In May this year, the chief of an ancient Caribbean people came up with a drastic solution to protect their heritage—and their future.
Chief Charles Williams of the Carib—or Kalinago—people of Dominica said they should not marry non-Kalinago people.
“The impact of colonisation has been so strong on us that if we do not take steps to protect the race, it will be soon extinct,” he said.
Extinct is a word that the academics who study this people would never use, but Chief Williams has little doubt that the Kalinago could be in danger of disappearing altogether.
The Carib were famed for their skills as sailors and warriors and gave their name to the Caribbean Sea.
There are now about 3,000 tribal members left on the island, which has a total population of some 70,000—and the chief’s radical views have found support amongst other leaders.
“Well, for some people this is a ticklish issue,” says Miranda Langlais, who refers to herself as the Kalinago’s cultural queen.
She, like several of the elders, thinks that the Kalinago women hold the key and are to some extent to blame for the tribe’s woes.
“You go out there, you see a nice white guy and you fall in love,” says Miranda, talking about the young Kalinago women who have left or have married non-Kalinago men.
“You have to stick to your people, you have to stick to your traditions and that’s the only way.”
But that is not the only way for many of the Kalinago’s younger generation who are keen to escape poor living conditions.
Take 17-year-old Arnique Volmand who has big plans for her future.
She does not envisage staying on the tribe’s 3,700-acre territory (1,500 hectares), where poverty is a problem.
“I want to become a pilot and I don’t think I will be staying here,” she says.
Arnique helps her mother run a small shop on the reserve. It is little more than a wooden shack clinging to one of the island’s steep volcanic hillsides.
“They want us to stay here to marry our own tribe but I don’t think that will happen. It’s already happening that we are marrying outsiders,” she says.
“They cannot tell us what to do. If we want to be pilots or nurses, we have to leave the island.”
In a globalised world, where even the most unspoilt of Caribbean islands is feeling increasing influence from the outside, the survival of the Kalinago has divided the tribe.
Minister for Carib Affairs Kelly Graneau describes himself as an internationalist.
“I never pick a fight with my chief in public,” says Mr Graneau, the first politician to hold a full cabinet post on behalf of the Kalinago.
“The world is getting smaller and smaller, it’s almost at our doorstep. If we were to legislate and say a Carib man must marry a Carib woman, it means that the race will eventually finish, because your stocks will get thinner and thinner.”
Mr Graneau is encouraging the younger tribal members to leave the island to be educated.
He is putting his faith in those who will then return to the Carib territory, bringing with them ideas and a real sense of hope for the future.
Young men like Che Fredrick who hopes to market Kalinago herbal tea and medicinal plants.
Che is 21 years old and holds his people’s traditions dear.
“Our culture is very important. Basically I’m finding ways to create sustainable employment for the people of our community,” he says.
Che is not alone. He is a member of the heritage society here and he is bright, educated and determined to place the Kalinago people on the world map.
Getting the few tourists who do visit Dominica to make the Carib territory their first port of call is essential and the key to that lays with the tribe’s next generation.
There is a generation gap here and while the elders’ suggestion that the Kalinago people marry only each other has not gone down well with many of the younger members, there are those who are now going to university and returning to their heartland full of ideas and enthusiasm.
The Kalinago tribe have lived through colonisation, disease and slavery and it is a minor miracle that they have survived to this day.
But do not be surprised if you see Kalingo herbal tea on the shelves of your local supermarket soon.
As for the intermarriage of the tribe and the idea of legislating that as a rule?
That does not look likely and as several Kalinago people told me: “You can’t tell someone who they should or shouldn’t love.”