Guyana is an Amerindian word which means Land of many waters. September is Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana and has been officially recognized as such since 1995. The word Amerindian is a combination of the words American Indian. This is the name that was given to the indigenous people of the Americas, the Caribbean and the Guianas by the European colonizers who arrived in this part of the world on the heels of “explorer” Christopher Columbus and others of his ilk. We know that Columbus did not “discover” any new lands when he arrived in this part of the world since these lands were already populated. What many people surprisingly still do not know is that Columbus was lost when he happened upon these shores. He was on his way to India and with the arrogance of Europeans, on landing and deciding that he was in India named the people he met “Indians.” The name obviously stuck and more than five hundred year later the indigenous people of the “Americas” remain “Indians.”Guyana formerly “British Guiana” also fondly known as “BG” or sarcastically sometimes referred to as “Bookers Guiana” in days of yore is the only English speaking country on the South American continent. Guyana is also home to nine groups of Amerindians who mostly live in Guyana’s interior area of rainforests and savannah land. The Guyana census of 2002 puts the Amerindian population at 9% of the country’s inhabitants. The vast majority of other Guyanese (90%) live on the narrow coastland. Guyana’s 83,000 square miles is home to less than 800,000 people, the 2012 census puts the number at 795,369. The petroglyphs found near Kurupukari in the Iwokrama rainforest in Guyana prove that Guyana’s indigenous people (Arawaks, Arecunas, Akawaios, Caribs, Macushis, Patamonas, Wapisianas, Warraus and Wai-Wais) have lived on the South American continent since at least 5000 BCE.
As a child attending Primary School (Elementary/Grade School) in Guyana we read about the Arawaks in our “reading books.” Those “Caribbean Reader” books were a series which began from the Preparatory Division A (Grade one) with Mr. Joe a farmer and his animals Miss Tibs (a cat) Mother Hen and her chick Percy, Mr. Dan (a dog) Master Willy (a pig) Mr. Grumps (a goat) Miss Peg (a donkey) and Mrs. Cuddy (a cow.) In Book 2 which we read in Standard 2 (Grade 4) we read the story of Rainstorm – an Arawak story explaining the reasons for rainfall. The story told of an Arawak woman who became stuck between the sky and earth and when it rained she was crying because she could not return to the sky or come down to earth. In the series of Caribbean Readers there were other stories about some of the indigenous people of the Caribbean and South America (the Arawaks and Caribs.) These stories did not include the other native people of Guyana (Arecunas, Akawaios, Macushis, Patamonas, Wapisianas, Warraus and Wai-Wais) who I did not know about until my father (a police officer) was transferred to the Rupununi. In the Rupununi Savannahs where we lived for several years we met several groups of Amerindian people and learned of their culture and their history.In the Rupununi which was somewhat isolated from the mainland of Guyana, the Amerindian people frequently crossed the border which Guyana shares with Brazil because families lived in both countries and spoke English, Portuguese and their native languages. Amerindians and their culture thrived in the Rupununi where every year at Easter while Guyanese on the coastland celebrated with kite flying the Amerindians celebrated with a rodeo. The vaqueros (cowboys) who worked on the various ranches scattered across the Rupununi would display their skills at staying seated on a bucking bronco, fastening a lasso on a wild bull and riding same, milking wild cows, racing and subduing greasy pigs and many other entertaining activities. The Rupununi Rodeo was the highlight of the year for everyone living the region. The staple food for the Amerindians was farine and tasso. Farine is made from grated cassava the after the cassava juice has been squeezed out; what is left is sifted and then parched in a heated flat pan leaving grains which is eaten with tasso (dried beef.) The Amerindian culture was also expressed through dance performances and language. In 1977 African Guyanese linguist Dr. Walter F. Edwards now a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, did a study of the Akawaio and Arecuna languages through the University of Guyana. Together with another African Guyanese linguist Dr. Kean Gibson who is now a professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of the West Indies they published An introduction to the Akawaio and Arekuna peoples of Guyana.
Interest in Guyana’s indigenous people and their inclusion in the Guyanese society also led to the Guyana government including the Amerindian word Mashramani as the celebration of Guyana’s Republic Day on February 23. Mashramani means "the celebration of a job well done." Timehri which means “paintings and drawings on the rock” was the name of Guyana’s national airport (named by the then Guyanese government to honour the indigenous people of Guyana, changed from Atkinson in 1969) until 1997 when the new Guyana government elected in 1992 made another name change eliminating the Amerindian name.In 1972 the Umana Yana which means "Meeting place of the people" was commissioned by then Prime Minister of Guyana Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. The Umana Yana was built by a team of about 60 members of the Wai-Wai people. The famous benab which was modelled on the traditional home of the Wai-Wai people was located on Main Street, Kingston in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city. This historic landmark stood 55 feet (16.78 metres) high and was made from thatched allibanna and manicole palm leaves and wallaba posts lashed together with mukru, turu and nibbi vines. There were no ladders, nails or hammers used in the construction of the Umana Yana and when it was finished it occupied an area of 460 square metres, which made it the largest benab in Guyana. The Umana Yana was specially constructed to serve as a V.I.P. lounge and recreation spot during the Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference held in Georgetown in August 1972. Over the 42 years that the Umana Yana stood in majestic splendour and a testament to the skill and representing the recognition of Amerindian culture in Guyana, it was used as an exhibition and conference centre.
Unfortunately the historic Umana Yana is no longer standing in pride of place in Georgetown. In the midst of celebrating Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana the historic building was which was a testament to the high regard in which Guyana’s Amerindian people and their culture are held, was destroyed by a mysterious fire. On September 9 the building burned reportedly with 15 minutes. There is of course great hope and anticipation that the Umana Yana will be rebuilt. Representatives from the Peoples National Congress Reform which is the political party of the late LFS Burnham who commissioned the construction of the Umana Yana issued a statement following the destruction of the historic building: “The PNCR has a proud association with this historic landmark, which was commissioned by our Founder Leader Forbes Burnham in 1972 and was erected by a team of about sixty Wai–Wai Amerindians, one of the nine indigenous tribes of Guyana. Everything must be done to ensure that this historic and iconic landmark is rebuilt as soon as possible.”The Guyana government has promised to rebuild the Umana Yana. A representative speaking on behalf of the Guyana government is quoted as saying: “We are happy that no one was injured and we will be working along with the fire service to determine the cause of the fire…we have to include this in next year’s budget because this is an important heritage building for us and we would want to see it erected back as fast as possible.”