Hurricane Maria recovery sows seeds of Amerindian traditions revival

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A report by Gemma Handy for London’s Telegraph.

In Louisette Auguiste’s garden, tents still surround the plywood shell where the house used to stand – but the castor bean plants are flourishing.

She harvests the seeds to roast, before pounding them into a mulch to make oil, which she will then bottle and sell.

Here, in the heart of Dominica’s Kalinago Territory, homespun castor oil is used to ease headaches and birthing difficulties, and is just one of a number of time-honoured traditions passed down through generations of Amerindians.

When Hurricane Maria stormed across the island last September, it marked the worst natural disaster in Dominica’s history. The hurricane snuffed out dozens of lives and thousands of homes, as well as people’s livelihoods.

But it has also sparked an unexpected resurgence of the ancient practices of the Kalinagos’ ancestors.

Just over 3,000 Amerindians currently occupy the communally-owned 3,700-acre territory on the east coast, officially established by Britain in 1903.

They comprise the only community of pre-Columbus natives in the East Caribbean, after surviving brutal early colonists and today face discrimination from the majority Afro-Dominicans.

Amerindians have long had a profound connection with the environment, says cultural officer Prosper Paris.

“More people are getting back into herbal medicine,” he says. “Maria reminded us of the value of our culture. We were taking things like pharmaceutical products for granted, but when the disaster happened we had to go back to what we knew, like using young guava leaves for bellyache and lemongrass for chills.

“You have to ask the tree’s permission before taking its leaves. Talking to nature creates a link between the environment and our spiritual being.”

Louisette’s neighbour, Matthew Lucien, is picking patchouli leaves to make into a tea. The herb is said to soothe irritated skin, tension and colds.

The closest medical clinic is overstretched, operating from a private home and can mean lengthy queues. Matthew’s first priority after the storm was constructing a shelter to sleep in; second was to restore his garden which serves as a homeopathic dispensary for the village.

Mr Prosper adds: “Now we’re rethinking what our fathers told us and we ignored. We’ve always known how to survive fuel and electricity shortages. People are getting back into old ways of preserving food, like smoking their meat and fish.”

In Salybia, the capital of the territory’s eight hamlets, Willard Bruney is weaving a basket from larouma reeds using age-old techniques learnt from his father. Natural materials, free to acquire, have become all the more valued following the loss of possessions.

“The original Kalinagos made the baskets waterproof by doubling up the reeds,” Willard explains. “Even in heavy rain, nothing got wet inside.”

Calabash gourds are used to make everything from decorative face masks to cups and bowls.

 

Artist Faustulus Frederick carves them with depictions of shamans and other indigenous symbols.

“The carvings have different meanings. We never knew God; we believed in Manitou,” he says, referring to the notion of a supreme life force.

Back at the Auguiste family home, Louisette’s husband, former Kalinago chief Irvince, says Hurricane Maria’s devastation has ignited something of a revival in spirituality too. The category five winds stripped away the vines that once covered ‘White Horse Rock’, an important indigenous site near the Pagua River.

“Some say it’s a sign that good spirits exist and wanted to signal to us that nature has all this power to cause damage, yet so many lives were saved,” he says.

These days, Irvince adds, marginalisation is slowly subsiding as more Amerindians take pride in their heritage.

Tour guide Justinian Nicholls agrees, adding: “As the only existing tribe on these islands, we should be proud to be Kalinago.”

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