Guyanese Amerindians are descendants of the original, pre-Columbian inhabitants of Guyana, which is the third-smallest country in Latin America and one of just three non-island Caribbean nations. There are nine Amerindian tribes spread across 10 administrative regions. Their religious and cultural beliefs are a blend of their indigenous roots and the reshaping they repeatedly underwent after European conquest and a dramatic influx of, among others, Africans and Indians who were brought as slaves and indentured laborers.
Prior to European contact at the end of the 15th century, many now-extinct tribes existed with the remaining nine to form a conglomeration of independent, often conflicting tribes that had different customs, beliefs and languages. They were unified, however, in spiritual beliefs that — like those of most indigenous Americans — were centered on the natural world in which they lived. A reverence for nature, animals, the elements and weather formed the basis of a complex system of beliefs that included supernatural activity on Earth and an afterlife.
Although 90 percent of Amerindians have been crowded onto administrative regions in the nation's interior, many tribes lived for centuries in lush coastal areas. Of all the natural elements, Amerindians have a special and historical kinship with water. Many tribes lived, and some still live, in structures built on stilts above water. They have many words for water and the literal translation for the Waraus tribe (probably the oldest in Guyana) is "Water People." Expert fishermen, Amerindians perfected a method of fishing with poisonous plants. In a sad irony, one of the main threats facing them today is drinking water polluted by unregulated mining.
Shamans play a key role in virtually every variation of Amerindian religious and spiritual practice. The shaman, or medicine man, is of monumental importance in Amerindian culture. He not only provides council in an advisory role to the chief, but is also the bridge between the physical world and the supernatural spirit world. He is charged with healing — both physically and spiritually — tribal members and blessing their hunting and fishing expeditions, as well as empowering their warriors before battle.
When Africans were brought to Guyana as slaves and forced to labor on sugar plantations, they brought with them folk religions based in a belief in magic, good spells and bad spells, animal sacrifice and spirits referred to by South Americans as Obeah. Like many African beliefs that took root in the Caribbean, Obeah spread to the native populations as the two persecuted ethnicities interacted, intermarried and interbred. Some Amerindians incorporated Obeah into their own belief system of hybrid beliefs.
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