How Did The Garifuna Become An Indigenous People? – Reconstructing The Cultural Persona Of An African-Native American People In Central America

How Did The Garifuna Become An Indigenous People? – Reconstructing The Cultural Persona Of An African-Native American People In Central America

  • How Did The Garifuna Become An Indigenous People? – Reconstructing The Cultural Persona Of An African-Native American People In Central America

by Joseph Palacio

The reason for asking the question: “How did the Garifuna become an indigenous people?” Is that they are black within a region, highly conscious of skin color, that ascribes indigenous identity only to persons with olive skin color. This question of skin will always problematic, specially in the perception of other indigenous people, who have accused the Garifuna of usurping an identity that is not truly theirs.


Another reason to ask the question is to understand how the Garifuna have maintained continuity in their identity in the face of destructive experiences, each of which could have derailed them from the track of being one people with one identity. These experiences include migration across large areas in northeast South America, spilling over into the Eastern Caribbean, systematic genocide in St. Vincent, massive displacement across hundreds of kilometers in the Atlantic Ocean, and over 200 years of pervasive racial discrimination in Central America leading many persons to forsake their cultural identity altogether and join the majority within their respective societies.


The short answer to the question how did the Garifuna become indigenous is that they added the label “indigenous” onto themselves when they and other bio-cultural groups of Native American descent within the Circum-Caribbean acquired the generic term in the late 1980s. Beforehand, these people, also called Amerindians, had used their own traditional names, such as Maya, Kekchi, and Garifuna. The acceptance of “indigenous” came through the influence of indigenous activists in the political movement originating in North and Central America. One regional indicator was the formation in 1989 of the Caribbean Organization of Indigenous Peoples (COIP) by peoples in the former British colonies from Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent, Dominica, and Belize (Palacio 2006: 215-234). The larger global validation came in 1992 when the COIP was accepted as member organization of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) (Palacio 2006: 215-234). The use of the designation “indigenous peoples” has been refined by multilateral agencies including the United Nations and the Organization of American States.


This essay follows on the theme of this gathering – “An inquiry into the notion of persona – reconstructing the notion of persona in Mexico and Central America” – with a focus on the Garifuna. I aim to amplify the scope of reconstructing cultural identity in three ways. Firstly, I trace the formation of the cultural matrix of an indigenous people over several hundred years and several hundred square kilometers. Secondly, I accentuate the efforts of the people to consistently retain their cultural identity, while taking advantage of opportunities available in the larger society. Thirdly, I integrate my own experiences in the consolidation of Garifuna peoplehood in Belize within the past thirty years.


There is implicit in this essay the spirit of an odyssey that starts with the trajectory of a people and ends as my own personal experience as scholar and activist among indigenous peoples. This paper is still very much a work in progress. I thank the organizers of this gathering whose initiative has helped me to sharpen my focus on the definition and formation of social and cultural identity among a people, who have faced overwhelming odds for thousands of years. I am grateful for questions and comments as I move forward.


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How to Cite:


Palacio, J. (2007). How did the Garifuna become indigenous people?-Reconstructing the cultural persona of an African-native american people in Central America. Revista Pueblos y Fronteras Digital.  Retrieved 4, from



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