05/15/2006, Crayfish River, Dominica
Following Mrs. Green’s advice (the Principal at Dublanc Primary School), we set off to visit the recently opened Carib-model village, Kalinago Barana Aute. It’s a replica of how a Carib village would have been built 500 years ago. The Caribs originally came to Dominica from South America about 1000 years ago. They lived throughout the Caribbean island chain and traveled from island to island in ancient, traditional dug-out canoes. These are boats carved from the trunk of the Gommier tree. The huge trunk is hollowed out and opened up with rocks, fire and water. Like Canada’s indigenous peoples, the canoe is at the heart of the Carib culture and in the recent Classic Yacht Regatta in Antigua we had the opportunity to sail along the recently built dug-out canoe, called Gli Gli.
The Carib territory
We joined our new friends from the UK, Jackie and Robin, (s.v. Blackthorn) and hired a local tour guide, Jeff to drive us to the Territory and explore the surrounding area. The east side of Dominica is remote and lush. The road winds along the steep mountain slopes bordering the Atlantic coast. People live in simple homes and take great pride in their property. As with the west side, everyone grows fruits and vegetables on their small plot of land and keeps a supply of eggs at all times, thanks to the chickens running around. As we entered the territory we were greeted warmly. People walking on the roadside, sitting on their front steps, or resting in the shade on a verandah of a shop all waved and said hello. We knew we were in a different part of the country because the people looked different. The physical features of the Caribs are noticeably different from African Dominicans. Caribs have features that are strongly Asian with skin colour lighter than their African countrymen.
The Carib Village -Kalinago Barana Aute Turning off the main highway, we descended an incredibly steep, winding road to the Carib village. The village was conceived as a living museum – a place where Caribs could show their tradition and history as a focus for tourism and a way of strengthening their own culture. Like many historic villages, it includes an Interpretation Centre and gift shop selling a range of woven baskets, some bead work, spices and medicines. My favourite was the snake oil of the mighty Python. The Interpretation Centre featured an excellent display of the history of the Caribs with the limited archival material that’s been maintained. One thing that jumped out at me were the pictures of the Elders. In one of the pictures a village Elder looked Japanese. Other Elders resembled Canadian Inuit. It was quite remarkable. Talking with the others, we wondered if the populations of peoples who were nomadic from Mongolia and Siberia crossing the Bering Straight to Canada’s North also traveled across the Pacific to South America.
Our local tour guide Derrick Joseph, greeted us in the traditional Carib languageMabrika!, meaning welcome. Derrick is a 26-year old Carib, who is also the Minister for Sport and Youth on the National Carib Council. He is enthusiastic about promoting the richness of his culture with visitors and Dominicans alike and wants to instill an understanding of cultural traditions in young people. As Derrick guided us through the forest, he pointed out the numerous trees and plants that were used in the daily lives by the villagers, 500 years ago. When the Caribs first arrived from South America, they introduced plants such as cassava and sweet potato to the islands. These vegetables were the staples of their diet. Over time, the villagers grew a wide variety of vegetables and fruits and made use of local vegetation in making tools and equipment, such as fishing nets, building shelters, and making medicines. Today, many Caribs and Dominicans continue to make use of local plants for building roofs, basket weaving and in particular making herbal medicines.
In true village style, a circular trail through the forest led us to a series of small huts called ajoupas, work areas and the main village building, called a Karbet. When asked about the particular layout and location of the village, Derrick gave an interesting explanation. In order to avoid being conquered or exterminated (as they had been on the other Caribbean islands and like the Beothucks, the aboriginals of Newfoundland, who were completely wiped out) by the British and French who both occupied the island at different times, the Caribs chose to live on the mountainous east side of Dominica. It was difficult to invade this area with its rugged jungle and steep cliffs coming up from the shore. So, the ajoupas were spread out throughout the jungle up and down the slopes. You come to realize that not only were these people resourceful but purposeful in their plans to save their culture. Today, there are some 3,000 Caribs living in this region.
The ajoupas are similar to lean-to’s, with its one-sided sloping roof and no walls, and uses specific plants woven together as the building material. Later, A-frame shelters were constructed because they could withstand the high winds during hurricane season. Again, these shelters were simply constructed with woven thatched roof material or shingles carved from local trees. In the middle of the village was the large community Karbet – an open-sided thatched roof building – used for all village gatherings and celebrations. One thing that kept ringing in my mind as we walked around with Derrick was the similarities in this village to the way Canada’s First Nations people and Australia’s Aboriginals lived long ago. The materials may not have been the same, but the ingenious use of natural materials and closeness to nature in all aspects of life was similar.
The heart of the culture
One feature of the village where Derrick invited us to look closely was the traditional Carib canoe. It remains in use today in some of the central Caribbean islands and along the northern coast of South America. Dominica is proud to have its own master canoe builder, Etien Charles. We inspected the construction of these pre-Columbian ocean-going canoes from stem to stern. The main part of the boat is hollowed out from the Gommier tree. Today, the boat builders employ modern tools but everything remains the same. The chain-saw is used to speed up the hollowing out of the tree trunk. Then boards or planks are added to increase the height of the topsides of the canoe. Frames made from the branches of a different tree species are then added for strength. Finally, the rudder, mast, oars and thwarts are carved and put in place. With the sail attached to the mast, the canoe is ready to launch.
The Carib canoe we saw in Antigua, the Gli Gli, (pictured at the top of the journal) was built 10 years ago in Dominica, under the guidance of Etien Charles. Artist and sculptor Aragorn Dick Read met Carib artist, Jacob Frederick in Dominica. Together, they came up with a plan to build a traditional canoe in Dominica and sail it south to the Carib homelands in Venezuela and Guyana to promote and celebrate the Carib culture.
The building and operating of a large canoe is very much a tribal occupation with many members of a village required throughout the entire process from tree felling through building to launching. Once the canoe is in the water, a team effort is needed to sail the vessel efficiently – diligence and discipline are essential in keeping the canoe balanced and preventing capsize. It is truly a tribute to the seamanship of the Caribs that they managed to range far and wide in the often rough seas between islands
(written by Julian Putley, All at Sea).
We can attest to these words as we watched Gli Gli with her crew of 12 navigate the boisterous waters during race week with us in Antigua. She was an inspiration to all sailors that the simplicity of the boat and skill of the sailor continues to enable travel far and wide.
Canadian connection Wrapping up our tour of the village, and knowing we were Canadian, Derrick shared a wonderful connection between Canada’s First Nations people and Dominica’s Caribs. Canada’s Mohawk Nation has helped to fund the production of soya beans in the territory and are helping to instill an understanding of traditional ways in young people. Currently, 3 Caribs from Dominica are in Canada on Mohawk reserves. They are taking part in an international exchange to learn about each others traditional ways and develop an understanding of what the two aboriginal groups share in common. It’s great to see the solidarity of First Nation’s peoples extending across international boundaries. We all have so much to learn by getting to know each other’s cultures.