Daily News, 02/04/97, p.BH-5
Naturalist's love of plants rooted in older generation
By OLASEE DAVIS
Special to The Daily News
This Black History Month we are honor-
ingour elders who laid the foundation
of the Virgin Islands' cultural history.
The first inhabitants of these Virgin Islands
were the Indians. We were taught in Virgin
Islands history that in 1493 Christopher
Columbus's fleet landed al Salt River Bay on
St. Croix in search of fresh water. As his men
were about to return to the ship, they came
upon a canoe of Indians led by a woman.
The Spaniards tried to cut the natives off
from the Salt River shore and were met with
deadly arrows poisoned with manchineel sap.
Though wounded, Columbus's men managed
to overpower the Indians who all were killed
or captured. Because of this incident, Colum-
bus never landed.
Before the Europeans colonized the
Caribbean, Africans traveled throughout the
region, including the Virgin Islands, exchang-
ing goods such as plants, spices and gold.
Both Indians and Africans built a relationship
on trade that lasted for centuries.
Once the Indians were eradicated from the
Virgin Islands, the area was left mostly unin-
habited for years except a brief period when
the pirates, privateers and buccaneers occu-
pied the islands.
Slaves who were brought to the Caribbean
arrived empty handed. But they held on to
the memory of their former way of life in
Africa. The plantation system in the
Caribbean did not allow the slaves to live as
they were accustomed to in Afica. But the
slaves recalled the African songs, dances, entering the house at night. stance of nature.
folkialc, respect for ancestors and nature. If you do not have jumbie bead seeds in My ancestors were not only Africans. but
The slaves knew how to use tropical herbs your lamp, you have to walk backward into Carib Indians and European. All three cul-
a.s medicine. They also practiced what they your house. Medicinally, the leaves of the lures practiced the art of medicinal healing
could remember of the religion of their plant's vine were used for coughs and colds, with herbs. Other people who influenced my
African ancestors. Thus, what our elders Stories like these were taught to children life to study plants were the late Gov. Cyril E.
learned about the uses of medicinal plants in by their grandparents. Sadly to say, television King, Arona Petersen, Kai Lawactz, James
the Virgin Islands originated with slaves has taken over storytelling that once was so Weekes. Oscar E. Henry and other elders too
brought from Africa and Indians who inhabit- much a part of the Virgin Islands's culture. numerous to mention.
ed the islands hundreds of years ago. Today, many of the medicinal plants in the As we come close to the year 2000. the
The knowledge and uses of medicinal Virgin Islands are disappearing due to the Virgin Islands has a culture generation gap.
plants were handed down from generation to rapid development on the natural environ-
generation changing as new uses were dis- men. The ways in which plants were used are The knowledge that was once handed down
covered. Words of Indian origin in the Virgin dying out as customs change in the Virgin proudly by o elders the community is no
Islands as cassava, calabash, ginep, guava. Islands. We are losing not only plants that longer valued by those who are future of
maubi, mampoo tree and others were used by have beneficial uses to modem and folk se lands. As a people, we must under-
slaves and handed down to their children. But medicine, but a way of life and a culture stand hat the future is tied to the past of the
the uses of medicinal plams were a major part where elders handed them down from genea- Virgin Islands cult history. Are wedding
of the slave society throughout the Caribbean. tion to generation our pa as a community to help bridge the
From bush bath, remedies for different ill- Such parts of the Virgin Islands culture as p to our young people for the 21s century?
nesses, to religious belief, plants and animals the West Indian weed woman, the giving of Through the University of the Virgin
influence the culture of the Virgin Islands. bush tea with dumb bread in the morning and Islands' Cooperative Extension Service, envi-
Slaves also retold some of the old African at night, the cleaning out of children with onmental educational program. I am passing
tales. Here and there, some African words or bush once a month, bush baths and so many on knowledge of managing and protecting the
names of people remained. For example, the other cultural practices that passed down environment, in particular medicinal plants.
spider hero of the Akan people, Anansi. lives from our African ancestors are being lost. to thousands of young people.
on in our Anansi stories. The story of why a My grandfather, Jimmy Industrious, a In this program, young people are learning
crab does not walk straight is another tale. farmer and fisherman fom Tortola. passed about themselves and how they fit into the
My grandmother says a crab does not walk the knowledge of plants to me as a linle boy. cultural ecology of the Virgin Islands. Surely,
straight because he cannot decide who he is My grandfather used to tell me, "Tle the elders of this community need to be hon-
going to many. And so as the old folks have knowledge was handed down to me from my .ored this Black History Month and until the
it, people change their minds all the time just father and grandfather, who was a slave in end of time for their effort in making a contri-
as a crab who does not walk straight Tortola during the early 1800s" rom child bution to our islands and cultural history.
Another African tale was the jumbie bead hood, I learned to appreciate nature and the Olarre Davis, who has a maser's ofsci-
plant Traditionally in the Virgin Islands the values of my African ancestors. On my ence degree in range management and
black and red seeds of the jumbie bead plant father's side of the family, my grandmother, a forestry ecology. is aSt. Croix ecoloisr and
were placed in lamps to keepjumbies from native of St. John, also taught me the impor- writer.