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The United Nations (UN) has designated today the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In this year’s message the UN has called for a new social contract for the indigenous people. The organisation notes that “Although numerous indigenous peoples worldwide are self-governing and some have been successful in establishing autonomy in varying forms, many indigenous peoples still come under the ultimate authority of central governments who exercise control over their lands, territories and resources.” This remains true in Guyana and it cannot be ignored that there have been several calls to respect the rights of indigenous people to self-determination.
History informs us that our Amerindian brothers and sisters came to the Guianas by the Bering Strait, around 13, 000 years ago though this is a theory disputed by geologists, anthropologists and archaeologists, and frowned on by a section of the indigenous community who sees it as negative stereotyping. Even as we respect the varying perspectives until agreement is reached, all Guyanese have much to be grateful for having this ethnic group amongst us, for they have and continue to play a very pivotal role in every sphere of our lives.
For starters, the name of this country, Guyana, is an Amerindian word meaning “land of many waters.” Sitting atop our Coat of Arms rests the Cacique Crown in all its majesty, symbolising reverence to our Indigenous People. The Umana Yana (Wai Wai meaning “meeting place of the people”) situated in Georgetown was built in August 1972 as the V.I.P and recreation lounge for the Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference hosted by the Forbes Burnham government. Two of our national dishes, pepperpot and cassava bread, were given to us by our First People.
In every sphere of Guyana’s social, political, cultural and economic life our Amerindians brothers and sisters have distinguished themselves. Yet in spite of these stellar contributions the history of our First People was not without struggle to be treated with respect. A new social contract will acknowledge this historical deficit and bring about correct acknowledgement. For instance, where European history celebrates Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World, the counter prevailing view is regret because Columbus could not have discovered what was already there and his arrival brought nothing more than sorrows.
Columbus himself acknowledged when he arrived, he met the Amerindians. The unfortunate experiences that resulted from this meeting is the attempts at enslaving the Amerindians and arrival of new diseases, though resisted strenuously was not without brutality and deaths. This day serves as another reminder how important it is for our Indigenous People to continue to be vocal and demand what is rightly theirs, including playing an active role in mainstream society.