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The Caribs in Dominica

by Kevin Menhinick

Dominica is unique for many reasons, but none more so than for its indigenous people. For Dominica can boast the only remaining tribe of Carib Indians in the Caribbean. To understand why this race has survived, when all other native Caribbean cultures were destroyed, let us delve back into history.

Millions of years ago, when the eastern Caribbean was merely a range of mountains underneath the sea, a series of volcanic eruptions took place disturbing the ocean floor. Slowly, a chain of islands began to emerge from the sea. At the epicenter of this volcanic action rose an island of towering mountains. This was the beginning of Dominica. But where did the people come from?

About 10,000 years B.C. a group of nomadic tribesmen left central east Asia and crossed the ice-capped Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska. Some settled in North America and were subsequently named 'Eskimos' and 'Red Indians' by the European colonists. The rest moved south to Central and South America to eventually become Mayas, Incas, Aztecs and other historically famous Amerindian nations.

Then, around 500 years B.C., a group of Amerindians, the Arawaks, left their homes on the banks of the Orinoco River in South America. They travelled by rafts in dangerous seas, taking with them small animals, plants and seeds. One of the Caribbean islands they landed on was Dominica. Here they lived peacefully for almost 1,000 years until they were invaded and conquered by another group of Amerindians, the Caribs. Over the years the two cultures and languages became fused and their simple life-style based on fishing and the sea continued peacefully until the fifteenth century, when a new set of conquerors from Europe discovered the Caribbean.

In 1493, Columbus returned to the West Indies, which he had inadvertently stumbled upon the previous year. On Sunday, November 3rd he sailed by an island of rugged green mountains and natural beauty. He called the island Dominica; Domingo being the Latin word for Sunday. The Caribs had previously named it Waitikubuli - 'tall is her body'. In typical European fashion the Spanish attempted to subjugate the Caribs. Dominica was important for its natural resources of water and wood. However, due to the rugged terrain and ferocious resistance of the native people, the invaders were finally persuaded that it was preferable to trade with the Caribs rather than run the risk of further embarrassing defeats. Slowly the Caribs began to trust the Europeans sufficiently to begin to trade with them. Plantain, cassava, fruit and tobacco were exchanged for beads, knives, glass and tools. However, this all took place over a period of 200 years.

But, as with many indigenous peoples throughout the world, they were not impervious to European diseases and many Caribs were subsequently wiped out. By 1686 the Carib population, weak from illness and battle fatigue, had dwindled from 5,000 to a mere 400 people. In the interim period all traces of Amerindians had been eradicated throughout the rest of the Caribbean. Amazingly, from such a tiny handful of people the Caribs survived and even began to flourish, co-existing peacefully with the Spanish, Portuguese, English and French settlers.

In 1763, following a prolonged war, the British finally wrested power from the French and officially declared Dominica a British colony. Shortly after this the Caribs, who had been living quietly on Dominica's north-east coast, were allocated 232 acres of land as their 'reserve'. This is where they remain to this day.

Sadly, over the years the Carib culture has been eroded. Today the Caribs worship at mainly Roman Catholic churches and speak English and French Creole; commensurate with the rest of Dominica. Although the Carib language has long since disappeared it still exists in many of the place names: eg. Calibishie, Bataka and Salibia. Only a relatively small number of Caribs today are 100% pure bred. But even those with only a small amount of Carib blood are fiercely proud of their unique heritage.

These gentle and often shy people are characterised by their long straight hair and quiet demeanor. Today they have their own chief and send representatives to conferences for indigenous peoples all over the world. They produce beautiful hand crafts, farm with unending enthusiasm and produce cricketers as skilful and competitive as any in this island of rivers, waterfalls and mountains that their forefathers discovered long before the advent of the Europeans.

The Caribs Today

Today, approximately 3,400 people live in 450 residential homes on a 3,700 acre reserve, which stretches for nine miles on the north-east coast of Dominica. Overlooking the raging Atlantic Ocean, the Carib Territory is the only district where it is not possible to own or buy land. The land is, in fact, owned by the Carib Council, thus ensuring an element of independence for Dominica's native people.

A Carib person today is know as a Karifuna. The Waitukubili Kairifuna Development Agency (WAIKADA) is a non-profit making organisation which focuses on the preservation and development of the Carib culture and also hopes to improve the quality of life for its people. The Kalinago Centre, a Carib documentation and archival centre, is on King George Street in Roseau. Here traditional Carib art and crafts are sold and information on the island's indigenous people is available. There is also a fascinating historical photographic display. This centre was one of WAIKADA's first achievements. The creation of a radio station in the Territory and the establishment of a community library, which will also serve as a museum and a cultural centre, are high on the list of priorities.

The Carib Territory is made up of eight hamlets with Bataka being the largest. Other areas include Sinecou, Salybia and Crayfish River. The population is very young, with 70% being under 30 years of age. Most children of secondary school age attend St. Andrew's Methodist School in nearby Londonderry. However, a handful go to schools in Marigot, Portsmouth and Roseau.

The Territory boasts in excess of 16 craft shops which produce high-quality straw hats, baskets and other handicrafts. With tourism becoming increasingly important in Dominica, the Territory is a priority for many tourists. However, the production of bananas is still the main source of income. Coconuts, copra, soya beans, ginger, tropical fruit and various root vegetables are also grown in high numbers. The re-introduction of farine and cassava, which comes from manioc and was once the staple diet of the Caribs, is also making a welcome return. Some Caribs still make their living from the sea, but tackling the large Atlantic breakers is a highly dangerous business.

The Carib Council is an elected body of seven who serve for five years. It is presided over by a Chief, currently Hilary Frederick, who previously held the post from 1979 until 1984. The Territory also returns one M.P. who presently is the United Workers Party representative Francoise Barrie. Barrie is a former schoolteacher and is well known island-wide for his enthusiasm for and vast knowledge of cricket. In fact in this small area of Dominica there is probably more cricket played than in any other district. Last season the Carib Territory won the Harris Paints Northern League in front of an estimated and fanatical crowd of 3,000. The team is dominated by the Burton family of whom the Captain, Gilbert Burton, has represented the island. Currently Adam Sandford, a young fast bowler, can lay claim to this honour.

Away from the cricket field, soccer, basketball, rounders and netball all have their followers, while on a cultural level the Karifuna Cultural Group regularly produce high-quality plays and dance oriented displays. There are also a number of hightly talented artists in the Territory with Faustulus Frederick, Jacob Frederick and Cozier Frederick heading the list.

Life has changed dramatically for the Carib people who traditionally are shy and retiring. They are now completely absorbed into mainstream Dominican life, and with tourism making important inroads into the island's economy, some say that they will soon be at the very forefront. However, many feel that they currently do not receive the attention they deserve and are vigilant in their determination noot to suffer from exploitation; a fate that has bedevilled many indigenous peoples throughout the world.

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