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FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut

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Leeward Islands: A Voyage of Healing
Caribbean natives explore their past


Timothy Wheeler

Timothy Wheeler is a cinematographer, director, and producer based in Los Angeles. He was recently nominated for a Cinematography Emmy for his work on the series Whale Wars for Animal Planet/Discovery. Timothy is currently directing two feature documentaries. DREAM is the story of legendary long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. SUCK, is a documentary drama following the 21st century water wars between California communities that depend on one interconnected water supply. Timothy has a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley.

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Length: 13:41

I might have been terrified walking into Carib territory for the first time had I grown up reading the old Caribbean history books. The terrain was wild and primitive, they said. And war-like cannibal savages waited in hiding to feed on light-skinned outsiders.

Needless to say, for the last five hundred years, the area's indigenous people have suffered from an image problem. The islands in the Eastern Caribbean were once known as the land of the Kalinago. Then Columbus came through, dubbed the natives Caribs (or Cannibals), and started a wave of bloody colonialism that eventually pushed the few survivors to a small retreat on the island of Dominica, where they were granted the only indigenous reservation in the Eastern Caribbean.


We would soon head out to sea for three weeks on the forty-foot ocean going canoe, constructed in their ancestral way out of one single piece of wood.

That is the short story. The longer history lesson is more complex, not only because the colonial era spans a few hundred years -- involving the British, the Dutch and the French -- but also because the documented history of the Kalinago was written and recycled solely from a long list of European colonists, anthropologists, and historians. There is little history recorded from the Kalinago people themselves.

But that is why I have come to Dominica: To film a group of Kalinago on a voyage to discover their roots, an historic journey through the Caribbean's Leeward Islands on an ocean-going canoe built using traditional methods.

When I first meet my contact in the territory, Pauli Frederick, I don't know what to expect. "Yes, Mon," he greets me as I step down the muddy footpath towards his house. He hands me two fresh mangos and a few red bananas from his garden and with a smile says, "Welcome to Dominica Mon."

I spend the next few days bathing in waterfalls, picking fresh fruit from the land, and getting to know the Gli Gli canoe crew. Little access to electricity or running water seems like a far-gone worry expect for the nagging problem of charging my camera batteries.

"So what is this voyage all about?" I ask Pauli. I expect an impassioned speech about confronting past injustices and reclaiming what is rightfully Kalinago. But instead, he tells me, "We don't want to claim. We just want to show that we exist. And to learn more about ancestors."

We would soon head out to sea for three weeks on the forty-foot ocean going canoe, constructed in their ancestral way out of one single piece of wood. It is unclear what new historical facts the Kalinago would uncover, but with open hearts and minds, the Kalinago are embarking on an expedition to teach their Eastern Caribbean neighbors that these proud and free people do indeed exist. It would be a voyage of healing the Kalinago -- and I -- will never forget.

~ Timothy Wheeler


Colin Cottingham - Fayetteville, AR
Was there with these people 27 years ago. Thanks for seeing exposing a true blood line.