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Dominica Carib People: A Culture on the Edge
Kent Auguste is my host and Caribbean taxi driver. He is Caribbean by nature and spent hours teaching me Caribbean folklore and what it’s like growing up in Dominica as a Caribbean. It is not a happy story, he said, of being deprived of education and robbed of their sense of worth by religious teachings; It was a tragic fate for the first people who had lived on this land for 5,000 years”.
Kent is the perfect man for the job. He is a good teacher, patent, knowledgeable and well connected. His brother was a former Carib chief, and he seemed to be friendly with everyone. We met with the new chief, Garrett Joseph, and we talked about history, education, culture, religion and beliefs, about health, prejudice, the state of the country and the future. Travel from Roseau to the Caribbean and back via Jungle Bay in one day. We picked up a couple of people on the road, a Caribbean woman on a trip to the Territory, and a bright young Caribbean guy who was a foreman on a project to build a jungle resort for an American executive. Where we stopped we met and chatted with all kinds of beautiful Caribbean people.
This is my account of that day, what I learned, observed, thought about, and then researched and wrote over the course of several months. These words are my own, except I quote from others, such as Kent’s personal account. It is full of my own observations and insights which are entirely personal and do not represent a people or their culture.
I worry about writing about other people and cultures that I don’t belong to. I reconcile this with the fact that we are all capable of thinking, seeing and seeing and gaining information. We are entitled to an opinion, and sometimes we are entitled to share it.
Dominica; Caribbean Fortress
Dominica’s history is markedly different from that of the Caribbean – Dominica is a fortress unlike any other island. It has withstood numerous invasions and became a kingdom of the Caribs.
The Dominican Caribbean stronghold with its dense forests, steep mountains and few ports is difficult to breach. The Caribs; fearless, creative and totally attuned to nature, they tirelessly defend their island. “They’re masters of the Dominican fort,” Kent told me. “African, French, British and Spanish invaders thought the Dominican Caribs were the spirits of Superman. A Carib would suddenly appear 20 paces in front of you and disappear as suddenly as a spirit vanishing into thin air same as in “.
A network of lookouts and inter-island communications (canoes) kept them abreast of the intruders, with their heads shining and the sun in their arms. They came to Dominica from the north in huge towering ships with huge square canvas sails powered by the wind.
Columbus is believed to be the first European to land on the Caribbean coast, and his diaries record the friendly and hospitable people.
“Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to encounter the Taino when they landed on an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. Columbus wrote:
They traded with us and kindly gave us everything they had. They took great pleasure in pleasing us. They are very gentle and don’t know what is evil; they don’t kill or steal either.. Your Highness may believe there is no one better than them in the world.. They love their neighbor as themselves, they have the sweetest talk in the world and are gentle, always laugh.“Wikipedia
But those who followed Columbus thought of more than discovery. They are after gold, control of the sea and sugar. Every invading nation; Dutch, British, French and Spaniards fought to claim the islands and claim them as their own. In many cases, indigenous peoples were enslaved. Hordes of sailors reportedly roamed the Iand for the first time in years, pillaging villages, taking women and killing men. The atrocities committed are well known.
Dominica, in the far south, has the advantage of hindsight. The Arawaks living in the north got the message. They paddled in relay, from island to island, from signal station to signal station, and warned their neighbors to the south of what was about to happen. Many invading forces were repulsed and ambushed on the open beaches of Dominica by poisoned arrows fired from somewhere in the jungle by invisible spirits.
The Dominican Caribs were so successful that the French and the British ceded control of the island to them at various times.
In 1660, Governor Willoughby of Barbados appointed a young 30-year-old Caribbean chief named Caribbean Warner as Lieutenant-Governor of the Dominican Republic. Carib Warner was of mixed Caribbean descent, the son of Sir Thomas Warner, an English colonist of St. Kitts, and worked for him by his Dominican mother. Carib Warner grew up in the stately home of an English Lord in St. Kitts until his father’s death when he was 13.
A clever diplomat, adept at dealing with the English and the French, he earned the respect of his people and Willoughby. But the British were also divided, with those in Barbados controlling the sugar fortunes and other Britons on the Leeward Island of Antigua and St. Kitts envious. Philip Warner, Sir Thomas’ legitimate son, conspired to change the situation and landed in Dominica in 1674, where, on speculation of friendship, he snared and murdered his half-brother Carib Warner and massacred his village (now called for Massac). It’s a harrowing tale of British intrigue and betrayal that spanned decades. Although several treaties declared Dominica to Kalinago until 1748, greed for sugar wealth drove the French and British to continue fighting for the island.
The Caribs are a very betrayed people. Betrayed in popular myth, it made Kent’s friends afraid to visit his village lest they be eaten. “We’re not cannibals, but our ignorance of our behavior and our character compels us to,” Kent said. Betrayed by meaningless treaties, betrayed by chance, jealousy, and finally ignored.
Only 3,000 Caribs remained. They live in eight villages on the east coast of Dominica in an area of approx. 3700 acres called the Caribbean. They have their own chiefs and are represented in the House of Representatives. They are a separate people and their culture hasn’t changed much. Today, born-Caribbeans have the right to live in the Caribbean. Caribs can farm any available land and thus claim ownership of it. They are an agricultural people who depend on nature for medicine, food, health care, spirit and soul. From feeling sad to healing the body or mind, there is an herb that can heal everything.
In some respects, the Caribbean Territory is often compared to the reservations of the United States and Canada. But it differs in key areas. The territory was ceded to the Caribs, which is significant and unique in the Caribbean. But they were largely ignored and marginalized, not as educated and assimilated as in America. This is both good and bad. They are spared the indignity of being separated from their families and boarding at faraway schools where abuse and disrespect are rampant. But they lack education and are thus denied the right to play a more active role in land matters. It’s time for Caribbean leaders to speak up and demand more: more voice and more inclusiveness in Dominica’s ongoing modernization process. They want schools, roads and electricity.
They are not people who have lost their way, as we have seen in many Canadian reserves where drugs and alcohol fill the void in life where there is not much hope or expectation. The great experiment of the North stripped some of the natives of their way of life, and brought them little in return. The Caribs have not lost one way of life. They live off the land and use it well. They fished, made handicrafts, built boats and took to sea in small canoes, using the skills of their ancestors to ride the wind and waves.
Assimilation is not the goal, but many are negligent in the name of conservation. This culture was largely ignored by the Caribs themselves and by the governments of the day. When Kent went to school, he only had the tone of 3 Caribbeans to go to middle school. Rosso’s school is a few hours away from his home, which means he has to rent a place nearby. The family couldn’t afford it, and soon he had to give up his studies. It was a great disappointment, insult and rejection for an intelligent person. Kent became one of a new generation of activists voicing concern and criticism for the government’s neglect of his people. He still speaks out on a variety of issues, whether on the air or wherever he can.
Myth, Mysticism, and Magic in Caribbean Culture
Caribs are friendly and moderate people who coexist respectfully with the government and non-Caribbeans. Ancient Art Show Caribs welcome strangers from another country by offering fruit and drinks. This is their way, they are not a terrible people, but they do not seek conflict, they choose a simple life in coexistence with nature. They are at one with nature, blending as naturally into Dominica’s landscape as the birds and animals of the jungle. Like the Jungle Elves, unmatched in agility, stamina, and knowledge of nature. The Caribbean people have an extraordinary knowledge of herbs and plants. They are said to use over 300 different herbs as medicine and are one of the best jungle doctors in the Caribbean.
In Caribbean folklore, there’s always been a shaman, a kind of mystical healer they call the Pyie Man. He healed with herbs, mantras and smoke. The smoke used in some Christian ceremonies, and by Shambhala Buddhists to purify and dispel the soul. The Pyie people believe in spirits and call on the power of nature to heal afflicted souls. Herbal baths are used to purify and restore health, they are herbal remedies for various ailments. In some respects, the Pyai are similar to African voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Obeah and native shamans.
All belief systems merged and influenced each other over time. Aspects of Christian rituals and sacraments, such as the use of oils, herbs, and communion wafers are incorporated into the faith, and for decades, Caribs have embraced Christianity as part of their faith, not as a substitute. African rituals, masks and rituals also entered into worship and practice. Caribs believe in nature; a community of shared knowledge, unity and balance. They believe above all in unity and balance; knowing that disempowerment has personal and universal effects, and that giving makes all people rich. For many Caribbeans, God is a supreme being, as natural as nature, powerful, majestic, eternal, universal and present in all things.
The Historic Caribbean Village was built to restore or at least document culture. This is a valuable historical museum, but many accuse it of being inauthentic. Caribs don’t live like they used to, and don’t dance in costumes like they’re portrayed in tourist festivals. It still has value, and the attention from the outside really creates a sense of a nation and culture that was and should be.
Pride is not a feature of Caribbean culture, but pride can be the basis for its preservation. Bloodlines are dying out due to intermarriage, immigration and an aging population with low birth rates. Former Chief Charles Williams suggested that Caribs should only marry Caribs, but this failed like a lead balloon.
Some think it’s too late; The True Carib is an exception. What needs to be preserved now is a culture, a history. Lineage alone need not define a culture. History is full of examples where Carib Warner, despite being of mixed race, was made chief of his people and raised to be the Sun of the English lords. Caribbean culture is also a state of mind, it has a purpose and is an example of a way of life that should be preserved.
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