Amerindian history and the schools

Today marks the start of Amerindian Heritage Month with its annual focus on indigenous art, culture and achievements. It is only in relatively recent times, however, that elements of Amerindian history and pre-history have begun to be uncovered, and for the most part the bulk of the population remains ensnared by a stereotyped – and mostly inaccurate – account of the indigenous past.  The Amerindians had lived in what is our Guyana for thousands of years before Christopher Columbus made his fateful landing on the Bahamas’ Watling Island in 1492, and work in more recent times by archaeologists including (among others) the late Denis Williams, Prof Mark Plew and Mr George Simon of the University of Guyana and his colleague Prof Neil Whitehead of the University of Wisconsin, have begun to open a window on life in Guyana millennia ago.

Few of our children are taught in school that Amerindians are the pioneers of agriculture in Guyana, although they do learn about the making of cassava bread, etc. In many classrooms this is taught in a vacuum, however, and it is possible that some pupils are not even be aware of the remarkable nature of a process which involves the bitter cassava and not the sweet variety, and is designed to eliminate the toxins from this root vegetable to make it safe for consumption. The early peoples who developed the technique can be regarded as scientific experimenters of a sort, using empirical observations to produce a practical result and provide themselves with a dietary staple.

But the Arawaks in particular, are also the pioneers of large-scale drainage, designed to carry off water from their raised fields which served their fixed settlements. They eventually abandoned these, to return to farming methods and the lifestyle we associate with all the nations here today, but in their heyday the raised field complexes were very impressive. The largest known at present was at Hertenrits in Suriname, but raised fields have also been found in Canje and on the Berbice River, where they are being investigated now.

And it is also on the Berbice River that Messrs Simon, Whitehead and others are digging at a site near Dubulay which has been under human occupation dating back at least five thousand years, and after the latest carbon-dating tests are concluded in the United States, might be found to go back even as far as ten thousand years. If so, this would make it a premier site in terms of Amazonian archaeology.

One suspects that no hint of these developments seeps into the classrooms of Guyana’s schools (least of all the hinterland schools), although the Walter Roth Museum has run a Junior Archaeology Club for some years, which has attracted a few youthful adherents at the primary level. It is proposing to extend this and launch a programme to attract secondary school students around the middle of this month.  If the interest of children in archaeology could be sparked, then the potential would exist to develop in due course a cadre of local archaeologists who could follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, both Guyanese and foreign, and unravel the distant past of this nation.

Even where the colonial period is concerned, not a great deal is known by the public at large let alone the Ministry of Education and its school teachers about the role of Amerindians.  Here in particular, stereotyped stories hold sway, which are either irrelevant to our situation, or have only partial relevance.  The history of indigenous nations in this country was not the same as that in the Spanish or Portuguese areas of the South American continent, and some groups at some periods in Guyana were actors in the colonial drama, rather than simply victims.  Others shared a history of enslavement with the Africans, which for them lasted until 1793, when the Dutch state abolished indigenous slavery in Essequibo-Demerara, along with the slave trade which went with it. Having said that, however, it has to be conceded that not a great deal of accurate information about Africans in the pre-Emancipation period has penetrated the walls of Guyana’s classrooms either, or is even known by the public at large.

One can only hope that one day, the Ministry of Education will see fit to update its syllabus for the Grade 6 Assessment in Social Studies, among others, so the children at least can actually benefit from information which in some cases has been known by researchers for years, and in the case of the Amerindians, some of which has recently been uncovered. After all, peddling inaccuracies about the past and the ancestors of the peoples who go to make up this nation is not just counter-productive, it brings discredit to the Ministry and the Minister.

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