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From Ole Miss to the Rupununi Savannahs: Ole Miss Instructor Studies Indigenous South American Tribe

Cattle in the Rupununi
Cattle in the Rupununi

Not long after I finished teaching my classes in anthropology at Ole Miss this year, I packed my bags and headed off to the Rupununi savannahs of Guyana for the summer.

This is my fourth year to go to Guyana, where I am collecting data for a research project on the history and culture of an indigenous society known as the Makushi. It is a long way from the academic ivory tower to here, where I am currently sitting in a thatched hut that has been fitted with solar panels and an electrical generator for Internet access. When I met Dr. Meek at an art reception in the Delta this past semester, he kindly suggested that I write a bit about my research and send it to him over the summer. Now, sitting amidst savannah and surrounding rain forest in the interior of Guyana, I am making good on my promise to do so.

Portrait of the Rupununi
Portrait of the Rupununi

My research in Guyana involves interviews with Makushi persons, both old and young, and records their experiences and knowledge. I inquire into how the Makushi have continued, as well as changed, as a distinct indigenous society, in the past and present times. This project combines historical research in various archives, where I examine the original hand-written accounts of those who traveled to the Makushi territory in the past, with ethnographic fieldwork, which I am currently carrying out in the Makushi territory. The narratives that emerge from these investigations with the Makushi depict a society that is in flux between a receding past and an equivocal present.

Cassava Bread with Cassava Sifter
Cassava Bread with Cassava Sifter

The Makushi speak a Cariban language and live in Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela. In Guyana, formerly British Guiana, they inhabit the savannahs and tropical forests between the Pakaraima and Kanuku mountain ranges. The Makushi first appear in the historical record in 1740 near the Rio Branco River. They entered their current territory in Guyana by the mid-eighteenth century and experienced substantial contact with missionaries, explorers, and others during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the 1830s and 1840s, they were in extensive contact with Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries. These remain the two primary expressions of Christianity among the Makushi. In 1966, British Guiana became the independent country of Guyana. Following a revolt in 1969, the Rupununi was largely closed to outsiders and the Makushi experienced a period of relative isolation.

Makushi Ceramic Vessel
Makushi Ceramic Vessel

Since the 1990s, as the Rupununi has opened up to the outside world, the Makushi have experienced increasing interaction with outsiders. This has largely occurred through the development of tourism in the region. This interaction has led to notable changes in many Makushi villages, where roads, bridges, airplane landing strips, motorized vehicles, and various other accouterments of modernity are now visible aspects of the landscape. In many villages, the Makushi language is now seldom spoken among the young and the traditional ways of life are gradually receding amidst the materialities of the modern world. Although development has historically waxed and waned in the Rupununi, the Makushi currently stand face-to-face with modernity like never before.

Matapi Used for Processing Cassava
Matapi Used for Processing Cassava

In August, I will be back in Mississippi and teaching anthropology classes again at Ole Miss for the fall semester. In a curious sort of way, the Rupununi savannahs always remind me of home. As I interview elderly Makushi men and women about their experiences with modernity, there is always a haunting sense of our own past and an awareness of what is lost on the blinding train of supposed progress. Of course, one should be careful to avoid becoming ensnared in sociocultural evolutionism. However, despite the many differences of culture, place, and history, we share common experiences of modernity with others throughout the world. And like others, we have seen our own lifeways and agrarian traditions slowly recede and diminish amidst the rising steel and cement specters of the modern world. Yet, despite the many costs and evident spiritual losses that we continually incur, we continue our hazy passage on the train. And that brings me back to the Rupununi, where the tangled seeds of modernity again lie growing in their infancy.

Mountain in the Rupununi
Mountain in the Rupununi

Whitaker

James Andrew Whitaker teaches classes in anthropology at the University of Mississippi and is completing a doctorate at Tulane University.

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