A Look At Dominica’s Kalinago People: The Descendants Of Our First Society

As the Caribbean and the world at large morph into a multicultural hub, the maintenance and promotion of unique cultures is becoming increasingly important, but also very difficult. The linguistic and cultural diversity of entire societies have vanished without a trace and the descendants of many indigenous people are losing their historical footing and relevance to their main society.

According to the United Nations, “Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.”

In Dominica, the native people are referred to as Kalinagos and are the Caribbean’s only remaining population of Pre-Columbian Carib Indians. Migrating in waves from South America from as early as 3,000BC, various tribes made Dominica their home and by 1,000AD were well settled, calling the island “Wai’tukubuli”, which translates to ‘tall is her body’.

Background on the Kalinago Territory

While indigenous people around the world continue to struggle for their right to land, resources and sacred sites, Kalinagos in Dominica were afforded their own land over 100 years ago.

When the Europeans settled in Dominica, they were met with fierce resistance from the native people. In 1748, under the treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, Britain and France recognized the Kalinago domination of the island and declared it to be neutral and left it under Kalinago control. According to the Kalinago Barana Autê (Kalinago Cultural Village by the sea) website, “this treaty was short lived and the British continued to wage war on the Kalinago people.”

In 1763, the British gained full control of Dominica. The Kalinagos were given 232 acres of mountainous and rocky shoreline in Salybia on the east coast of the island. In 1903, the amount of land was expanded to 3700 acres and was called the Carib Reserve, and is now referred to as the Kalinago Territory. The territory is further divided into eight major villages: Sineku, Mahaut River, Gaulette River, Salybia, Crayfish River, Bataka, St. Cyr and part of Concord. Though the Kalinago Chief remains an important and well recognized figure in the community, the people also have Casius Darroux, their representative in the house of assembly, and the Minister of Kalinago Affairs.

They keep to themselves and have retained many aspects of their culture and traditions. However, one should not be fooled into thinking that this means that the people live in spread out thatched houses and walk around in grass skirts.

(photo credit: caribank.org)

Importance Of The Culture

Most of the territory is unscathed by an overabundance of modern infrastructure or facilities and glimpses of original art, cuisine and craft give visitors a distinct idea that this is a territory of indigenous people. Meaning that the Kalinagos have clung to their culture – a major influence to their survival.

Language

One unique aspect of that culture is the Kalinago Language. Language is, of course, a crucial building block of any culture, and though theirs is not widely spoken, many items and activities in the territory are still referred to by their Kalinago name. Additionally, many of the inhabitants are christened with a Western name, followed by a Kalinago name – usually given after a traditional naming ceremony and is based on personality of the individual.

Arts + Craft

Another facet that has stood the test of time is the art of the people. Crafts are made from natural resources such as larouma, calabash and coconut, and pottery is also done using clay.

“Kalinago people use larouma to weave various craft items which can be found at Kalinago Barana Autê. These items include bottles, baskets, caps, hats, sifters, squeezers, mats and finger traps all woven by hand.”  (Kalinago Barana Autê) On the other hand, calabash and coconut carvings are made on a regular basis while traditional activities such as canoe building, cassava processing and basket weaving also take place.

Traditions

Dances, traditions, legends, and beliefs have been kept alive by the elders who pass on these traditions through story-telling. The Karifuna and Karina cultural groups are popular for performing traditional Kalinago dances.

St. Cyr Community Resource Centre, Kalinago Territory.

The Kalinago history is rich, though sometimes unappreciated and widely misunderstood by the general population. Unfortunately, however, a thorough analysis or exploration of Kalinago history has not been adopted by school curriculums in Dominica. This lack of indigenous education is perhaps one of the reasons for disconnect between the dominant population and the inhabitants of the territory, as well as the gap between generations of Kalinagos.

Daniel’s Cassava Bakery, Kalinago Territory.

But this does not mean that efforts are not on-going to pass on information about the traditional and cultural aspects of Kalinago life for whoever is willing to learn. Fortunately, significant efforts have been made by the Government to provide proper accommodation for, and preserve the traditions and history of the people.


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