although fly and bombali, the traditional alcoholic drinks, are still going relatively strong. The extent to which traditional ways of life have disappeared in Amerindian villages varies widely from community to community, and there are surely remote villages relatively untouched by modern development. There are Peace Corps volunteers in places like that, and their experiences in Guyana are vastly different from mine. But in St. Cuthbert's Mission , the idea of living in a “developing country” seems very literal, because I can see it all around me—this place is DEVELOPING, and often that means out with the old and in with the new.

The idea of a traditional culture fading away in the short span of a few generations has an unpleasant sound to it, though it's difficult to put your finger on exactly why. Culture should be preserved because...well, because it's in these people's history, it's part of their heritage, it's something to be proud of, and it's a travesty to see that slip away, isn't it? But if it's not useful anymore, is there really any reason to hold onto it, other than romanticism? The Arawak language may very well be dead in a few more generations, and a language dying sounds like such a bleak event, akin to a species becoming extinct. But if the people in question can still communicate, what's the loss, really?

Anyway, this is all a preface to a specific story I wanted to share...though I'm not there yet. More preface: Guyanese (Amerindian or otherwise) are not known for their political correctness, and for every ethnic group there exists a racial slur or three, often used in everyday conversation. Amerindians are buck people—buck man, buck girl, whatever—and supposedly the term came about because when Europeans first came to Guyana, Amerindians turned and ran like deer. Not the most inappropriate racial slur ever, and many Amerindians use it among themselves positively (as a volunteer, you know you're successfully integrated when an Amerindian calls you buck), but you can see how it could be used negatively, too.

***EDIT:  I had some wrong information!  A commenter informed me that "buck" actually comes from the Dutch word "bok," which means goat. It was a name given to Amerindians for their surefootedness and ability to live on any food and survive.  My apologies! ***
I bring up the term “buck” because, no matter how much the physical dressings of culture change, there are nuances that are more ingrained in the way people deal with the world around them. Associated with racial slurs are stereotypes, like buck people ignorant, buck people stupid, buck people timid. It's that last one I want to touch upon. Imagine the stereotypical Native American—reserved and stoic, doesn't talk much...there's some truth in that in what I see here, especially in people who haven't left the village much. Often you can tell who's lived out of the village for a few years and who hasn't by their demeanor. Once you crack the shell and start to get to know people, Amerindians are can be just as lively as anyone else, but in the public sphere there's a marked difference. For instance, at meetings, the vast majority of attendees come to sit and listen and nod. After the meeting is over, they'll talk and talk to someone they're close to, but at meetings they're like the kids in my class...they assume the role of passive audience, like the kids in my class often assume that their job is simply to copy whatever I write on the board into their exercise books.

The rabble rousers exist, though—and finally I arrive at my point! My school was redone over the summer. We were promised new paint, new floors, and overall a nicer-looking school. Sadly, the contractors, who were hired by our region's Ministry of Education office and came from outside of my village, did an astoundingly crappy job. Forget the messy paint and the doors that won't close cleanly (which means the school is now impossible to lock)--the cement cap on the floor was mixed wrong, and the whole floor is covered in a layer of cement dust that gets all over the kids' clothes and is probably quite unhealthy to be inhaling all day. It can't simply be swept away—new dust comes out of the floor as soon as you sweep.

The teachers complained to each other for a few weeks, and our HM complained to the regional office, whose response was “send a picture.” A picture...of dust? That wasn't going to get us anywhere, and at the rate that region gets stuff done, we were looking at a new floor in a year, maybe, if we went that route. So, as a staff, we decided to take a more drastic step. We sent home the kids one day, called in the parents and had a meeting to discuss the situation. The parents were pretty unhappy with how the school looked and it was discussed whether the parents should keep their kids home to avoid the health hazard and to make a point to region—as in, “You need to fix the school, now, because we can't go on like this.” Fortunately, all that was needed was a phone call to the ministry from an angry parent who threatened to “take the matter further” if something wasn't done immediately (i.e. contact the media)...and guess what? The contractor and someone from Region came in the very next day, with a promise to recap the floor, now! True, this means that for the next three weeks we have to deal with the inconvenience of holding classes in random buildings around the community. But the bigger point is this: outlying Amerindian communities often get screwed over, because they're out of the way and easy to ignore and the outside parties doing the screwing over assume that no Amerindian is going to complain to the higher authorities. But my village proved them wrong when they demanded a school that's not a health hazard—and they got it!

This isn't just an isolated incident. The village election that happened a few months ago was a close race, and the ballot counting happened publicly, which allowed community members to count ballots along with the officials. The official result was not in line with the number that the people were getting, and they caused a huge ruckus and demanded a recount, got it—and sure enough, turned out the people were right and the officials were wrong. There was even a small protest staged in the community concerning that election. Buck people timid, you sure about that?

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I'm not supposed to get involved in stuff like this, and despite my history with politics and my affinity for sticking it to the man, I try my best to comply. All I can do is sit on the sidelines and encourage people to stand up for themselves and what their village deserves, and share in the joy that they feel when they realize that a positive change is happening because, buck or not, they stood up together and demanded justice.   


  1. We have the same problem with quality and honesty here in our little town in rural Florida too. There's an election coming up; may I send this to our local paper for publication? There's a 50-50 chance they'll print it.

    1. Sorry it's taken me so long to respond. If you want to submit it, feel free! Let me know if they publish it. (It's fairly long, so cut it down if you like.)

  2. You raise an interesting point re language and whether or not we should be concerned about a particular one dying out. While I agree that the death of a language in no way means the death of communication for a particular people, I think it is still a tragedy because language is very much tied to the identity and way of life of a people, just as culture and heritage are. For example, a major part of my heritage is Trinidadian and knowing "Trini-English" makes me feel connected to that heritage and culture especially since I don’t live there anymore.

    ha! yeah i had first hand experience with the "political incorrectness" - guess what i was called??

    that is awesome re the school! i can only imagine the officials faces in G'Town when they realized a SCM parent was calling them! whoo!! now if only the secondary school could get some TLC...

  3. Hi Kelly, just for clarification - the term 'Buck Man' originated with the Dutch who were the first colonial occupiers of Guyana in the early 1600's, they referred to Amerindians as 'Bok man' (literally 'Goat man') for their surefooted ways and ability to eat anything and survive (like a Goat). 'Turn and run' is an explanation I have never heard in my 20 years of research, on the contrary - the Dutch used to pay annual tribute (bribes) to the most powerful Lokono (Arawak) and Kalina (Carib) Chiefs in Guyana so they would not attack them. In the late 1620's 30 Lokono were loaned by the Dutch to the English colonials in Barbados to teach them how to plant Tobacco and Cassava, with the understanding that the Lokono would be repatriated to Guyana after a year. The English did not want to honor their word and tried to keep the 30 Lokono as slaves; upon hearing of this the Lokono in Guyana threatened to slaughter every Dutchman in the colony if their tribesmen were not returned...and the Dutch had to pay the English in Barbados a high price to get back the 30 Lokono - in order to save their skin. Also in the Dutch period in Guyana, the famous African slave Cuffy successfully rebelled against the Dutch forces and defeated their best troops, so the Dutch paid Lokono and Kalina mercenaries to attack Cuffy & his African forces on their (Dutch) behalf...the mercenaries defeated Cuffy and returned his followers to the Dutch slave masters. In more recent times, in the 1969 Rebellion when Afro and Indo Guyanese soldiers were sent to put down the Rupununi Amerindian rebellion - the Guyana Army was very careful to remove the Amerindian soldiers from the units they feared the Amerindian soldiers would turn and kill their Afro & Indo Guyanese colleagues - instead of killing other fellow Amerindians. Most recently in the late 1980's several Lokono men (my wife's brother among them) crossed the border into Suriname to join the Suriname Army to wage war on the 'Bush Negro' rebel forces of Ronnie Brunswick; as the BN forces had been kidnapping and raping Amerindian girls over there. I know the history books have this 'pacifist to the point of stupidity' image of Caribbean Arawaks in people's minds, but the reality of South American Arawaks is very different.

    1. Thank you for this useful information!! I will forward it on to our Peace Corps training staff, and will work better in the future to double-check my sources before posting information. Do you have any books you could recommend about Arawak history?