Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The indigenous peoples of Guyana are known locally as ‘Amerindians’. It is estimated in the 2012 Census that they number around 78,500 persons – close to double the estimates in the 1980 Census. They are the descendants of the first people to inhabit the varied geographical zones in the northern part of South America. Some groups were coastal dwellers while others lived mainly in the rain forest, savannahs and mountains of the interior.
The coastal Amerindians are the Kalihna (Carib-Galibi), Lokono (Arawak-Taino) and Warau, whose names reflect the three indigenous language families.
The interior Amerindians are classified into six groups: Akawaio, Arekuna, Patamona, Waiwai, Makushi and Wapishana. All of these interior groups originally spoke Carib with the exception of the Wapishana, who are within the Taino-Arawak linguistic family.
Indigenous peoples now constitute 10.5 per cent of the total population of Guyana and about 90 per cent of the communities are located in the vast remote interior. This is in contrast to the majority of Guyana’s population which is essentially concentrated on the narrow Atlantic coastal strip.
By the end of the twentieth century all of Guyana’s indigenous peoples had undergone far-reaching cultural integration. Coastal Amerindian groups now share many cultural features and values with the majority Afro-Guyanese and Indo- Guyanese population and there has been significant intermarriage between the coastal indigenous communities and Afro-Guyanese.
Afro-indigenous children born in Amerindian villages (usually to an Amerindian mother) are accepted as Amerindians by the village and raised as such.
As a whole the standard of living of Guyana’s indigenous peoples is lower than that of most of the country’s citizens.
Over several decades, almost all the indigenous peoples in Guyana have become heavily influenced by the efforts of foreign missionaries. Most Amerindians have been integrated in one way or another into the national economic system, though usually at the lowest levels.
In spite of rapid changes in many areas of the interior, most Amerindians continue to operate outside the cash economy and are still dependent on a subsistence way of life.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the growth in gold and diamond mining has attracted many Amerindian males. Some individual indigenous prospectors have become wealthy. Other Amerindians employed in medium or large-scale mining operations have also been able to earn large amounts of cash quickly.
Mining now attracts many indigenous males from all parts of Guyana. The scale of Amerindian involvement in mining is causing consumer goods acquisition to become a measure of status and has devalued subsistence agriculture and other socio-cultural practices.
Most of the indigenous communities in Guyana now have legal title to their collectively held lands.
The holdings total some 29,000 square kilometres or 13 per cent of the national territory. Most of it lies within the tropical Amazonian or savannah eco-zones hence the soil is unsuitable for sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, potentially lucrative subsoil mining rights are not included. Nevertheless, it does include nearly 4 million acres of forested land that is legally under the control of indigenous peoples.
In their efforts to earn cash incomes some village leaders have reached contractual arrangements with loggers and saw mill-owners to exploit timber on their reservations. In the main however these have been unequal exchanges. More often than not the outsiders have been the principal beneficiaries and the indigenous communities have gained very little.
Some indigenous languages are still used but most indigenous people speak English (Creole) with those on the border with Brazil or Venezuela also using Portuguese and Spanish as a first or second language.
Border dwelling groups have traditionally ignored imposed international frontiers and for generations have moved freely back and forth. With the current poor state of the Guyana economy, Venezuela and Brazil have become increasingly attractive to the indigenous population due to greater cross-border access and affordability of health and educational facilities as well as communication and electricity services.
Some Amerindians in the west are also attracted to Suriname through family ties. Furthermore Venezuela has made it easy for indigenous Guyanese to obtain Venezuelan passports, thus allowing a free and easy path to Venezuelan citizenship.
In light of the unresolved border claims by Venezuela and Suriname this development is viewed by some national officials as a potential security threat to the country’s territorial integrity.
Of the three indigenous language families used in Guyana the most extensive and predominant was Arawak-Taino, which was also spoken around the Caribbean Basin extending as far north as modern day Florida.
In Guyana Arawak-Taino was spoken by the coastal indigenous group who called themselves the Lokono (Arawak). Arawak-Taino cultures were indigenous to most islands of the Caribbean. Unlike the hostile Kalihna and Kalinago (Carib-Galibi), early European settlers found the Lokono on the Guyana Coast and elsewhere to be the most accommodating of all indigenous communities to the European presence.
The Lokono of the Guyana Coast like their Caribbean counterparts were an agricultural people with settled matrilineal societies and complex social structures. They therefore placed a high value on peace and stability. In the long run therefore the Lokono of Guyana did not become involved in ultimately genocidal wars of resistance like the Kalihna but adapted to the new reality by entering into trading relations with colonial settlements.
In Dutch Guiana the colonisers employed the Lokono in their fishing and salting undertakings on the upper Orinoco and for recapturing fugitive slaves. Furthermore unlike the Arawak-Taino of the northern Caribbean islands the Lokono of mainland Guyana seemed to have been spared the diseases and enslavement that came with initial European contact.
By 1771 the Spanish Governor of Guiana could report that the Lokono of Guyana had already been working together with the Dutch for many years and had become well assimilated into their colonies in many ways, including intermarriage.
After the British took possession of the Dutch colonies, in the 1800s Lokono of Guyana were employed as labourers, especially in the sugar plantations along the rivers. The Lokono were therefore among the first indigenous peoples in Guyana to come in contact with the African population who had been brought into the region to provide forced labour.
Both the Kalihna of the Guyana Coast and the related Kalinago (Carib-Galibi) of the Caribbean islands earned a regional reputation for being aggressive warlike adversaries. (See Dominica, Saint Vincent and Grenada)
Of all the indigenous peoples encountered by the early European colonizers on the Guyana Coast, the Kalihna-Kalinago were considered to be the most numerous and powerful. Throughout the whole period of Dutch presence they were known and feared as the ‘warrior tribe.’
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries the Kalihna travelled extensively between the South American coast and the rest of the Caribbean in large fleets of up to 100 sail-fitted canoes.
The origin and main territorial base of the Kalihna was the giant Orinoco waterway in Venezuela. They occupied permanently the lower portion of the right bank of the Orinoco River as far east as the Barima district in the interior of present day Guyana.
In Guyana the Kalihna lived in small settlements. In addition to fishing they also farmed and hunted game with bows and arrows and blowguns. On the coast of South America as on the islands of the Caribbean, the Kalihna harassed and were in turn attacked by forces of all the incoming colonizing powers and eventually became overwhelmed by more powerful armaments.
By the time of the British occupied Guyana the numbers of Kalihna had become greatly reduced and some had even taken up full time farming around the coastal riverheads and in the lowland forests.
The Guarao were the boat-building specialists of the region who hollowed out both the large and small canoes used by the indigenous people of the Guiana coast and rivers. The Guarao spoke both Carib-Galibi and Arawak-Taino but their own language was not related to either.
The Guarao originally inhabited the swamps and islands of the huge delta region at the mouth of the Orinoco (today Venezuela). Their settlements also extended to the lower reaches of the Barima River all of which traditionally were also zones under Kalihna control.
In 1767 having begun to experience increasing harassment and ill treatment from the Spanish colonizers, great numbers of the Guarao migrated from the Orinoco region to the swamps of the Barima River of Guyana. At the time this was Dutch controlled territory but the Guarao remained there even after the British took control in 1803.
Under the British colonial government of Guiana, the Guarao were encouraged to work on the estates and became much more involved in sugar plantation labour than any other indigenous group in the country.
Like the coastal Lokono (Arawak) who were also drawn onto the colonial plantations it was in and around the sugar estates that Guarao (Warau) came into close contact with the African population.
It is perhaps significant that by the nineteenth century the population of Kalihna (Carib-Galibi) on coastal Guyana had sharply declined, however Lokono (Arawak) and Guarao (Warau) communities that were more accommodating of early European coastal plantation presence are now among the largest remaining indigenous peoples in the country.
In Guyana the interior Amerindians are classified into six groups: Akawaio (Kapohn), Arekuna, Patamona, Waiwai, Macusi, and Wapishana.
All of the interior Amerindians originally spoke Carib languages, with the exception of the Wapishana, whose language is of the Arawak-Taino family.
The Akawaio, Arekuna, Patamona live mainly in river valleys in western Guyana. The Macusi and Wapishana live on the savannahs and the Waiwai in the southern lowland forests.
The Akawaio who live in the lowland and upland forests of the present day Guyana interior, originally called themselves Kapohn and during the colonial era were the next most important warrior group after the Kalihna (Carib-Galibi). The Kapohn like most of the interior tribes are Carib speakers and were found across a wide region from Essequibo to Berbice and especially down the main rivers.
In the early years of colonial presence the British considered the Kapohn (Akawaio) to be the most hostile of all the indigenous peoples in Guyana.
The Arekuna were late migrants into what is now Guyana. They lived originally in upper regions of two large rivers in Venezuela (Caroni and Paragua). After 1770, the Spanish Capuchin missions, with the support of the colonial authorities, began to forcibly resettle the Arekuna and other indigenous communities away from their traditional lands to missions located on the Orinoco River. Groups of Arekuna escaped to Guyana to avoid this process and established villages in the upper areas of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni Rivers.
Makushi and Wapishana
The Makushi and Wapishana are also migrants into Guyana. They originally lived in the Rio Branco region of Brazil and began drifting into to the northern part of Rupununi savannahs of Guyana from the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Like the Arekuna of Venezuela a decade before, Makushi and Wapishana fled to Guyana to escape colonial resettlement policies in Brazil in the 1780s. The Makushi ended up occupying the northern half Rupununi Savannah region and the Wapishana the southern half.
Smaller groups from decimated tribes of the same region of Brazil also moved into Guyana around this time and subsequently joined up with either the Makushi or Wapishana.
Another incoming group was the Waiwai. By 1837 the Waiwai had migrated to the Guyana Acarai Mountains most likely because of pressure for resettlement from Portuguese missionaries in the Rio Branco region of Brazil. The Waiwai moved to the far south of the country, in the lowland forest area of the interior near the headwaters of the large Essequibo River.
Another indigenous community that now dwells in the mountain region of the Guyana interior are the Patamonas. Very little is known of their history. They are thought to have lived in sections of the Pakaraima mountain range from very early times. Initial contact between the Patamonas and European colonists did not occur until the early nineteenth century when the Patamonas were described by the British as ‘mountaineers.’
In contrast to the coastal indigenous communities who were displaced by European colonization, those of the interior tended to remain in their specific geographical zones until the mid-1800s.
These traditional settlement patterns began to be altered in the 1840s with the coming of Christian missionaries to the Guyana hinterland. This began a process of migration of Amerindian groups away from their traditional zones to the Christian mission stations in search of services. This pattern of migration has continued into the present era with the draw now being education and health care or resource extraction ventures.
Some notable groundbreaking efforts began to be made during the 1970s and 80s to better include and enhance the profile of the indigenous population. This included the passage of an Amerindian Act in 1978, which allowed communities to obtain land titles.
Up until 1992 indigenous affairs in Guyana were dealt with by the Hinterland Department of the Ministry of Regional Development.
The 1978 Amerindian Act allowed for titling of land to both individuals and communities, but in practice little was carried out. Most indigenous communities in the interior remained unaware of the availability or the need for land titling and logging, and mining continued.
Amerindian law reform
In October 1992, a special Minister of Amerindian Affairs was appointed. In addition, ten Amerindian Members of Parliament were elected to the 65 member National Assembly.
In 1995 when the government designated September as national Amerindian Heritage Month to focus on culture, sports and environmental activities in Amerindian communities, and to nationally showcase and promote Amerindian culture and contributions.
In 2003 a fourteen-member Parliamentary Select Committee was constituted to study and make recommendations for the revision of the 1978 Amerindian Act. Among other things this prompted the formation of the National Amerindian Council, which is an umbrella-organization that brings together representatives of the centrally-based Amerindian NGOs and regionally-based Amerindian organizations.
The government accepted 46 of the 74 recommendations presented during national consultations and tabled the bill in August 2004. Many Amerindian groups, NGOs, and the parliamentary opposition parties opposed the new bill.
Furthermore the three largest NGOs – the Amerindian People’s Association, the Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana, and the Guyana Organization of Indigenous People – advocated complete withdrawal of the document altogether.
The main issues of contention were the lack of autonomy given to community governing institutions, the degree of power held by the Minister of Amerindian affairs, the inadequacy of land and resource rights and the use of the term ‘Amerindian’ rather than ‘indigenous’. Nonetheless the new Amerindian Act was passed in Parliament and signed by the president in March 2006. However, in practice implementation of this has been slow and indigenous land rights remain under threat. Some communities still do not hold legal title to their lands, and those that do are finding that the legal boundaries do not necessarily encompass important customary areas.
Updated January 2018