Standing guard on the perilous edge of a breathtaking cliff on the northeastern coast of Dominica is the eerily sculpted faces of the Kalinago ancestors.
Meant to spiritually guard the indigenous people, the sculptures are a reminder of the strength of the Kalinago people in Dominica who survived European colonisation, retaining vestiges of their great lifeways, unlike many other Caribbean neighbours.
Today with a resurgence of Kalinago pride, the indigenous nation is now seeking to forge relationships with other Amerindian groups, like the ones in T&T, with the hope of sharing knowledge.
With a population of 3,500, the Kalinago tribe of Dominica lives in a 5.7 mile communally-owned territory where they continue to practice traditional crafts such as basketry, fishing, and weaving.
They engage in agriculture, planting bananas, coconut, passion fruit, and cassava but since the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the island people have been slowly rebuilding.
Hurricane Maria, a category five storm, struck in September 2017 and the Kalinago territory suffered a direct hit. Yet, two years later, they seem almost untouched except for some of the sprawling trees whose tops are still bare of bark and leaves.
Guardian Media visited Dominica for a tour of the Nature Island last week and was amazed at the tenacity of the Kalinago people who continue to flourish in the island they call Wai'tukubuli, which means "Tall is her body."
Tour guide Kenrick Augiste took us to Kalinago Barana Aute, a recently established village in the hamlet of Crayfish River, where traditional customs are promoted. After a short trek through winding roads made of concrete, we came upon the breathtaking village which overlooks the Iwasie Bay. It is here the force of the mighty Atlantic Ocean batters the jagged foot of the mountains creating an expanse of polished rocks.
It is this rugged mountainous range which protected the Kalinagos whose ancestors—the Ortoiroid people—settled in Dominica from about 3000 BC to 400 BC.
Today, the Kalinago territory is made up of eight villages—Sineku, Mahaut River, Gaulette River, Salybia, Crayfish River, Bataka, Atkinson and part of Concord.
Kalinago Barana Aute, the model Kalinago village, has the potential to take you back in time.
The karbays (large houses) are built with wood and leaves, a reminder of what was lost. Samples of calabash engraved with the faces of zemis were on display along with an array of jewelry made with traditional beads.
Augiste said the art of canoe making has survived. Canoes are dug out from the gommier trees, one of the tallest trees in the lush Dominican rain forest.
Katna John also prepared cassava bread, baked on a leaf on a wood stove. John patted the cassava together to make a sticky dough which was delicious when cooked.
Through research, archaeological expeditions and oral history, Augiste said they managed to piece together their broken history.
"We make a conscious effort to protect our tradition," Augiste said. Medicinal knowledge is shared freely.
"There is an abundance of medicinal herbs in Dominica that treats many ailments. Marijuana is also used by some even though it is still an illegal substance in Dominica. The country's rich volcanic dirt makes agriculture very lucrative," Augiste said.
Pointing to a bay tree, Augiste said bay rum was manufactured using the bay leaves.
Guava leaf tea is used to treat diarrhoea and orange leaf is used to treat vomiting.
He said Dominican customs are sacred although some customs are no longer accepted because of westernisation.
"Recently the chief wanted to bring back an ancient law which mandated the Kalinagos to marry within the tribe but this has not been accepted by many, " Augiste said.
Dominica's marketing executive Samantha Letang said if a Kalinago woman fell in love with a man outside of her race she was no longer permitted to live in the village. However, a Kalinago man was free to bring a wife who was not from the tribe or the village.
Traditional customs changing
With interracial marriages and education, Letang said some of these traditional customs have changed.
Under the Ministry of Kalinago Affairs, Letang said Kalinago history was included in the Social Studies curriculum and some of the traditional ways of cooking have remained.
"Kalinagos were now trying to rename themselves with traditional Kalinago names," she added.
The Dominica State College offers free tertiary education and Letang believes this has assisted in the advancement of Kalinago people.
Another custom that has changed in the Kalinago community is the traditional divisions of labour.
Gweneth Frederick, manager of Kalinago Brand in Dominica said traditionally women were in charge of planting, weaving, food gathering, cooking, and pottery making, while the men did hunting and fishing. They were considered the heads of authority in the village but over time, Frederick said the roles of women have changed.
"We now have a woman, Annette Thomas Sanford who is running for the position of chief," she added.
She noted that the Waitukubuli Karifuna Development Committee also worked to build several traditional buildings in Salybia which include the church of St Marie which is decorated with murals depicting Kalinago history.
"We have homestay programmes approved by the Dominican authorities. We also have the education of our herb gardens and our arts," Frederick said.
While they were pleased that so much more focus was being placed on Kalinago consciousness, Frederick contended that they needed more resources to further promote the Kalinago lifeways.
"We have excelled as Kalinago people. The Kalinago language, unfortunately, has been lost and we do not speak it but we encourage our people to adopt Kalinago names," she said.
The Karifuna Cultural group has also travelled to several parts of the Caribbean promoting Kalinago consciousness through culture.
During Guardian Media's visit, the Kalinago Dancers performed several traditional dances including a basket dance and a fishing dance. The Kalinago experience ended with a moon dance led by lead dancer Justin Nichols and his team which included Alice Darraux, Kerah Duran, Vida Frederick, Katna John, Juel Prince, and Kervin Nichols.
Trinidad welcomes Kalinago exchanges
Meanwhile, the invitation to build Amerindian linkages has already been accepted by T&T's custodians of local indigenous history.
Eric Lewis, who has mobilised Amerindian awareness among the indigenous people of Moruga welcomed the call for partnership with the Kalinagos of Dominica.
"We are the first native peoples of many Tribes. Having come from many cultures from around the region, it is important to know and accept that we are all one people—the First Peoples of the Americas," he added.
Saying Amerindian ancestors survived suppression, Lewis said it was time for all Caribbean First People to unite.
"We must work even harder to preserve the few reminders of our heritage and culture that has been passed on to us in this modern world that we live in today as native peoples of the this Caribbean region joined together by culture and the deep blue seas. Let us move forward into the new horizon using technology to unite us, to share our cultural heritage, to practice meaningful traditions and to continue protection of our forest," he added.
Lewis said if Caribbean First People did not preserve the legacy of their ancestors then they would have failed in their duties.
More on Kalinago history in Dominica
Dominica was the last island to be colonised by the Europeans. The Kalinagos managed to keep the settlers out for more than two centuries. The Kalinago community had been isolated from the rest of Dominica for many years but in 1903, a territory comprising 3,700 acres was created for them.