Pull Quote: “Sometimes when I speak the Wapishana language some of the children look at me like if I fall off the moon; I don’t like that. The children should be able to speak their language.”
By Neil Marks
“This is a warrior you’re looking at.”
With that, Dorothy Faria establishes herself as an Amerindian woman to be reckoned with.
Even though Arawak blood runs through her veins, Dorothy is a Wapishana woman at heart; it’s the way she has always lived.
In fact, she is so passionate about the Wapishana tongue that she becomes incensed when she finds out about young ones in her community who don’t speak the language.
Dorothy’s admirable accomplishments of promoting the Wapishana culture are rooted in Sand Creek, a Wapishana Amerindian village located 60 miles from Lethem, the Guyana/Brazil border community that serves as the main administrative district of Region Nine.
Sand Creek serves as Dorothy’s home base, where she has sought to promulgate the Wapishana culture among the community’s youth who would have otherwise been distracted by prevailing social problems of alcohol abuse and teenage pregnancy.
Dorothy’s “warrior” spirit finds itself in the fact that she has overcome a life-threatening illness, and has used what she considers her second lease on life to pursue the preservation of the Wapishana culture – a culture she had to sneak around village elders to learn.
ARAWAK BLOOD, WAPISHANA ROOTS
Dorothy was born 60 years ago, to Ignatius and Altassi Atkinson, at Moruca Village in the North West District.
Her father, an Arawak Amerindian, worked as a Medical Ranger (now called Medex), and was assigned to visit communities in South and Central Rupununi.
It was while on one of those rounds on a packed horse, laden with medical supplies, that he met the beautiful Altassi, a Brazilian from the border community of Bom Fim. She had come to work on the Rupununi with her brother in whose care she was left after her mother died.
The two got married and their union produced 10 offspring, Dorothy being one of them.
The Atkinson family moved to Sand Creek in Central Rupununi while Dorothy was but a little girl, and so she grew up absorbing the Wapishana culture of that community.
Her insistence on rescuing Sand Creek youths from societal ills through song and dance, mirrors the giant efforts of her mother Altassi, who is said to have provided a home for 83 children, who were either abandoned by their parents or left in her care.
“Our home was like an orphanage,” Dorothy relates, and she added that it created a sort of jealousy among the Atkinson children.
The gigantic family was supported by the family’s livestock farming enterprise, while the Catholic Church provided clothes, Dorothy remembers.
Her mother’s humanitarian efforts were matched by her father, who had as a principle that no visitor should be left without something to eat, or a place to tie their hammock.
Dorothy relates that their home base served as sort of a hub for Rupununi travellers, and if they didn’t walk with a hammock to spend the night, her mother sure had a plentiful supply!
Growing up, she lived the life of a typical Wapishana – farming, fishing, and hunting. And that remains her way of life today.
“There is nothing better that bringing up a fish (her favourite being a fish called “kuti), roasting it and eating it right there by the riverside.”
Dorothy attended the Sand Creek Primary School and stayed on until she wrote examinations to gain the Preliminary Education Certificate and then the College Preceptors qualification. That allowed her to apply for a teaching job.
She would eventually end up teaching for 21 years in Sand Creek and also in the village of Nappi.
Dorothy attended school with Stephen Faria, the grandson of Stephen Campbell – the country’s first Amerindian Parliamentarian. Dorothy and Stephen Faria married in 1974 and a few years later she stopped teaching.
Currently, the Farias are livestock farmers, and Dorothy’s favourite time of the year is branding season, when she would head to the corral to count the number of animals she has.
PROMOTING WAPISHANA CULTURE
Having left her teaching job and working on the farm, Dorothy was not satisfied. Her love for children caused her to reach out to them in a way that will hopefully translate to the preservation of the Wapishana culture.
When then President Dr Cheddi Jagan designated September as Amerindian Heritage Month in 1995, Dorothy took notice. Over the next four years, she observed the celebrations, and then decided that she must get the youths of Sand Creek involved.
So, she decided to start rounding up them, boys and girls. As a result the group “Kaitiwau” was formed with the intention of showcasing the Wapishana culture. Kaitiwau is the Wapishana name for the village of Sand Creek.
While Dorothy grew up on the Wapishana culture, she did not profess to know it all and she wanted to make sure that whatever she did would accurately represent the traditional practices of her adopted Amerindian nation.
She devised ingenious means to learn about the Wapishana culture from the elders of the village and set about choreographing dances and composing songs for the group.
Many who look at Amerindian dances, such as the Mari Mari, see the performers seemingly performing the same movements over and over again. As a result, Dorothy tries to maintain the traditional movements, but add new ones to spice up the choreography and keep the audience interested.
Since the group was formed in 1999, it has performed at numerous functions. This month alone, they travelled to Georgetown for the launch of Amerindian Heritage Month Celebrations and then to the village of Aishalton which held Heritage Day festivities.
Then, the group returned to Georgetown for the performances at the Amerindian Heritage Pageant, which was scheduled for last evening at the National Cultural Centre.
For the past decade, Dorothy has also been designing costumes for the group. That in itself is no easy task. The costumes are designed using spun cotton accessorized with materials from the forest. At times, this involves going into the jungle to gather special bird feathers, flowers, bamboo. For the male members of the group, Tiger skin is used together with “donkey eyes” stones and “buck beads.”
Currently, an estimated 50 youths form Kaitiwau. But it is not all song and dance that takes place in the group. Dorothy teaches sexual and reproductive health and moral education to them, and she even gets the male members into the kitchen.
“I tell them that when they get married their wife could get sick so they will need to cook and take care of her and the children,” she says, laughing heartily.
“I love youths, and being part of this group helps to keep them away from mischief,” she opines.
Dorothy is keenly interested in ensuring that the Wapishana culture, together with its language, is kept alive.
“Sometimes when I speak the Wapishana language some of the children look at me like if I fall off the moon; I don’t like that. The children should be able to speak their language.”
Dorothy is proud of how far Kaitiwau has come, and intends to continue as long as she can to ensure that it continues to grow in preserving and showcasing the Wapishana culture.
“I just love being with the children and they love being with me. Knowing that this group is excelling brings me great joy, and I don’t know what they would have been doing if this group didn’t exist.”
For her work in preserving and promoting Amerindian culture, Dorothy Faria will this year receive a National Award.
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