Learning about Indigenous Kalinago Culture and History in Dominica

This 'Ajoupa' is a traditional shelter and welcoming landmark at the Kalinago Barana Aute in Dominica.

This ‘Ajoupa’ is a traditional shelter and welcoming landmark at the Kalinago Barana Aute in Dominica.

On the Sunday morning of my weekend at Beau Rive   near Castle Bruce, I eagerly drove through the Kalinago (Carib) Territory to revisit a very

Kalinago guides, Ms. Frances and Ms. Paris take Gwendominica and 25 visitors on a tour of the model village in English, French and Creole!

Kalinago guides, Ms. Frances (l) and Ms. Paris took Gwendominica and 25 visitors on a tour of the model village in English, French and Creole!

important cultural site in Dominica. After 20 minutes on the road, I arrived at the Kalinago Barana Aute, which means Kalinago (Model) Village by the Sea. I was greeted by my guide named Ms. Frances with ‘Mabrika!’ which translates to ‘Welcome!’ in English.

She then took me into a room where the  walls  were lined with maps, charts and photos.  Ms. Frances proceeded to explain a considerable amount about Kalinago history and culture.  I wish I had taken a notebook with me!  However, it is possible to learn more about these indigenous people through various informative web sites, including this article by local historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch, found here.

The Kalinago people paddled  from South America through the Caribbean islands over 1,000 years ago. When they first glanced at Dominica’s mountainous topography, they called her ‘Waitukubuli’, which means ‘tall is her body’. Guide Frances emphatically stressed that it was not Columbus who “discovered” Dominica when he sighted the island on his second voyage in 1493: the Kalinagos were already here!

Dominica was accurately named  Waitukubuli by the Kalinago people when they first saw the mountainous island over 1,000 years ago.  It means 'tall is her body'.

Dominica was accurately named Waitukubuli by the Kalinago people when they first saw the mountainous island over 1,000 years ago. It means ‘tall is her body’.

During British colonial rule, a tract of land (almost 4,000 acres)  in the northeastern part of Dominica was given to the Kalinagos in the early 20th century.  It was  then called the Carib Reserve, but is now called the Kalinago Territory, as it was the Europeans who referred to these indigenous people as ‘Carib’.  Today about 3,000 inhabitants live in eight villages in this specific  area.

One of the panels in the interpretive room at Kalinago Barana Aute.  The baskets, made from a grass called larouma, all serve specific purposes.

One of the panels in the interpretive room at Kalinago Barana Aute. The basket is made from a grass called larouma. There is a traditional hunting bow on the far left (blue) and a drum (centre right).

I was extremely impressed that they have preserved their culture very well, and continue with traditions such as canoe-building, basket-making, carving, pottery-making, farming, fishing, dancing, drumming and

Teresa weaves a basket from the larouma reed.  These vessels have a variety of functions.  They are available for sale throughout the Kalinago Territory

Teresa was weaving a basket from the larouma reed. These vessels  are crafted in various shapes ans sizes and have a variety of functions. They are available for sale throughout the Kalinago Territory

herbal medicine.  When Ms. Frances finished describing the content of the graphically detailed wall panels, she suggested that I have a look around in the crafts area while we waited for the large group to arrive. There, I casually chatted with the attendants, and (unsurprisingly) the subject of chikungunya came up! As these  are people very familiar with the healing powers of many of Dominica’s plants, I sought their advice about natural remedies for the arthritic-like pain that persists with this illness. An elder lady immediately

recommended pure bay leaf oil mixed with virgin coconut oil.  I purchased some from her and am delighted to say with faithful application to my tender joints,  it has alleviated the pain considerably.  I am able to walk with less of a limp now – soon I’ll be back on the hiking trails again!

Then I sauntered over to the canteen area, as I felt a  little refreshment would energize me for the  guided walk around the grounds.  The kitchen staff was busy preparing lunch for the organized tour that  I was waiting for, and didn’t have any juice made yet.  However, they offered me the juiciest, sweetest,  fresh pineapple slices that really ‘hit the spot’!  I had just finished this tasty treat when the French visitors appeared.  Ms. Frances sought me out and I returned to the interpretation centre.  This time, Ms. Paris gave the presentation in French and Creole.  It was the perfect situation in which to practice my French comprehension skills. Besides, I had already been through it in English and by now had a thorough grasp of pertinent details about Dominica’s first people.

Here is a cleverly carved serpent  from natural wood that looks very real to me!

Here is a cleverly carved serpent from natural wood that looks very real to me!

Then we headed out en masse and our guides stopped us at various points along the way.

They explained about the larouma reed which is used in crafting the beautiful baskets. We were also shown vetiver grass, which is dried and used for thatching roofs and making mats.  The traditional dug-out canoe, carved from the trunk of a gommier tree was most impressive.  The sticky ‘gum’ from this tree forms a natural sealant on the wood, making this fishing craft waterproof!

Vetiver grass has multiple uses when dried, including thatch and durable mats.

Vetiver grass has multiple uses when dried, including thatch and durable mats.

This traditional dug-out canoe from a gommier tree is definitely seaworthy!

This traditional dug-out canoe from a tall gommier tree is definitely seaworthy!

In this particular dance, the young Kalinago is moving like a hummingbird, which forms part of a traditional legend.

In this particular dance, the young Kalinago moved like a hummingbird, which formed part of a traditional legend.

The young ladies of this Kalinago dance troupe expressed aspects of their culture with passion and grace.

The young ladies of this Kalinago dance troupe expressed aspects of their culture with passion and grace.

As we walked along the ancient ocean-side ‘Carib trace’, we then entered the communal Karbet, which means ‘meeting place’.  We sat down in front of a small stage. There, the Young Kalinago Dancers entertained us with   graceful movements and strong rhythmic drumming which represented

The methodical drumming accompanied the dancers with precision and energy.

The methodical drumming accompanied the dancers with precision and energy.

traditional stories of the spirit  and animal world as well as  practices such as harvesting and  cassava bread-making .

I did have an opportunity to sample some delicious cassava bread after the performance.  In fact, I bought a large loaf and devoured the whole thing very quickly! Its slightly sweet grainy taste really appealed to me.

This is the wood-fired oven where the cassava bread was baked.

This is the wood-fired oven where the cassava bread was baked (on top).

I did not take a photo while I was eating, but  you will gain an appreciation of how this starchy root vegetable is processed into a nutritious baked good by reading more about Kalinago cuisine here.

There are many magnificent coastal views in the Kalinago Territory.  It is possible to experience numerous wonderful vistas while hiking Segment 6 of the Waitukubuli National Trail.

There are many magnificent coastal views in the Kalinago Territory. It is possible to experience numerous wonderful vistas while hiking Segment 6 of the Waitukubuli National Trail.

We appreciated the magnificent coastal views as we continued along on the  ancient track.  Then the mystical  Isulukati    Falls at the mouth of the Crayfish River took our collective breath away as we watched its rushing waters merge with the rolling Atlantic surf a short distance away.  I was particularly intrigued by a traditional cleansing ritual of these indigenous people.  Our guides told us that on the first Friday of every month, some residents stand in the ‘Mermaid ‘Pool below the waterfall, and face the ocean, thereby washing away any bad ‘karma’ that may have come into a person’s life.  I wished that I could take part!

The Isulukati Waterfalls at Kalinago Barana Aute  are said to have mythical and magical powers.

The Isulukati Waterfall at Kalinago Barana Aute is said to have mythical and magical powers.

A short while later, we came upon some fascinating carvings, which were created to honour some of the past chiefs of the Kalinago Territory.  Their faces adorn this skilled handiwork!

I was very drawn to these outstanding carvings of past Kalinago chiefs.

I was very drawn to these outstanding carvings of  faces of past Kalinago chiefs.

At the conclusion of this detailed and informative tour, I  sincerely thanked Kalinago guides Ms. Frances and Ms. Paris for enthusiastically providing so much background about their culture.  I admired and respected their earnest desire to share the history of their people. The energetic performance of the young dancers and drummers was equally impressive.

Before I left the grounds of the Kalinago Barana Aute, I expressed appreciation for the excellent tour to Manager Kevin Dangleben.  I was delighted to better understand the history and traditions of Dominica’s indigenous people.

I strongly encourage  residents and visitors to spend some time at this extremely important interpretive site on Dominica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Discovering Dominica’s Delights*

Northwestern Coastline of Dominica from Coconut Beach on Prince Rupert Bay (Picard area of Portsmouth in the distance, Morne au Diable in background). Photo by Edwin Whitford

When I first sailed along the west coast of Dominica and marveled at its green forests and majestic peaks, I understood how Columbus must have felt when he first glimpsed the island on his second voyage in 1493.  Dominicans proudly exclaim that if this great explorer were to return to the Caribbean today, this country would probably be the only one he would still recognize.

That is because the self-proclaimed “Nature Island,” located between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique is not overly developed.  Hotels are cozy  and intimate, people are friendly and there are no crowded beaches in this English-speaking land.

Above all, visitors will find  unique  natural attractions which can be seen either on a drive around the country or by taking a hike on any number of trails that crisscross the island.  The recently opened Waitukubuli National Trail  is  one-of-a-kind in the Caribbean.  It consists of 14 segments of varying degrees of difficulty and lengths that traverse the island from north to south over a total of 184 kilometers (115 miles).

Freshwater Lake. Photo by Edwin Whitford

Morne Trois Pitons National Park in the island’s interior became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Its unspoiled features will appeal to nature lovers and adventure seekers of all ages and abilities.  Within the park’s boundaries are five major mountains which are almost 5,000 feet high, one of which is named Morne Trois Pitons.  As well, the Boeri and Freshwater Lakes are found at higher elevations, as are some towering waterfalls, the spectacular Valley of Desolation, the second largest Boiling Lake in the world and other geothermal areas.  The Smithsonian Institute has previously described Dominica as “a giant plant laboratory, unchanged for 10,000 years” (Fodor’s Caribbean, 1996).  You will understand why when you see the pristine forests and vegetation, uncommon wildlife and 360 degree breathtaking vistas.

Springfield is now a research centre which is nestled in the mountains on the edge of the rainforest.

It would take many days, perhaps even months (and possibly years!) to discover all of Dominica’s ecological delights.  During my first few years in Dominica, I explored the island by foot and transport from my home base at the serene Springfield Guest House, a former plantation  nestled on the edge of the rainforest.  Right away, I admired the fascinating terrain and gained insights into my adopted country’s culture.

Dominica is known for its underwater sites, as well as the above-ground ones and is know as a diver’s delight.  I do not dive, but I enjoy looking just beneath the surface of the sea.  For a bit of easy snorkeling, I traveled to Scott’s Head, a point of land on the southern coast of the island.  From only a few feet offshore, I floated above dozens of flashy tropical fishes.  As I was on my own in the water and not a deep-sea diver,  I did not venture out to the steep cliff, which drops off along the face of an eroded volcano.

Soufriere Bay, with Scott’s Head in the distance. Photo by Edwin Whitford

The taxi trip there and back along the southwest coast was also awesome. Between Pointe Michel and Champagne Beach, we drove between barren gray cliffs and the calm Caribbean Sea on a very narrow road.  The scenes constantly changed as we journeyed through seemingly mystical forests (where some episodes from Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 were filmed in 2005).

Gwendominica soaking in the large pool at Soufriere Sulphur Springs. Photo by Edwin Whitford

While I was in the southwesterly part of Dominica, I totally relaxed myself by taking a long hot soak in the large mineral pool at the Soufriere Sulphur Springs Eco-Site.  The mild smell was not overwhelming.  I was so relaxed that I fell asleep in the taxi on the way back to Springfield!

Next morning, I awoke refreshed and enthusiastically donned my hiking boots for the lengthy trek to Middleham Falls in Morne Trois Pitons National Park.  It would take about five leisurely hours (round trip) on foot from Springfield via the  Cochrane village route , but I was not in any rush. I was now on island time!

A certified guide told me much about the flora and fauna of the area as we moved deeper into the rainforest.  I saw a cuckoo and the elusive rodent called an agouti.  I also heard the plaintive call of the mountain whistler who hides high in the treetops. Gigantic tropical plants such as palms and ferns shaded the track.

Gwendominica crossing one of the rivulets en route to Middleham Falls. Photo by Edwin Whitford

Although I was in reasonably good shape,  the biggest challenge for me was fording several mountain streams while keeping my boots dry.  A little coaching from my guide and some new-found confidence on my part enabled me to cross the running rivers by hopping from rock to rock.  I was soaked with sweat and weary from exertion when I first glimpsed Middleham Falls.  It literally took my breath away! This powerful cascade plummeted several

Middleham Falls Pool. Photo by Edwin Whitford.

hundred feet into a sparkling pool at its base.  It was a shock to the system to plunge into that seemingly frigid water beneath the falls, but I soon warmed up on the surrounding rocks in the brilliant sunshine. In a short while, I was refreshed enough to begin the return journey.  Since that first expedition, my love affair with hiking in Dominica continues to thrive!

Another day trip took me inland through the Carib Territory where about three thousand Kalinagos live on 3,700 acres of land on the northeast side of the island.  These indigenous people are said to be the last of their kind in the world.  They continue to practise traditional skills such as farming, weaving and the building of ocean-going dug-out canoes for fishing.  (There is now a model village called Kalinago Barana Aute which offers tours, craft demonstrations and traditional performances to the public).  There were also many opportunities to buy beautifully crafted pieces, such as baskets from these friendly folks.

Northeastern coastline from the bottom of L’escalier Tete Chien, Sineku, Carib Territory

On the Atlantic coast, the view was spellbinding from the top of L’escalier Tete Chien (‘The Snake’s Staircase’ – there is a Kalinago legend about this site) at Sineku.  This hardened lava flow looks like a serpent’s head crawling up from the ocean. It looks like a natural staircase down to the sea.  I did not attempt it that day (I have a couple of times since), but I admired others who maneuvered the sometimes slippery steps.

As we headed back to home base, we passed through banana groves, flower gardens and endless panoramas in every direction. The small, winding road blended into the greenery, giving a sense of intimacy with nature.  My reward near the end of the day was a dip in the Emerald Pool, an easy 15 minute walk on a groomed trail from the parking lot.  In the slanting rays of the afternoon sun, the waters did glisten like a jewel.  As there was no one else by the pretty waterfall, I felt as if I had captured a piece of this pristine beauty for myself, at least for a few moments.

Emerald Pool

The Nature Island has many earthly treasures.  Dominica is definitely – and naturally – delightful!

* An earlier version of this article was published in Caribbean Compass, January 1999, page 19.

The adventures described here represent some of my very first impressions of Dominica.  I can assure you that they are definitely lasting! Many of the pictures here were taken on later excursions than the above-described.  My brother’s photos are much appreciated. He’s been to Dominica three times!

If you wish to visit any of the sites or go exploring while visiting Dominica, I strongly urge you to take a certified taxi or hire a qualified guide.  Not only will you be more secure, but you will gain tremendous knowledge and insights about the Nature Island from these informative professionals.