Connecting to the past, the ancient Kalinago tribe brings intuitive earth-conscious design to modern-day Dominica.
Words by Margaret Gajek. Photography by Derek Galon.
Once upon a time, a fearless, proud and inventive Kalinago tribe lived happily on Dominica. Today, a unique site on the rugged northeast coast of the island provides rare glimpses into an architectural heritage and way of life before the arrival of Columbus. This place is called Kalinago Barana Auté or Carib Village by the Sea. Featuring traditionally constructed buildings, the showcase village is testament to the enduring strength and ingenuity of indigenous design.
Inhabiting a large area of almost four thousand acres established by the British in 1903, the Kalinago Territory is home to the largest remaining population of Kalinagos in the Caribbean. Called the ‘Caribs’ by European settlers – a label that would later give its name to the entire region – they have reclaimed their traditional Kalinago name in the hope of preserving their culture in perpetuity. However, when the Spaniards first beheld the Kalinago’s buildings, they did not regard them as ‘real’ homes, so very different were they from the architecture they had left in Spain. Grouped around a central plaza, the most impressive structure was the main meeting house, called the Carbet or Taboui. Smaller, tent-like Ajoupas and Mouinas, built from hardwood and plant material collected from the forest, surrounded this sixty-foot-long structure. Roofs were made from thatched palm leaves, with grass or reeds used also as wattle for the walls. Everything was tied together with maho, a rope made of bark. Inside, furnishing was sparse, with hammocks used for sleeping – another ingenious invention of the Amerindians.
Like the dwellings of other Amerindians such as the Tainos in Greater Antilles, these buildings were perfectly suited to the tropical climate. Thatched roofs and walls, permeable to air flow, allowed structures to breathe naturally – a quality that colonial European-brought designs later struggled to achieve. The Kalinago’s simple structures were also surprisingly strong, able to withstand fierce winds and hurricanes and quickly repaired when necessary.
“My people lived off the land,” Kalinago Chief Garnette Joseph explains. “The forest provided not only building material for houses, but also food, medicine and gommier wood for dugout canoes.” These masterly constructed long boats were fast, silent and agile – all key factors in the Kalinago’s successful resistance of European attempts to invade Dominica for almost 200 years.
It is only recently, with the strong interest in green building methods, that these indigenous constructions are being recognised not just for their aesthetic and historic value, but for their Earthconscious design. Maurice Agar, a renowned Caribbean architect based in Dominica, comments: “The challenge for architects designing in today’s world with our increasing environmental concerns, is to find a way to incorporate the materials and values of the past into our current ‘mod-con’ lifestyles and structures. We need to design our buildings not just with sustainability of materials at the forefront, but also with the end goal of making it part of our lifestyle. We build not just for ourselves, but with future generations in mind.”
Called the ‘nature island of the Caribbean,’ Dominica is host to growing numbers of environmentally conscious architectural endeavours, including Roots Jungle Retreat, created by Pat and Staci Kosick, a lodge inspired by Kalinago architecture. Pat explains: “I was driving one day nearby Kalinago Barana Auté, and when I saw that big Carbet house with its thatched roof, I immediately knew – that’s what our place should look like. The Kalinago not only built our lodge but also gave us lots of help and advice. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
The rich Kalinago heritage does not only belong to the past, but remains a strong and active force today. “Despite big changes to the Kalinago traditional way of life, we still retain some of its aspects,” explains the Chief. “Our culture and traditions are close to our heart and define who we are. We still live off the land and in tune with nature. We are blessed to be living in natural surroundings, and that feeling permeates our lives. We are in a unique position to offer on our island to visitors coming from all over the globe the exceptional experience of our culture, which we continuously strive to keep alive."