updated 9/27/2010 11:18:28 AM ET 2010-09-27T15:18:28

It has taken several hundred years and one radical proposal, but the last Carib natives in the Caribbean, the Kalinago, are taking steps to preserve their culture by redefining what it means to survive as a people.

Indigenous peoples are among the most affected by poverty worldwide. And this week the United Nations hosted the Millennium Development Summit to discuss progress on its goal of halving global poverty by 2015.

The Kalinago tribe, on the island of Dominica, is under some historic population pressure. The vast majority of the West Indies' Carib and Arawak natives died from disease, murder or suicide during the first few hundred years of colonization. The Kalinago survived as a tribe because of their location high in Dominica's rugged terrain, which was less appealing for colonial plantations.

Today, Kalinago are among the poorest on Dominica, so many young people leave for studies or work and never return. It has become clear that the future of the Kalinago people will be endangered if more of its inhabitants don't decide to stay.

One radical proposal for preserving the tribe came in 2008 from then-chief Charles Williams. He suggested making marriage to other tribal members mandatory in order to preserve the bloodline of the tribe's estimated 1,500 "pure" natives. Pure for some Kalinago, refers to those tribes people with the strongest native physical features.

The suggestion was not adopted, but it generated heated debate among the 3,000 inhabitants of the Carib Territory, a 3,700-acre Kalinago enclave similar to Native American reservations in the United States.

"There's no way you're going to stop marriage with people on the outside. You have a choice, that's a human right. Still, it was a good gesture in this situation. If we Kalinago people want to preserve our heritage and culture, we should at least look at that option," said 26-year-old Kalinago native Jacob "Che" Frederick, who has a daughter with a Dominican non-native.

Dominican anthropologist Lennox Honeychurch told Discovery News, "People on the outside have this romantic view of the last of the indigenous peoples who have survived since colonization. They get carried away with this ideal of the disappearing race.

"The fact of the matter is Dominica has already been through colonization. It would be virtually impossible to try and turn the clock back by imposing any kind of restrictions based on what a person looks like. This is not a living museum or a zoo."

But the concept of a living museum is one the tribe has embraced. In 2006, the Caribbean Development Bank funded the construction of a Kalinago Village on the Carib territory. There, community members have revived artisanry, dances and even some of the mother tongue through song, all while generating much-needed income from curious tourists who come looking for an Amerindian stereotype.

Other ideas to alleviate poverty while staying in the tribal culture are percolating, but it's an uphill struggle. Several years ago, Frederick spearheaded a project with USAID to start a Kalinago youth cooperative that would grow herbal teas and medicines for export.

Frederick has had to turn his attention to supporting his child by working as an air conditioner installer in the capital of Roseau, an hour's bus ride away.

Frederick said he'd go home permanently if the tea cooperative ever takes off. "It was a way to honor our past and bring in money for ourselves so we could stay up there," he said.

Meanwhile, the Kalinago's current leader, Chief Garnet Joseph, is exploring other options for putting resources directly into the hands of his people.

By December, he hopes to have established the Kalinago Development Corporation, a territory-based entity that would create a variety of enterprises from eco-hotels to agro-processing and light manufacturing and assembly plants. He also hopes the corporation can buy the government-owned Kalinago Village, which he helped to found.

“The government has put in support for schools, college grants and transportation, but that doesn’t help us to be independent or do anything self-sustaining,” Joseph said.

In the end, the debate and experience of economic survival sheds important light on what tribal preservation ultimately means.

"Everybody is concerned with family and wants their child to marry into a good one, and of course descent groups often track themselves back to a single mythic founder, but defining a larger group solely in terms of ancestry is a culturally unique act," noted Jon Marks, an anthropologist at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

In reality, he says, human beings are in constant flux.

"There are different ways of being traditional and honoring one's ancestry, and they aren’t necessarily connected to the gene pool," he said.

For Kalinago like Frederick, it comes down to making cultural traditions prosperous on the very land where his ancestors once walked.

"I think that's first and foremost," said Frederick, who often brings his daughter to Kalinago Village to learn about her heritage. "Even if we are a mixed people, we should keep the culture."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments