The First Amerindian Member of Parliament in Guyana
Stephen Campbell was the first Amerindian Member of Parliament in Guyana. He was elected onto the Legislative Council of British Guiana on 10 September 1957. On this date every year Guyana celebrates Stephen’s achievements as a part of Amerindian Heritage Month.
This noble leader is a descendant of the indigenous people of Guyana, whose presence in Guyana goes back for 11,000 years. The very name Guiana is an Amerindian word meaning lad of many waters.
Stephen Joseph Campbell was born in Moruca, a sub-district of the Barima Waini region, the northern most part of Guyana, on December 26, 1897. His father was Tiburtio A. Campbell, a boat builder, and his mother was Maria dos Santos nee Osorio. Both parents died when he was very young and he was brought up by his grandmother whom he credited with teaching him the core principles of life; “religion and discipline”.
He was a student of the Santa Rosa Mission School. Santa Rosa is a settlement along the Moruca river He had a passion for learning in his early life and this influenced his character as a person with a discovery method. Stephen’s work in the Amerindian communities began with the church. He was brought up as a devout Catholic and he worked for many years as a teacher and as a catechist in various regions of Guyana. He served as a catechist in the Rupununi as part of the churches effort to convert tribes.
In 1919, Stephen dedicated his time to teaching basic instructions of literacy to the Wapishianas of the Rupununi. He was also the founder of the first school in the village of Sawariwau. In 1953, while in the North West District, he worked as an electoral official for the elections where he served as a presiding officer.
Stephen married on 9 February, 1928, at the age of 31, to Umbelina M. Da Silva. They had one son and seven daughters. He lived at various locations in the Barima-Waini, Pomeroon Supernam, Cuyuni- Mazaruni, and Upper Takatu- Upper Essequibo regions, covering the length and breath of the county of Essequibo, where he was involved in teaching, road construction, gold mining, rubber tapping, fishing and tree spotting. He was Head Teacher of St. Louis School and Assistant Teacher Martindale R.C. School, in the Pomeroon and Teacher-Catechist among the Wapisiana Indians in the Rupununi district.
His interest in politics was aroused when he worked at the Waini sawmill where Amerindians and other sections of the Guyanese population were seeking representation.
The advent of Universal Adult Suffrage in 1951, gave Amerindians the opportunity to participate in General Elections. April 27, 1956 marked the first time in history that Amerindians in Guyana exercised their franchise.
Stephen became the first Amerindian to contest the General Elections in British Guiana, and at the age of 60, he became the first Amerindian Member of Parliament in Guyanese history, when he was elected onto the Legislative Council of British Guiana on September 10 1957. This historical event was the turning point in Stephen Campbell’s personal life which was influenced by a sense of duty towards the Amerindian people.
“In the year 1957, I entered politics at the request of the Amerindians who felt that they had no one to represent their interests in the Central Government,” Stephen had said.
As a Member of Parliament, he was keen on establishing land rights for Amerindians. Among his greatest achievements was the move towards crafting the Amerindian Act and to develop better health facilities, a postal service and agriculture in the North West District.
In the colonial days, the rulers allowed Amerindians to live their life in ‘reservations’ according to their traditions and practices, subject to certain limitations. However Amerindians had no formal title of ownership or established legal rights to the lands which they used or where they lived.
Amerindians feared that after Independence whatever rights they enjoyed will then be ignored and the lands on which they have lived for thousands of year will be expropriated.
Stephen Campbell, travelled to London to present a petition and lobby the British government for recognition of Amerindian land rights. On his return, he set up the ‘Amerindian Association’ to mobilize Amerindian pressure on the Independence Commission to ensure that Amerindian interest were taken into account in the independence negotiations. Thus when Guyana attained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, the legal ownership of indigenous peoples of land and rights of occupancy were embodied in the Independence provisions.
Stephen died on May 12, 1966 – two weeks before British Guiana gained Independence from Britain. He is the main reason for September 10 the day he was elected to Parliament, being declared Amerindian Heritage Day. He has spearheaded a historic change in bringing to the fore the vital and rightful place of the Amerindian in the mainstream of life in Guyana, and its future development.
Distinguished journalist Andre Haynes, in his article headed ‘Treading on Stephen Campbell’s roads: Is the dream finally a reality?’ published in Stabroek News of September 18, 2008, sheds light on progress since Stephen’s election to Parliament He stated inter alia:
‘On Wednesday, September 10, officially Amerindian Heritage Day, a small group of people made up mostly of students converged at the Umana Yana for a symposium on the life and work of Stephen Campbell, Guyana’s first indigenous MP…
‘It was the 51st anniversary of Campbell’s entry into the British Guiana Legislative Council, a symbolic achievement for the first people…
‘Among the indigenous people, Campbell is still revered as a hero, particularly for his progressive stand on land rights which lay the foundation for the eventual recognition of their titles. He had hoped that his election to the legislature would stimulate integration and advancement. “So long have my people been regarded as children of the forest and as possessing a low mentality that they have been slow to emerge from the present state and taken their rightful position as Guyanese,” he said after his election. “This I know will be the commencement of a new history for my people who will no longer regard themselves as the underprivileged buck.”
‘Fast forward fifty years: the economic and educational disadvantages that Campbell tried to solve still plague the Amerindians, who remain arguably the most exploited group of people in the country… Amerindian Affairs Minister Pauline Sukhai admitted that there are still many challenges facing the indigenous population. She spoke about an enduring indifference to Amerindians – “bordering on indifference, and bordering on exploitation” – that exists in a few pockets around the country. To confront this problem, she called for more support to ensure that Amerindians receive national acceptance. (She) also emphasised the importance of emulating leaders like Campbell as well as the need to document their contributions. ‘
Andre said the symposium was conceived in part to address the need for awareness. Four young people- Campbell’s great nephew Jed Vasconcellos, Odessa Paul, Sondra Cheong and Coleen Poon – made up the symposium panel who presented papers on Campbell’s life, his work in the legislature and his legacy.
Some of the points raised which resonated with the audience were, that of land rights which were then a sore point, more effort needed to teach Amerindian rich history in schools which was richer than the obligatory two paragraphs that are found in the curriculum texts. Great strides have been made but there was still a far way to go.
Campbell was frustrated in his attempts to use the tools of the legislature to influence change. He often worked without any support from his respective parties…For him, the indigenous people’s development was important to national development, though it proved a chore to shift the legislature’s emphasis to community development.
Campbell worked quietly behind the scenes at ministerial and departmental levels to get things done. He focused on land development, agriculture and education. He was against an exclusive formal western education system, believing in the need to retain indigenous culture, including languages, which he hoped would have been taught in schools. He was also an advocate for student scholarships.
He was successful as a catechist, but he was also keen on preserving Amerindian cultural traditions and he felt that his Christian faith offered the only solution.
The prospect of entering politics weighed heavily on his mind, but the call to duty to represent the people of the North West District as well as the wider indigenous population were the decisive factors for him.
He pushed for Amerindian land rights to be guaranteed in the independence constitution. His campaigning was successful, although titling only began more than ten years after in 1976. He was prophetic about the difficulties that lay ahead: “…Now [Amerindians] can truly be owners of their lands legally. This is only one of the roads which he has to tread, the other roads which he has to go through are the social and economic roads.”
The foregoing is a summary of Andre Haynes’s article published in 2008.
Kaieteur News online, published a feature on September 2, 2011, headed ‘21st Century Amerindian Heritage’. It reported on the launch of Amerindian Heritage Month. The theme was ‘“Our culture, our heritage, our life: a fusion of indigenous diversity”. The article stated inter alia:
‘The nexus between MP Stephen Campbell and Amerindian Heritage Day by the Amerindian communities makes transparent their recognition between political activism and giving of life and meaning to the commemorations and perpetuation of their heritage. This is as it should be and we salute the Amerindian community’s refusal to have their heritage reduced by commodification and commercialisation which not only trivialise their role in Guyana but essentially create peripheralisation of that role.
‘A number of stark facts should emphasise the crucial role that Amerindians will play in the development of our country. Because of the foresight of Stephen Campbell, the right of Amerindians to the land that they occupy is part and parcel of the actual granting of Independence to Guyana. This right cannot be abrogated by any government since it is immanent in the very constitution and formation of the Guyanese state by the departing British.
‘The present government is to be commended for embarking on the long-delayed demarcation of the Amerindian lands which at time amounts to over 14% of Guyana’s territory. Since these lands are generally in the interior, a large portion would be affected by the government’s ambitious plans to craft a low carbon development strategy for the country. The Amerindians will play a key role in the execution of the LCDS as they will have to be consulted as far as the strategy impacts on the use of their lands…
‘It cannot be gainsaid also that there is almost universal acceptance that the overall economic development of Guyana is inextricably linked with the opening up of the hinterland – dominated by the nine Amerindian tribes. While their numbers may be small, their wide distribution will certainly ensure that they benefit from such development. For instance, the road to Lethem is the sine qua non for us to take advantage of our proximity with the economic behemoth on our southern border, Brazil.
‘Once this road becomes an all-weather proposition, the hinterland will cease being the backwater it presently is and take its place as the cutting edge frontier for our economic transformation. It will be in such an environment that “Amerindian Heritage” will cease being the song and dance routine that it presently is, and take its place as the driving energy to Guyana of the 21st century.’
The path that Stephen had chalked out for the Amerindian, as Guyana’s First People, to play a vital role in Guyana’s life is now firmly established. Amerindian heritage and culture is a valued and enriching part of the tapestry of the cultural kaleidoscope of Guyana.
Kaieteur News online, published a feature on September 2, 2013, on the Amerindian Heritage Month 2013 celebrations, It was officially launched at the Amerindian Village in the National Exhibitions Complex at Sophia. The article which noted that the theme of ‘“Honouring our Culture; Advancing our Future”was emphasised, stated inter alia;
‘According to Chairman of the National Toshoas’ Council, Derrick John, a reflection into the lives of Amerindian ancestors should push the current generation to do what is necessary so as to preserve the rich culture for future generations. John pointed out that it is as a result of the First People’s bold initiatives that the present generations are able to enjoy and reap the blessings of what was fought for in the past. “It is our role to uphold our culture. If we are not proud of who we are, then we don’t have a future,” the Chairman declared.
‘Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Pauline Sukhai supported the Chairman’s admonition, noting that although there is much work to be done, the wealth of rich traditions, customs and cultural heritage is invaluable. She applauded the villages who continue to lead the way in sustaining the rich culture and uniqueness of Amerindians…“September is the month dedicated to the official observance of the development, prospects, challenges and perspectives of the Heritage of Guyana’s first people.”
‘She noted also that Government recognizes the importance of indigenous people to be free to practice their traditions and cultures. Hence, support is granted by the Amerindian Act of 2006, which, according to the Minister, offers a legal requirement to pursue, maintain, protect and develop manifestations of Amerindian culture. As such, she urged those in attendance to commit to furthering development and cultivation of their heritage while preparing themselves with the attitudes necessary to take full advantage of what has been made available currently.
‘The President… noted that the celebration is important since it “offers all the opportunity to reflect on the distance travelled.” He, too, applauded the choice of the theme, stating that “culture is a living thing, so we should strive, not only to preserve it, but also to enrich and develop it.”
An inspiring commentary of the theme of “Honouring our Culture; Advancing our Future” is provided by Analisa Andrews, the winner of the ‘Amerindian Heritage Queen’ contest. In a Guyana Times report of September 30, 2013, headed ‘Moraikobai girl crowned Amerindian heritage queen’. The report stated inter alia:
‘Andrews, an aspiring accountant, won the judges’ hearts as she mesmerised them from the beginning of the competition to the end. She sealed the deal when she answered the question: “The theme for Amerindian Heritage Month is ‘Honouring our culture, advancing our future’; what does this mean to you?”
‘Proud of tradition.
‘In response, she confidently and eloquently said: “Honouring our culture means to me that I should be proud of my tradition, my culture, my history, my ancestors and even though changes are occurring everyday in our lives, for example, technology, I shouldn’t forget where I came from by always preserving my culture, but at the same time advancing the future − meaning to take my education seriously, and move on.”
‘The beauty believes that youths have an integral role to play in the development of their respective communities; hence, she chose “Youth leadership in Amerindian communities” as her platform, which she competently advocated for during the competition.
‘The title, she added, not only comes with prestige, but hard work, pointing out that her primary focus will be to promote her culture and more importantly, youth leadership development in Amerindian communities. “I am part of a youth group with one objective being to help educate youth and support them… I will use that organisation to develop youth leadership in my community, but not only mine, but all Amerindian communities.”
The young of Guyanese First People are boldly forging the path to greater advancement, – realising the dream of, Guyana’s first Amerindian Member of Parliament, the noble leader Stephen Campbell.
We acknowledge with grateful thanks the information provided in various publications by well known writers, journalists and photographers
Websites accessed April 30.2014
April 29. 2014