Garifuna Research Paper

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The population of people known as Garifuna, Black Carib, Charaib, and—as they refer to themselves in Belize, Central America—as Garinagu, is the product of ethnogenesis (a genetic and cultural mixture) resulting from the collision of the Atlantic slave trade, colonial settlement, and the region’s aboriginal people. In the 1600s a cargo of slaves was shipwrecked off the coast of either Dominica and/or the Island of St. Vincent located in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean. These escapees found refuge among the aboriginal Carib Indians, and, over time, recruited others—mostly men—through raids of local plantations. This pattern of marronage produced a new group that populates Central America, specifically Honduras; Bluefield, Nicaragua; Livingston, Guatemala; and Belize. In 1974 William V. Davidson estimated the Garifuna population at 70,000 to 80,000 with the largest concentrations in the Honduras and Belize. In 1998 Mark Moberg placed the Garinagu population at 120,000. And in 2000, Pamela Conley estimated there were 200,000 people living in Honduras, with 15,000 and 6,000 residing in Belize and Guatemala respectively (Conley 2000). Smaller groups of a few thousand live in Nicaragua and the Windward Islands. Late-twentieth-century migration accounts for the presence of Garinagu in Brooklyn, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

The Garinagu’s arrival to the coastal countries of Central America is a testimonial of group survival and what Moberg terms “their extraordinary adaptability” (1998, p. 1014). A hunter gatherer society, who were “fiercely independent” (1998, p. 1014), the British violently exiled them from the Island of St. Vincent in 1797 after intense military engagement that included the First Carib War (1772–1773) and the Second Carib War (1795–1796). Land disputes marred their relationship with the British, in stark contrast to their peaceful relationship with the French. At the end of the second war, the British, says anthropologist Joseph Palacio, “viciously extricated … [Garinagu] men, women, and children from their hideouts” (Palacio 2000, p. 4). Approximately 4,338 people, who were not among those decimated during the final altercation, were temporarily held on the desolate island of Baliceaux before being exiled to Roatan in Central America. From Roatan, which the British clearly intended as a place for their demise, the Garifuna with Spanish assistance migrated to Honduras. In 1832 a small group left the (Spanish) Honduras for Belize (formerly the British Honduras). What has emerged from this interaction of African and aboriginal Arawak/Carib Indians is an adaptive group with several unique cultural characteristics.


Garinagu speak the gendered language of Garifuna with different dialects for men and women, an aspect reflective of the social ecology of the Island of St. Vincent, whereby “Red” Caribs appropriated Arawak women as war prizes and intermarried with them—with women preserving their Arawak dialect. In the early twenty-first century the language retains this distinctive gender feature and reflects both African and aboriginal Arawak/Carib Indian influences. Garinagu are noted in the region for their “linguistic versatility,” and are often fluent in multiple languages (Garifuna, Spanish, English [in Belize], and indigenous Maya languages). This multilingualism has translated itself into professional capital, with many becoming educators and teachers, especially in the rural (Maya) areas of Central America.


Palacio describes Garinagu as an anomaly because of the amalgamation of aboriginal cultural traits and African cultural survivals (2000, p. 2). Garifuna myth and folklore reveal strong aboriginal Indian components while diet reflects many West Indian Afro-American food ways. Historically reliant on a subsistence lifestyle, cassava carries symbolic significance as a diet staple, and as the food that enabled Garinagu to survive exile. Cassava is especially important to the dügü ceremony, a sacred religious ritual used to appease dead ancestors after a family experiences a difficult period; all relatives are required to attend the dügü, a communal event designed to reestablish spiritual, physical, and social equilibrium. Contemporary Garinagu religious practices reflect the syncretism of African ancestor worship and Roman Catholic beliefs.

Garinagu Today

With the exception of Belize, Garinagu remain politically and economically marginalized in most of the countries where they reside. A reputation for resistance caused British colonial administrators to separate them from other colonized groups of Blacks—a divide and conquer strategy that in the twenty-first century translates into ethnic tensions between Garinagu and other Africandescended populations; for example, in Belize, there is very little intermarriage between African-descended Creoles and Garinagu. The group’s strong African phenotype caused some to question the validity of their claims of aboriginal ancestry. However, in 1992 they applied for membership within the Ottawa-based World Council for Indigenous Peoples and were accepted. Preservation of the Garinagu cultural heritage, especially language and the dügü ritual, as well as the struggle for land rights, continues to be a priority. The pervasiveness of the punta, however, throughout Central America, a dance derived from the dügü, attests to the ways in which even marginalized cultures have an impact on the larger societies.


  1. Conley, Pamela. March 2000. The Garifuna: A Changing Future. 0003garifuna.html.
  2. Gonzelez, Nancie L. (Solien). 1979. Garifuna Settlement in New York: A New Frontier. International Migration Review
  3. issue 13 (2): 255–263.
  4. Interview with Joseph O. Palacio. April–May 2002. The C.A.C. Review (Newsletter of the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink) 3 (3–4). 2002.html.
  5. McClaurin, Irma. 2000. Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  6. Moberg, Mark. Winter 1992. Continuity under Colonial Rule: The Alcalde System and the Garifuna in Belize, 1858–1969. Ethnohistory 39 (1): 1–19.
  7. Moberg, Mark. December 1998. Visual Anthropology: The Garifuna Journey. American Anthropologists 100 (4): 1014–1015.
  8. Palacio, Joseph O. 2000. A Re-consideration of the Native American and African Roots of Garifuna Identity. Paper presented at the Professional Agricultural Workers Conference (PAWC), 58th Session, Tuskegee University, December 3–5.
  9. Palacio, Joseph O. 2001. Coastal Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Values—Their Significance to the Garifuna and Rest of the Caribbean Region. Paper presented at the Belize Country Conference, November 21–24.
  10. Rust, Susie Post. 2001. The Garifuna: Weaving a Future from a Tangled Past. National Geographic 200 (3): 104.

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