IN 1995, Dr Cheddi Jagan designated September as “Amerindian Heritage Month” to promote the interests and enhance the image of the Amerindian peoples. Each year, Heritage Month is given a theme, and this year’s theme is “Fostering Traditional Practices for a Safe Environment.”
The celebration of Amerindian Heritage Month recognises Amerindians and their culture as a distinct part of the Guyanese mosaic. It is also an assertion that Guyana is a plural society and not a monolithic one. During colonial times and until about the 1970s, Guyana was regarded as a society where Western and particularly British culture predominated. Though there were strong strands of Portuguese, Chinese and Indian cultures in existence, as well as vibrant African cultural survivals, these were regarded as of temporary existence and would either be absorbed or gradually eliminated by the dominant Western culture. Amerindians and their culture were not even regarded as part of the equation.
With independence from colonial rule, African, Indian and even Portuguese and Chinese cultural groups became more assertive as to their identities, and later Amerindians did the same. Amerindians had always been regarded as a marginalised group, and when their assertion of their distinct identity began to appear, all groups welcomed it. Now Guyana recognises itself as a plural society where all racio-cultural groups have a place and could express their identities without anyone accusing them of racism. The long-held assumption of the superiority and all-encompassing nature of British culture is gradually fading away.
This year, Amerindian Heritage Month comes at a very unusual and unique time: the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading uncontrolably and national elections have just concluded and a new povernment has been installed. The pandemic has greatly curtailed exhibitions of Arts and Craft and shows of the performing Arts. An attempt is being made to use the computer, TV and other informaion technologies to project such Amerindian shows and exhibitions to the public and especially to the Amerindian communities in the Interior. This has had the unexpected effect of exposing interior communities to the modern world of information technology.
The fact of Amerindian Heritage Month coming almost simultaneously with the installation of the new government resulted in its gaining greater political notice and President Irfaan Ali has rolled out a programme of comprehensive social and economic development for Amerindian communities. Many of these programmes were in the PPP/C’s election manifesto and this permits the Amerindian communities to bring greater pressure on the government to effectuate them. These programmes include the availability of potable water and electricity, as well as education and better medical services to the interior communities. Amerindian land-titling was also promised. The extension of social services to the Amerindian communities provides a great challenge, since such communities are not concentrated in a few locations but are thinly spread over the interior.
The government will continue to work towards achieving the prescriptions of the Amerindian Act of 2006, which addresses land-titling, Intellectual Property rights, Mining and Forestry rights, Governance of Amerindian villages and Environmental Protection. This environment segment of the Act falls squarely within the theme of this year’s Heritage Month and supports the efforts of Amerindian communities to use natural resources sustainably. Amerindian communities have grasped the imperative of preserving a safe environment. The Heritage Month message of the Chairman of the National Toshaos Council, Mr Nicholas Fredricks,, encapsulates this concept: “This is when mankind has to realise that money is not all; we need to protect the environment, we need to protect our land, so that we can survive and our future generation will have a safe place to live.”
There is one consideration which this year’s Heritage Month has not stressed and which this column has advocated over the years, that is, the use and preservation of the Amerindian languages. Among the things advocated are: standardising the use of the Roman script in writing the various Amerindian languages; working out grammars of the languages; a compilation of dictionaries; and deciding on a Lingua Franca among the seven languages. The preservation and use of these languages are urgent, as they are in danger of disappearing when faced with the growing pressures of English.
This year’s Heritage Month witnessed the climactic event of all Heritage Months so far when Mr Lenox Shuman, attired in full Amerindian dress, was installed as Deputy Speaker of Parliament.