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LOCATION: Eastern coasts of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua; United States; Caribbean islands

POPULATION: 200,000500,000

LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; Garifuna

RELIGION: Catholicism, incorporating aspects of the traditional religion


The Garifuna live in Central America along the coast of the Caribbean sea. Their territory spreads across the borders of four different nationsBelize (formerly British Honduras), Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They are descendants of the Caribs, a people of the island chain known as the Lesser Antilles. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Caribs on the island of St. Vincent intermarried with captured or escaped African slaves.

These people tried to prevent Great Britain from colonizing the island of St. Vincent, but they failed. The Garifuna were deported to the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras in 1797. The deportees, about one-fourth of the total Garifuna population, survived and rebuilt their culture in this unfamiliar place. They eventually returned to Central America. They settled mainly in the coastal lowlands of the area that would become the four present nations.

Over the next two centuries, Garifuna population and territory increased greatly. Garifuna formed a major part of the work force on the Central American coast for over a hundred years. In 1823, additional Garifuna migrated to Belize, fleeing a civil war in Honduras. In spite of moving to new places and taking in other peoples, the Garifuna have preserved their cultural identity. They have kept their language and many of the customs, beliefs, and ceremonies of their island ancestors.


The Garifuna live in a chain of villages and towns along the eastern coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. These Caribbean lowlands have a varied terrain. It includes mangrove swamps, tropical rain forests, river valleys, coastal plains, and grassy plains with some pines and palm trees. Many Garifuna have moved to large cities in Central America and the United States. Those in the United States live in communities in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities. There are also small groups of Garifuna on the Caribbean islands of Trinidad, Dominica, and St. Vincent.

Because of their migrations to other countries, it is impossible to arrive at exact population figures for the Garifuna. (In addition, only Belize counts them as a distinct ethnic group.) Their total numbers have been estimated between two hundred thousand and five hundred thousand. Some estimates figure the Garifuna in the United States alone at around one hundred thousand.


Spanish is the official language of most of the countries in which the Garifuna live. In Belize and the United States, the main language is, of course, English. The native language of the Garifuna (called Garifuna or Garinagu ) comes from the Arawak and Carib languages of their island ancestors.


Although it has been illegal for a long time, obeah, the traditional witchcraft of the Caribbean, still exists. Some Garifuna still practice it secretly. Its rituals involve dances, drumming, and trances for contacting the spirits of the dead. It is generally used either to harm one's enemies or to ward off spells that others may have cast.

An object used in such spells is the puchinga doll. It is made of cloth stuffed with black feathers and is buried under the doorstep of the intended victim. Crosses are sometimes painted on children's foreheads to ward off the evil eye.


The Garifuna practice a version of Catholicism that uses many aspects of their traditional religion. It combines belief in saints with reverence toward gubida (the spirits of ancestors) and faith in shamans or "spirit helpers" (called buwiyes ). Their religious practicesincluding dancing, singing, drumming, and use of alcoholhave long been considered suspicious by outsiders. Established churches and people living nearby have accused them of paganism and devil worship. Some buwiyes, however, have served as Roman Catholic priests or nuns.

Among the most important traditional religious practices is the dugu. It is a ceremonial feast, held to please the gubida when they seem to be angry at a living relative. The sign of this anger usually is illness. A dugu lasts from two to four days. It is attended by friends and relatives of the affected person. Sometimes that person will come all the way from the United States in order to be healed. Participants engage in ritual song and dance, led by a buwiye, who calls forth the gubida. After the food prepared for the feast and rum have been ceremonially offered to the ancestral spirit, all of it is either thrown into the sea or buried in the ground.


Many Garifuna ritual observances are held on the holy days of the Christian calendar, but some occur on the dates of nonreligious holidays as well. Festivities usually include processions and street dancing, often in masks and costumes. John Canoe (Yankunu) dancers (named for a Jamaican folk hero) perform at Christmastime and receive money, drinks, or homemade candies.

On November 19, the Garifuna of Belize celebrate Settlement Day, marking the beginning of a larger Garifuna presence in that country in 1823. It was then that their ancestors who had been forced out of Honduras, arrived in the area to join the small band that had already settled in the town of Stann Creek. In the town of Dangriga, the center of Belize's Garifuna community, there is a ceremony on Settlement Day. It reenacts the settlers' arrival. Some people row in from the ocean in dugout canoes. Their cargo is the same as their ancestors'. It includes simple cooking utensils, drums, cassava roots, and young banana trees. When they land on the shore, they are joined by hundreds of spectators. There is a lively procession that winds through the streets of Dangriga. The people go to the Catholic church for a special service. Afterward, the crowd enjoys dancing and feasting on traditional foods.


Major life changes (such as birth, becoming an adult, and death) are marked by religious ceremonies. They combine Catholic traditions with rites from the ancestral religion.


Physical violence is rare among the Garifuna. An angry person almost always uses such practices as name-calling, cursing, gossip, and mocking songs. Sometimes a person who has been wronged will even use witchcraft (obeah) to gain revenge.


Houses are either wooden or made of wattle and daub (woven sticks and twigs plastered with clay). They have thatched roofs. Wooden houses are raised several feet off the ground on posts. Many villages still have no electricity, and even in the towns with electricity there are frequent power outages.

To Make Wattle and Daub

Materials for a 4x6-inch structure

  • About ten sticks, approximately ten inches long and between ¼-and ½-inch thick
  • Several dozen flexible twigs, varying in length, but all less than ¼-inch thick
  • Modeling clay
  • Cardboard (a large shoebox top or similar box top work well)


  1. Using golfball-size lumps of clay, secure the large sticks vertically to form the posts of a rectangle 4 by 6 inches.
  2. Using the flexible, thin twigs, begin weaving in and out between the upright sticks. Work carefully to keep the posts vertical. This woven siding is the "wattle."
  3. Mix the clay with a little water until it is the consistency of very thick oatmeal. This is the "daub."
  4. Slather the daub over the surface of the wattle, attempting to seal any cracks to make the structure "weatherproof."
  5. Add a roof of heavy paper of light cardboard, covered with grass clippings or artifical grass to simulate thatch.

Garbage is often thrown into the sea or into open ditches and streams. In some cases, it is tossed out of the back door. Most houses have no toilet facilities.

With the increase of "junk food" in developing areas, the Garifuna diet has become less nutritious. Obesity has increased, especially among women. Pre-school children do not get enough protein.

The Garifuna use both modern medicine and traditional remedies. But they hold to their belief that the most important thing determining people's health is the power of the spirits of their ancestors.


Among the Garifuna, many women bear children without having a permanent or legal relationship with the children's father. Legal marriage occurs in a minority of households. The Garifuna are generally seen as a matrifocal society (where women are central to family life). Family lines are determined by the mother, rather than the father. In the past, households often had three generations of women. Increasingly, however, only the oldest and youngest generations remain. Working-age people often go away seeking better jobs. The grandparents stay to raise the children. Since the 1960s, many women have gone to major cities in Central America or the United States. There they find jobs in the textile industry or as maids.

Garifuna mothers are not as directly and physically involved with their children as mothers in many similar cultures. Some observers connect this fact with a tendency toward independence and individualism among the Garifuna. Mothers wean children early and in some cases do not breast-feed at all. They also feel comfortable in leaving them with caregivers for short or long periods of time. In keeping with the nonviolent nature of the Garifuna, children are raised with little or no corporal punishmentthey are not punished by being hit or spanked. Fights among children themselves are frowned upon and broken up. Violence among family members is also extremely rare.


Most Garifuna wear modern Western-style clothing. Even among the older women, very few still wear the traditional costumes trimmed with shells. But they do wear brightly colored full skirts and kerchiefs, making them look very different from younger women, who wear jeans, tee-shirts, and tight skirts, much like young women everywhere.

The men also wear jeans, and the traditional straw hats have been replaced by baseball caps. Young people's clothing has been influenced by the places where their parents have settled. In the towns one can see some young people in the latest fashions from New York, paid for with money sent by relatives living abroad.


Dietary staples include rice, fish, green bananas, plantains (which resemble bananas), and coconut milk. Coconut milk is used to prepare many dishes, such as hudut, in which it is mixed with crushed, boiled plantains. The green bananas are boiled and served as a starchy vegetable. "Boil-up," or falmou, is a spicy traditional soup or stew containing fish, coconut milk, spice, and other ingredients.

Manioc, or cassava, plays an important role in the diet of the Garifuna in Honduras, who eat it boiled as a vegetable. But it is important throughout the culture as the basic ingredient of areba, the flatbread. This food, and the customs for preparing it, have helped to unify Garifuna. Their name is based on the term karifuna, which means "of the cassava clan."

Cassava roots were traditionally grated by hand on stone-studded wooden boards, a tedious job. Today, people often use electric graters. Then the pulp is strained by hand in bags made from woven leaves. The bags are hung from a tree and weighted at the bottom. This squeezes out the starch and juices (which are poisonous). The white meal that is left dries overnight, is sifted and made into flatbread.

The most popular beverages are coffee and various "bush teas," sweetened by generous amounts of sugar. Desserts include cakes and puddings made from sweet potatoes, rice, and bread scraps. A very popular dessert is the candy called tableta, made with grated coconut, ginger root, and brown sugar. The mixture is boiled, poured into a greased pan to cool, and cut into squares. Children sell this confection, a favorite among tourists, at bus stops and in other public places.


School attendance is generally low after the primary grades. But the basic ability to read and write is valued, and most Garifuna do get enough schooling to learn that much. Most are also interested in improving their Spanish (in Honduras and Guatemala) or English (in Belize). Many Garifuna in Belize are well educated and have become respected schoolteachers.


The Garifuna have a rich heritage with roots in both African and local cultures. Their traditional music includes work songs, hymns, lullabies, ballads, and healing songs. It shows an African influence in call-and-response song patterns and complex drum rhythms. Some songs are sung during daily tasks, such as the baking of cassava bread (areba).

The most typical Garifuna dance is the punta, which has its roots in African courtship dances. It is performed by couples, who compete for attention from spectators and from other dancers by making fancy flirtatious moves. The paranda is a slow dance performed by women, who move in a circle performing traditional hand movements, and sing as they dance.

A sacred dance, the abaimahani, is performed at the dugu, a feast held for the spirit of a deceased ancestor. The dancersall womenform a long line, link little fingers, and sing special music. The Wanaragua, or John Canoe dance, performed at Christmastime, includes sad songs about the absence of loved ones.

While holding on to the older cultural traditions, the Garifuna are also developing some new ones. Modern musicians have transformed the ancient music of the punta, creating the popular "punta rock."

The paintings of internationally acclaimed artist Benjamin Nicholas depict aspects of Garifuna history and culture in bold, modern styles.


The Garifuna have traditionally lived by fishing and by basic small-scale farming. In the twentieth century, the banana industry became a major employer. This created jobs both in agriculture and in the major ports that sprang up along the coast. Since World War II, many Garifuna have worked in the merchant marine. However, the largest of the work force consists of underemployed wage laborers.

The Garifuna who live in towns but still farm often travel 5 to 10 miles (8 to 16 kilometers) to their plots, leaving early in the morning by bus and returning late in the afternoon. The civil service, especially the teaching profession, has been a major employer of Garifuna in Belize. Many children of Garifuna in the United States enter fields of medicine, engineering, and education. Some return home and others remain abroad permanently.


Soccer is a popular sport among the Garifuna. Young people organize games on flat open areas in their towns or villages, even on the beach.


Punta parties, named for the traditional dance that is performed at them, are a favorite form of entertainment. Pop musicians have developed "punta rock," which combines the beat of traditional punta music with the electric guitar sounds of rock music and modern Garifuna lyrics. This music, which originated in Belize, is becoming popular throughout the Caribbean. In a reverse development, the Garifuna have adapted the West Indian reggae music to a form of their own called cungo.

Today, many Garifuna households in the larger towns have television sets. A TV is also one of the first purchases of Garifuna who come to the United States.


Few of the Garifuna still practice their traditional crafts. These include hat-making, drum-making, basket-weaving, and the carving of dugout canoes. To prevent the loss of this heritage, the National Garifuna Council of Belize held a workshop in 1987. In it, young people were taught the crafts of their ancestors.


The lack of opportunities at home has led many Garifuna to go to other parts of Central America and to the United States. It has been estimated that as many as 50 percent of the men are absent from the average Garifuna community at any given time. With growing numbers of women also traveling, communities are losing a whole generation of working-age adults. The elderly and very young are left to survive together. They often live on money sent by absent family members, until the young people are old enough to leave as well.

There is increased concern about alcoholism among the Garifuna. Alcohol consumption itself has increased, a fact that some people relate to the social problems caused by unemployment and the absence of adults. Marijuana use, mainly by young men, has become common among Garifuna living in the towns.


Gonzalez, Nancie. "Garifuna." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Kerns, Virginia. Women and the Ancestors: Black Carib Kinship and Ritual. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Olson, James S. The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.


Belize Tourism Industry Association. [Online] Available, 1998.

Green Arrow Advertising. Belize. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: Black Carib, Island Carib, Garinagu, Karaphuna


Identification. The term "Garifuna," or on Dominica, "Karaphuna," is a modern adaptation of the name applied to some Amerindians of the Caribbean and South America at the time of Columbus. That term"Garif," and its alternate, "Carib"are derivatives of the same root. The label "Black" derives from the fact that during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries considerable admixture occurred with Africans whom they captured, or who otherwise escaped being enslaved by Europeans.

Location. Modern-day Garifuna live mostly in Central America, in a series of villages and towns along the Caribbean coastline of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Many have emigrated to the United States, where they live in large colonies in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and several other cities. Small groups survive in Trinidad, Dominica, and Saint Vincent. Although all of them recognize a distant kinship, the Central American and Caribbean groups are virtually distinct today.

Linguistic Affiliation. In spite of their name, their language is basically of the Arawakan Family, although there is a heavy overlay of Cariban, which may once have been a pidgin trading language for them. Linguists term their language Island Carib to distinguish it from Carib as it is spoken among groups ancestral to them still living in the Amazon area of South America.

Demography. Historical sources indicate that only about 2,000 Carib survived warfare with the British to become established in Central America in 1797. Because they reside in so many different countries, and because they are not counted as a distinct ethnic group except in Belize, it is difficult to state how many there may be today. Estimates vary from 200,000 to 500,000; high fertility rates and the absorption into their communities of many other Blacks in the Americas helped boost their population over the last 200 years.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeologists have still not been able to sort out with precision the cultural history of the various Caribbean groups, except to note that all of them apparently derived from the tropical forests of South America, coming into the Caribbean in at least three waves, dating from about 5000 b.c. to about a.d. 1400. At the time of Columbus, the ancestors of the Garifuna occupied most of the habitable islands of the Lesser Antilles, but by the eighteenth century they were primarily found on Saint Vincent, Dominica, Saint Lucia, and Grenada. For Europeans, the term "Carib" became synonymous with "cannibal," and allegations about such activities formed the justification for killing or enslaving them in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Once agricultural plantations had been established by the various Europeans, Africans were brought in large numbers as laborers. On Saint Vincent, from the time of the first major British occupation in 1763, the Garifuna sided with the previously resident French colonists in a protracted conflict that ultimately ended in defeat for both of them. In 1797 those with the darkest skin color, (termed "Black Carib") mostly resident on Saint Vincent, were forcibly removed from that island and sent to Spanish Honduras. Many of the lighter-skinned individuals remained in the islands; most were absorbed into the local Creole populations. In Central America the Garifuna joined the Spaniards and at first fought against, but later temporarily joined, the Miskito Indians, who were firmly aligned with the British in opposition to the dominant Spanish colonization. They were quick to adopt whatever innovations they admired in other groups, so that today their culture is a new synthesis, unlike any of its immediate forbears.


In aboriginal and early contact times, settlements were on the windward sides of the various islands, whereas gardens were inland on more fertile soil. The earliest houses were circular, and each was inhabited by a woman, her unmarried daughters, and her small sons. Teenage boys and men spent most of their time in centrally located communal houses, where they ate; slept; debated political decisions; made and repaired weapons, tools and utensils; and entertained guests. In Central America they have repeated this settlement pattern, except that they have favored locations close to European settlements and enterprises in which the men could find wage labor and the women could sell their agricultural produce. Today they live in some sixty settlements on the coastline between Gracias a Dios in Nicaragua and Dangriga, Belize. Some of these still harbor only Garifuna, but others are multiethnic towns and cities. In the United States the Garifuna do not necessarily cluster in the same city neighborhoods, although they remain in close contact with their fellows, especially Garifuna coming from the same country.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Island Carib were fishers, hunters of small land animals, collectors of shellfish, and horticulturists; both sexes participated equally in food production. Only men engaged in offshore fishing and hunting, whereas the women were largely in charge of the fields after the initial clearing. Bitter manioc was the primary staple, of which the Garifuna made a flat, unleavened bread that, when properly stored, would keep for weeks and could be carried on the long sea voyages the men frequently made to other islands and to the South American mainland. Trading and raiding were important activities that often kept the men away for long periods of time. After the arrival of Europeans, the Carib began to trade with them and to sell their labor. They also turned increasingly to plantation agriculture of commercial crops, such as cotton, and, by the time they were deported from Saint Vincent, they seemed well on their way to dependence upon a cash economy. In Central America they were at first in great demand as mercenary soldiers for both the Royalists and the revolutionary Creole forces. They also worked in the mahogany camps in Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua, both before and after independence in those areas.

After 1900, when the fruit industry had become the major employer along the coast, they worked as stevedores and in various semiskilled occupations in the major banana ports. During World War II many men worked in the U.S. merchant marine, which led them to seek continued employment in this sector later. This started what has become a migratory stream, with some individuals returning periodically to their home villages until final retirement there and others settling permanently in the United States. The second generation has produced many teachers, physicians, and engineersprofessions they follow both in the United States and in their home countries. The largest part of the population, however, remains in the underemployed working-class sector. Women joined the men as migrants during the 1960s, most working as seamstresses, factory workers, or domestics in the large cities of the United States and Central America. The village economies have been bolstered by the remittances sent home to relatives, but little capital has been invested there. Many communities are largely made up of older folk and young children living on irregular and inadequate checks sent by the absent intervening generation.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal craft products included baskets, cotton cloth, sleeping mats, pottery, and a variety of wooden utensils, including graters for manioc, drums, and dugout canoes. All of these have survived in Central America except pottery, which was replaced by European earthenware and porcelain, probably during the eighteenth century in Saint Vincent. Most of the crafts have been forgotten today, and only a handful of persons in the more remote villages still manufacture the other items.

Trade. Although most scholars believe the Carib engaged in extensive trade in aboriginal times, it is not clear what products they exchanged. During the eighteenth century they were known among European residents in the Caribbean for their silk-grass woven bags, baskets, tobacco, fruits and vegetables, and various forest products. In Central America the women regularly appeared in town markets with superior agricultural produce, and the men sold fish, both fresh and dried. Their reputation as smugglers of arms, liquor, bullion, and consumer goods has survived to the present day.

Division of Labor. Women in aboriginal times were the primary farmers, dependent upon the men only for clearing the land. Women also caught land crabs and other shellfish, cared for pigs and chickens (known only after the arrival of Europeans), prepared the food, cared for the children, and wove cotton cloth and fiber mats on hanging looms. Men fished and hunted, made canoes, and engaged in trading and raiding excursions. They were also largely in charge of the ceremonial life, including public ritual and curing. After the middle of the twentieth century, women left behind while the men migrated took on more and more of the men's responsibilities. Today they are dominant in religious and curing rituals and ceremonies. Women have long enjoyed considerable independence of word and action. They are, in general, as well or better educated than the men and have begun to enter political life and some of the professions in their countries of origin.

Land Tenure. Because their agriculture was largely of a shifting nature, land tenure has not been a major issue for the Island Carib or the Garifuna. So long as there was sufficient land and a small population, tenure was determined by "first come." The very concept of landownership was problematic for them aboriginally, which no doubt worked against them in making treaties with the Europeans. Not until the twentieth century did land scarcity become an issue in Central America, and by then most of the Garifuna were adapted to an economy supported by male wage labor.


Kin Groups and Descent. Both kinship terminology and early accounts suggest the former existence of a matrilineally oriented system, but it is not clear whether there were clans or sibs. Early European contacts seem to have altered the aboriginal system. Today they have informal nonunilineal kin associations, active primarily in religious activities and in mutual aid for domestic purposes.

Kinship Terminology. Modern usage is Hawaiian when using the native language, but the Eskimo system of their neighbors is more prevalent.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Island Carib may have preferred marriage between cross cousins, and men of higher rank were polygynous. Chiefs excepted, residence was uxorilocal. Today marriage is informal and brittle. Women commonly bear children before a permanent union is established, with or without a legal or religious ceremony. In both aboriginal and modern times, male travelers frequently had wives in more than one location.

Domestic Unit. What has been called the matrifocal household has been typical since at least the 1940s. This formerly was extended through at least three generations of women, but since the 1970s, probably owing to the massive emigration of both men and women, has often been reduced to a grandmother and her grandchildren under the age of puberty. Among more highly educated and affluent Garifuna, monogamy and the nuclear family are highly valued.

Inheritance. Modern Garifuna tend to dispose of their private movable property in the form of gifts to favored persons if and when they feel death is imminent. They favor children or grandchildren who have remained at home to care for them or who have sent back larger sums of money. To control the behavior of their descendants, older people commonly threaten to withhold an inheritance or to dispose of all their property before death.

Socialization. Boys are raised permissively until early manhood, when they are suddenly shoved out of the maternal fold and expected to earn their own living as well as to support their mothers and sisters. Girls are required to "grow up" more quicklyto work at domestic tasks at an early ageand are more severly reprimanded when they transgress. In the absence of the men, women seem to have more difficulty disciplining their sons.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Prior to contact with Europeans, there may have been incipient chiefdoms. Leaders were men who excelled in warfare or in supernatural affairsthe older ones usually having greater prestige. In European-colonized Saint Vincent and Central America, these leaders were endowed with greater derivative authority than they may have had aboriginally. Presently, the Garifuna engage in political action within their own countries but do not yet vote as an ethnic block. Few have achieved either elective or appointive office at any level, but recent revitalization efforts may change this.

Social Control. Persons who act in socially deviant ways may be subjected to public criticism, frequently in song or proverb. More serious infringements may be referred to the ancestors in religious rituals. The ancestors, when they assume human form by possessing a descendant, may loudly chastise the culprit and even call him or her to a face-toface confrontation. Withcraft, which is most often directed toward outsiders, is a force to be feared.

Conflict. The Island Carib were in an almost constant state of war against each other, against Arawakan groups in the Greater Antilles, and, later, against Africans and Europeans. After deportation to Central America, they hired themselves out as mercenaries and also engaged in isolated conflicts with Miskito Indians. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, they have largely eschewed violence in both their public and private lives.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Both Island Carib and modern Garifuna believe that human affairs are governed by a higher god, but also by the spirits of their deceased ancestors, whom they both love and fear. Since the nineteenth century, most have also been Roman Catholic. In addition to the ancestors, the shamans call upon "spirit helpers," who assist them in curing and locating lost objects. There may have been a belief in nature spirits in previous times, but today these have been replaced by a faith in Catholic saints and angels.

Religious Practitioners. Called buwiyes, shamans are born to their calling, receiving training through dreams and apprenticeships. A very few have become Roman Catholic priests and nuns.

Ceremonies. In addition to the usual Catholic rites, Garifuna have included some prayers and other rituals in their ceremonies in honor of their ancestors. They also sacrifice pigs and roosters, dance, sing, beat drums, and ritually drink alcohol in an effort to get the ancestors to pay attention to them and to assist them in their human trials and tribulations. Several other ritual occasions are celebrated during the year, but these are all taken from either the Catholic calendar or British secular observances. "John Canoe" is an important dance performance during Christmas and the New Year.

Arts. Dancing and singing are the primary means of artistic expression, as they were aboriginally.

Medicine. A wide range of bush medicines is known and used by most Garifuna today, both at home and in their U.S. urban homes. They also respect and use modern Western medicine when they deem it appropriate, but when all else fails, they refer their illnesses to the ancestors, who can either save or doom them.

Death and Afterlife. AU Garifuna anticipate a continuing interaction with their loved ones after death. They believe that if not properly propitiated, the dead ancestors can wreak great harm upon them, and they look forward to having such power in their own hands.


Gonzalez, Nancie L. (1988). Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Gullick, C. J. M. R. (1985). Myths of a Minority. Assen: Van Gorcum Press.

Kerns, Virginia (1983). Women and the Ancestors: Black Carib Kinship and Ritual. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Whitehead, Neil L. (1988). Lords of the Tiger Spirit. Leiden: Foris Publications Holland.


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The population of people known as Garifuna, Black Carib, Charaib, andas they refer to themselves in Belize, Central Americaas Garinagu, is the product of ethno-genesis (a genetic and cultural mixture) resulting from the collision of the Atlantic slave trade, colonial settlement, and the regions 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 othersmostly menthrough 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 Garinagus 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 (17721773) and the Second Carib War (17951796). 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 themwith 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.


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 Blacksa 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 groups 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.

SEE ALSO African Diaspora; Discrimination; Indigenismo; Indigenous Rights


Conley, Pamela. March 2000. The Garifuna: A Changing Future.

Gonzelez, Nancie L. (Solien). 1979. Garifuna Settlement in New York: A New Frontier. International Migration Review Spec. issue 13 (2): 255263.

Interview with Joseph O. Palacio. AprilMay 2002. The C.A.C. Review (Newsletter of the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink) 3 (34).

McClaurin, Irma. 2000. Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Moberg, Mark. Winter 1992. Continuity under Colonial Rule: The Alcalde System and the Garifuna in Belize, 18581969. Ethnohistory 39 (1): 119.

Moberg, Mark. December 1998. Visual Anthropology: The Garifuna Journey. American Anthropologists 100 (4): 10141015.

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 35.

Palacio, Joseph O. 2001. Coastal Traditional Knowledge and Cultural ValuesTheir Significance to the Garifuna and Rest of the Caribbean Region. Paper presented at the Belize Country Conference, November 2124.

Rust, Susie Post. 2001. The Garifuna: Weaving a Future from a Tangled Past. National Geographic 200 (3): 104.

Irma McClaurin

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