Ethnographic Fieldwork in Guyana

James Andrew Whitaker (SLA '12, Anthropology PhD student)

This summer I completed my fourth and final season of ethnographic fieldwork with the Makushi of Surama Village, Guyana. This fieldwork is part of my dissertation research at Tulane under the advisement of Professor William Balée. In my dissertation, I am investigating the ethnographic present and the ethnohistorical past of the Makushi society in Guyana in order to elucidate aspects of their continuity and perdurance. The Makushi are a Cariban-language-speaking Amerindian society living in Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela. In Guyana, they inhabit the Rupununi savannahs between the Pakaraima and Kanuku Mountains. They first appear in the written historical record in 1740 in the Roraima region of modern-day Brazil, where they were fleeing from slaving raids by the Portuguese. Their current location in the savannahs of Guyana is likely a result of these raids. 

During the nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, the Makushi were in contact with increasing numbers of European explorers, naturalists, and missionaries. However, in 1969, the Rupununi was closed off due to an uprising. The Makushi territory was only re-opened to outsiders to any significant degree during the 1990s. 

Since then, eco-tourism has developed in the region and is currently the primary source of employment in Surama Village. Situated within the context of the eco-tourism economy, I conduct interviews, oral history collections, and participant observation to gather data on the past and present of the Makushi in Guyana. The ethnohistorical component of the project consists of archival research that I have conducted in the UK, US, and Guyana. I am grateful for the financial support of the School of Liberal Arts, the Department of Anthropology, the Roger Thayer Stone Center for Latin American Studies, the Lewis and Clark Fund, and the Central States Anthropological Society (CSAS) in the completion of this dissertation research.

Rupununi savannah in Guyana, South America
Portrait of the Rupununi savannah, Guyana, South America