If one were to look at the heritage of Amerindian arts and culture in Guyana from the perspective of records and treatment in the colonial period one will find mixed attitudes and treatments – from serious study to superficiality, stereotyping and romanticism; from thorough and valuable documentation to disapproval and scepticism. In contemporary times one finds a deep and varied cultural heritage that includes the contribution of an intricate traditional culture of art and literature that have evolved from Amerindians who are as subject to Amerindian cultural traditions as they are to form in art and literature.
The month of September as the period devoted to celebrating the heritage is, of course, symbolic, and could never mean to satisfactorily exhaust a heritage whose dimensions are unfathomable and whose cultural contributions are infinite.
For example, ‘There Was An Indian,‘ the well known sonnet by Sir John Squire, paints a picture of a simpleton, a gentle mindless savage in a timeless, unproductive world suddenly confronting the arrival of civilisation; of a superior but destructive force that his feeble mind could not comprehend or his environment was equipped to withstand. “There was an Indian who had known no change” who wandered “content” along a “sunlit” shore engaged in the idle anti-technological occupation of “gathering shells.” He in bewilderment witnessed the arrival of Columbus’ ships and could only think of them in his narrow experience as “huge canoes” which could only have been sailing by magic because there was “not one oar.”
It is basically a pastoral poem sympathetic to the ‘poor‘ defenceless Amerindian in an idyllic existence about to be invaded. But it stereotypes him and gives him little credit as an intelligent being. One line rescues the poem. Squire mentions “Columbus’ doom burdened caravels” with the tragic implications and the history that was to come as far as the Indian’s so far untroubled existence was concerned.
Then there was also the legend of Inkle and Yarico, the love story of the Englishman and Amerindian woman who fell in love with each other and married. It is an eighteenth century tale originating in Barbados and narrated as history. It was treated as a romance, published in London and then celebrated across Europe in several versions and translations in many languages. It was rewritten as poems and as drama and was even taken up in 1994 by Guyanese novelist Beryl Gilroy. But the original Inkle and Yarico is a tale of cruelty and exploitation, inhuman materialism and ingratitude.
With the possible exception of Rev WH Brett, the colonial officials, scientists and explorers who documented Amerindian culture and traditions often took a somewhat disapproving attitude to them and were unflattering in their treatment of the piaiman, of kanaima and other Amerindian beliefs and behaviours. Surprisingly, even William Hillhouse, a celebrated champion of Amerindian rights was chief among the sceptics. Prof Mary Noel Menezes describes Hillhouse as a “Las Casas” who was very bad news for colonial administrators because of his fierce protection of the Amerindians. Yet, like others, the expression of his opinion of the people among whom he chose to live was delivered in very scathing, unflattering terms.
On the one hand there was pastoralism and over-romanticising and on the other there was scornful dismissal of the people’s beliefs. Yet above all, there was scrupulous research, there was extensive documentation and invaluable records by that same gang of ‘sceptics,’ contained in such works as An Inquiry Into The Animism and Folklore of the Guiana Indians by Walter Roth and Indian Notices by William Hillhouse among other documents by Brett, Im Thurn and others.
We are in their debt. Their work contributes to the great store of literature that we have on Guyana’s substantial Amerindian heritage. It is interesting to mention the work of a twentieth century English researcher, Audrey Butt-Colson who investigated the shaman and the piaiman in Guyana. Her accounts are far more good-natured than those of her nineteenth century forebears, but she records the theatrical performance rituals of the ‘medicine men’ with a pervading tone of mild humour.
There is some humour in the corpus of folktales produced by the Amerindians. It is almost natural that these tales should include myths, such as creation myths, myths of origin that explain why and how things came to be the way they are. Many of these stories such as ‘Why the Owl Lives in the Dark‘ and ‘The Dog and the Tiger,‘ contain humour. What is most interesting about them is their use of an Anansi type trickster figure. The Owl in that tale of origin has many Anansi traits, while the story of the dog and the tiger belongs squarely within the trickster tradition of folk tales known to Africans and Indians in Guyana.
A dog once found himself in the forest in dangerous and unfamiliar surroundings. Just as he feared, he soon saw a tiger approaching with evil intentions. The dog saw a pile of bones on the ground and quickly began to chew at them. He pretended not to see the tiger coming, but smacking his lips he remarked loudly “well, well, that was a good meal. This tiger sure tasted good!” The terrified tiger stopped in his tracks and took off running as far as he could get away from the dog.
But there was a monkey in the tree who saw it all. Monkey thought to himself that it was within his interest to keep on the good side of Tiger, so he ran to find him and let him know how the dog had tricked him. When he heard this Tiger was angry and told the monkey to jump on his back and take him to find the dog. Soon the dog saw the enraged tiger running towards him with the monkey on his back and knew that he was in trouble. But once again he pretended not to see the tiger coming and complained loudly, “Imagine eh? You just can’t trust these monkeys. Look how long now I sent him to go bring me a tiger for my dinner and up to now he has not come back yet !”
The heritage is intricate. There have been, of course, works of literature in which Amerindians appear as subjects, but in more recent times such writers as Wilson Harris in fictions of the rain forest, as well as Mark McWatt and Pauline Melville in her preoccupations with Amerindian mythology and cosmic factors have been creating forms of literature deeply informed by the Amerindian ethos and environment. Similarly right through history there have been drawings, etchings and paintings documenting Amerindian life. But Guyana’s artists particularly since the 1980s have been creating newly developing forms of sculpture and paintings arising from Amerindian traditions and spirituality. These have come from the Loko artists including Ossie Hussein, Lynus Klenkian, Telford Taylor and George Simon as well as from Winslow Craig. But the Timehri petroglyphs have inspired painters like Aubrey Williams while other motifs have been explored by Stephanie Correia and Marjorie Broodhagen long before them. This art has long been an important part of the Amerindian heritage.