Leeland Clarkian is an Amerindian elder native to St. Cuthbert’s Mission. He has done much work in educating Amerindians and creating awareness of their culture. On January 24, 2014 I visited St. Cuthbert’s Mission where I met Clarkian for the first time. We spoke of his life, his decision to return to his village, the fate of the Arawakian language and the “othered” state of the Amerindian people in Guyana. In this article, I discuss the “otheredness”.
What do we see when we look at an Amerindian? Do we see a fellow country man or woman? Do we see an equal? Or do we see a “backward buck”? How funny is the “buck joke”? What does the Amerindian man, the Amerindian woman feel when they hear us tell someone “yuh behaving like a buck”? Do we think of these things?
Beneath the “buck joke” there is a tragic story. It is a tragic story of blindness. It is a story of how an entire nation has overlooked the humanness of an entire people. It is a story about the Amerindian people and their otheredness in a land that is home, that feels like home but that does not treat them as a home treats those who dwell in it.
“What do you think they see when they look at Amerindians?” I asked Leeland Clarkian in January.
“They see us as second class citizens,” he answered. There was no hesitation. His eyes met mine, his voice was steady and I recognized truth along with the pain which accompanies it.
Clarkian believes that the use of “buck”, its meaning and the effect of both these things upon the Amerindian psyche will not die any time soon. “(In such situations), gradually there is a standoff. In any minority group this is what happens,” he explained. He insisted that if Guyanese of Indian or African ancestry exchanged places with the Amerindian then they would suffer the same fate.
Recounting an incident from several decades ago while he was in the army, Clarkian told of how he became aware of his “othered” state while still in his teenage years. “I’ve heard this in the army. They said ‘He can’t be one of us’…Yes, we (Amerindians) have been othered. The Indo and Afro band together and then they other the Amerindian. I’ve seen all of that in the army. I got so angry about these things,” he said. But anger is far from what Clarkian feels now. He recognizes that the only way to “rebuff” such things is by sharing his own experiences.
As Clarkian spoke, I could no longer meet his eyes. His truth was a live thing, a thing so real that I could not hide from it. What could I tell him? Could I tell him I was sorry that I too have been guilty of participating in the othering of him and his people, of our people? Was I to be blamed for the socialization process which taught me to see the Amerindian as alien to Guyana and Guyaneseness? Was I to be blamed for a culture that teaches us to treat our indigenous people as exotic creatures with a vaguely interesting history who are here but who are not really a part of here?
Yes, I could tell Clarkian these things, these truths. I could share these things with him because just as I have come to see his plight, he too is able to see mine. This is how we can help each other and rid ourselves of the things that separate us: by sharing our own truths, our own experiences; by seizing to be afraid of the truth.
Does the story end here? No, this is only one layer of the blindness, of the problem. Another layer is embedded within the Amerindian psyche. It is the Amerindian’s inability to see his or her own self. Clarkian said: “I think Guyanese in general and Amerindians, they don’t know their history. How many Guyanese or Amerindians know about the greatness of their people? How much do they know?”
The history of the Amerindian people, like any other people, is riddled with greatness and inspirational stories. It is history, Clarkian believes, which can teach us all to value the Amerindian. But more so, it is this awareness of history and self which is needed to awaken in the Amerindian the feeling of self worth. Unfortunately, the treatment of history in Guyana is another sad story to be told.
And in all this, do Amerindians have a voice? Is there a clear, strong, ever present voice which speaks for the Amerindian? No, there is none. Clarkian hopes that in speaking openly about these things we Guyanese like to hide beneath jokes, a voice will be awakened. He hopes that young men and women will wake up and care about people and country. He hopes that young Amerindian men and women will recognize their worth, teach their country men and women to see that worth and in so doing learn to own the Guyanese identity which belongs equally to them.
Change is not something which will come or happen easily, Clarkian said. The problem goes “deep down” and the change has to start from within. “Let us get up now, bathe, change and get it done. We have to stop making excuses,” he declared.
Where have Guyanese gone? What has happened to our integrity? What has happened to our morals? What has happened to our values? What has happened to these things? Are we really lost? Are these things irretrievable? These are questions Clarkian advises we all ask ourselves.
“We must not forget our morals, our values, our sense of dignity. We must ensure we don’t become haughty. This is a human problem. It happens within,” he said. “Many of our leaders are educated and yet they do not lead. It is because they suffer from this human thing, this human thing that happens within.”
So what do we do in the absence of steady leadership? What do we do when we find ourselves banding together only to other our brothers? We must first admit that we are guilty of the actions which have resulted in our present state. Taking responsibility for our actions translates to a casting off the fear which stifles us and signals that we have embraced truth. This is what we do. We share our truths, inspire our youths and awaken new voices, new leaders.