Guyana: Indigenous folklore and their role in preserving culture, traditions

Guyana’s Indigenous peoples – Myths or legends?

– Indigenous folklore and their role in preserving culture, traditions

By Ravena Gildharie…. for Amerindian Heritage Month 2017

IT WAS a bright day and an Arawak schoolboy, Frank Bernard, of the Pakuri Village, St Cuthbert’s Mission, was on a lunch break when he strutted down to the landing with his bucket to fetch water from the Mahaica Creek.     

He walked toward the dock and passed the washing boards used by the village women, but they were not there at the time. There was a presence though; a strange sighting, that left young Frank spellbound. He gazed in silence unable to move a leg further, still clenching the bucket in his hand.

The year was 1944, during the period what villagers termed the ‘Yankee era’. The United States Army was in command of the Atkinson Airfield, which they had established just four years earlier at Timehri, several miles away from the Pakuri Village. The white soldiers would often pass through the reservation much to the awareness and amusement of the indigenous inhabitants. But, there was no such activity that day.

At the landing Frank was so taken up with the gravity of the moment; the handles of the bucket dropped with a clink, a noise that startled the two ‘white’ women sitting on the dock. The women were of European descent, one wore a blue bathing suit and the other, a black. They sat facing the east with their backs turned toward Frank, up until they heard the bucket’s noise. They spun in amusement to look at Frank. One of the women had a blind eye. After a few seconds, they dived into the water creating a heavy swirling effect. A clear, sunny day immediately became murky. None of them resurfaced.

Frank had experienced an encounter with mermaids, a legend that permeates indigenous folklore which transcend various native tribes, dialects, communities and generations.
It is stories and legends like these that integrate the rich cultural fabric of Guyana’s first people and which serve as a pillar in keeping with the indigenous’ traditions, customs and beliefs alive.

According to Leeland Klenkian, the local educator and historian of Pakuri Village, many of the folklore are based on experiences and the way of life of the indigenous people. There are scary tales of the powerful Kanaima, of natives with the ability to change form into various animals and of spirits of the environment that would either reward or punish.

Klenkian, 68, is a former Toshao and primary school teacher. He is well versed in the Arawak language and remains a respected educator, who conducts native language classes and tutoring for Grade Six students. He grew up hearing stories from his grandparents and other elders of the village. This was done during social gatherings or family time in the evenings when the children sat and talked with their elders.
Storytelling was also a main feature of Mashramani, the celebratory custom after self-help work.

“We have a lot of beliefs that our grandparents or some older aunt or uncle or in-law would have told us…For example, we were told that everything has a mother or a bigger spirit. So, if we go hunting and we kill an animal violently, we need to handle the meat carefully and treat it with some respect or else we will get sick,” Klenkian conveyed.

Folklore often included detailed lucid encounters between native hunters and the ‘Konkudu’, known as the ‘bush-man’ or ‘boss man of the bush’, who dominates the most remote parts of the jungle, situated off the reservations.
Such messages encouraging the reverence and preservation of flora and fauna form the morals of much indigenous folklore.

To Klenkian, “these stories were told to help the younger folks in train to behave a certain way; to make sure we handle the environment with care, caution and respect, and so that the knowledge is imparted to succeeding generations with the hope of maintaining obedience and a coherent society.”

Traditionally, there exists a strong bond between indigenous people and their environment from which they source food and economic livelihood. It is, therefore, no surprise that many of the folklore relate to the culture and everyday activities with many aspects of spiritual beliefs. Some stories admonish offerings to the ‘cassava momma’ to ensure a bountiful produce and for processing to be done in a peculiar manner with scrapings offered to the water spirits.

In each village and tribe, the folklore is told with similar meanings and formats.
However, it is felt that modern influences and advancement of technology and entertainment are wiping out the indigenous folklore and traditions of storytelling.
In the Makushi Village of Nappi, Rupununi, Guy Fredericks remembers growing up as a child sitting in the moonlight in the company of other children and villagers, listening to the elders tell stories in their native language.

He heard stories of animals and legendary creatures of the forest such as the Yawari with a son-in-law and the ‘bush-man.’ There were many stories about the Kanaima which propelled the Makushi’s fear of their rival Patamonas.
These community meetings have stopped and so has the storytelling even in the homes, where Fredericks observed that the youngsters are now glued to the television, cellular phones and computers with no time to converse with their elders. As the storytelling gets rare, the stories are disappearing even in the minds of the elders, as they seldom narrate.
Further, Fredericks feels that folklore is losing significance among the younger generations who dismiss the narrations as merely ‘Nancy stories.’

He concurred that some are myths.
“When we cooked a meal with the fish Huri or Yarrow, our grandmother used to tell us that we can’t eat the fish head because it would make our face black or if we eat the fish eggs, boils would break out on our face,” he said.
With a chuckle, he admitted that the elder was actually using those tales so that she could consume “the best part of the fish”.
However, he highlighted that some of the stories are notable experiences that can educate the younger generations.

Councillor, Camilla Francis, who is also a retired teacher of Moruca, is a master storyteller and has been spearheading initiatives to preserve the indigenous folklore. She has been documenting the stories she heard from her elders and recently started video recording too. Later this month, she will stage a special storytelling event under the moonlight in Moruca.
Some time ago when Francis was a baby, villagers became engrossed in one of the family’s dreadful experience of the Kanaima. The parents were out at a party, drinking cassiri and dancing to the mari-mari. Their young baby was sick with a fever and left at home with an older sibling.

The baby kept crying despite all the sister did to appease the sick child. It was 01: OO hrs and the couple had not yet returned. There was a call outside. It was two men known to the girl and her family. They said they had come to take the crying baby to the parents. The girl was hesitant, but the men convinced her that her parents had sent for the sick baby. She complied.
Hours later, her parents returned home and enquired about the baby. The girl related the incident. The parents were shocked. They hadn’t sent for the child. The men who collected the baby denied the incident as they had never left the party and other villagers confirmed their alibi.

A massive community search was launched. Later the next day, the baby was found dead in a clump of bushes, naked, severely beaten and covered in blood. It was felt that the Kanaima took the form of the two men and abducted the sick baby.

Similar folklore would be told at the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology on Main Street, Georgetown, during the Sixth Annual Storytelling of Folklore, Myths, Tales and Legends, planned during this month in observance of Amerindian Heritage Month 2017.

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  • Stella pancham  On 09/05/2017 at 5:55 am

    I also heard those stories growing up in the Demerara river. What memories.

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