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TCI Coastal Culture Values

Culture. What is it? And why should we care?

By Oshin Whyte

Oshin White studies the coastal culture values of the TCI for her Master’s research project.

If you had told me a year ago that I would be moving back home to the Turks & Caicos Islands (after living in England for six years) to study culture, I would most likely think that you are having a laugh. My earliest memory of structured exposure to my culture was when I was around nine and then-Director of Culture David Bowen created a culture club at my primary school, Oseta Jolly. He would visit once a week to tell us stories about our islands and ancestors, explain how to use bush medicine, sing folk songs and teach us to tie the maypole. I thoroughly enjoyed those afternoons. I always learnt something new, but most importantly, I genuinely felt like I was a part of something and that I belonged. It would not be until almost two decades later that I consciously think about culture and its importance.

In 1979, anthropologist Raymond Williams made a rather bold statement by saying, “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English Language.” We would soon realise that he is correct, as decades later the definition of the term “culture” is still an area of debate in anthropology and sociology. Culture in and of itself is a dynamic process, and it is understood that people live culturally rather than in cultures. It is to society what memory is to individuals, and as such includes traditions that enlighten us on what has worked in the past. Encompassing the way people have learned to look at themselves and the environment, it highlights an interconnection between humans and their landscapes. It is said that we stay alive by anchoring our existence to places. This interconnectedness between people’s way of life (culture) and the natural world can be so strong that removal from that environment can cause a feeling of loss of self and purpose. This is evident in communities where fishing is at the centre of their social structure and identity. It is a way of life for these communities and fishers often continue working in a failed fishery as their communities depend on fisheries for their cultural identity. 

For the people of the Turks & Caicos Islands, their entire culture and existence revolve around the ocean and the coast.

The Turks & Caicos are no different in this regard. Our entire culture and existence revolve around the ocean and the coast. We are an island nation and inevitably, ocean people. From salt raking to whale hunting to the now-booming tourism industry, the ocean has shaped and continues to shape who we are as a people and reinforces our sense of identity. 

However, this is not a topic that is spoken about extensively in the Islands. Persons tend to speak about the monetary benefits that they get from the coast through marketing our sun, sand and sea but very rarely do we speak about the non-material benefits of the coastal landscape and how this affects our human experience and our understanding of self. These non-material benefits that we get from the natural world are known as cultural values. They are not directly observable in the physical landscape and manifest themselves in the form of cognitive interactions with the environment, such as spiritual and/or religious experiences, inspiration for culture, sense of place, existence and bequest values and symbolic services. Due to their intangibility, cultural values have not been well documented and operationalized in marine spatial planning.

Model sailboat building and racing recalls the days past when sloops were a necessary mode of transportation between islands and other countries.

In late 2020, I was awarded a research scholarship by the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) to investigate the coastal cultural values of the Turks & Caicos Islands, under the supervision of Dr. Robert Fish and Dr. Mark Hampton at the University of Kent. Through this master’s research project, I strive to understand the various cultural values that persons associate with the coastal landscape of TCI and how they can be used to inform marine spatial planning and the decision-making process. While it is rare to speak about cultural values in TCI, it is even rarer to go into each community to capture the voices and thoughts of the people.

I travelled to the islands of Providenciales, North Caicos, Middle Caicos, Grand Turk, South Caicos and Salt Cay to document the non-material benefits residents get from the coast. These interviews focused on cultural values such as lifestyle, heritage, identity, attachment, well being and aesthetics. 

The most spoken-about value across the Islands was aesthetic and interviewees found attributes such as the crystal-clear waters, bird watching, watching the sunrise and hearing the waves crash aesthetically pleasing. They also found mangrove wetlands, salt ponds, iron-shore and marshland beautiful. They explained feeling a deep sense of joy and peace when experiencing these things and places, which has a positive impact on their overall well being. 

“One of the things I value about the coast is the beauty. I like the beauty. I like to see the waves coming up alongside the shore. Nature. The wonders of God and appreciating the inexplicability of how this awesome universe has been created.”

–Interviewee, South Caicos

The aesthetics of the coast is one of the main reasons interviewees choose to live in the Islands. They appreciate the fresh air, minimal pollution and ability to form a deep connection with nature. Other prominent values were heritage, lifestyle and identity. These three values are interconnected, and it was seen that the heritage of interviewees impacts their lifestyle, which in turn helps them establish a sense of identity. On the island of Salt Cay, these values were evoked through practices that are now regarded as dead or dying traditions such as whale hunting and salt raking. However, these activities represent where they are coming from as a people and their shared heritage and residents have fond memories that they look back on with pride. 

Islanders partake in traditional maypole weaving as part of National Heritage Month.

On other islands, these values were enabled through practices such as fishing, South Caicos Regatta, Fisherman’s Day, Junkanoo, Valentine’s Day Cup and playing rake and scape. It is important to highlight the practice of fishing, as it was one of the major industries in the Islands and while tourism has taken the lead, fishing is still a revered practice, and the native fishermen take pride in their heritage.

“I come from a family of hullers/ fishermen. My talent is handed down from my forefathers and I have to be proud of that.” 

–Interviewee, South Caicos

“I feel left behind if I don’t go out exploring the ocean floors. It’s like a dead day to me. When I am out there (on the sea) that is when I get my full energy. I feel energised. I am way happier and content.”

–Interviewee, South Caicos 

These cultural practices serve as a means of tying the community together and creating a sense of togetherness as well as rootedness. 

“The coastal impact here in the Turks & Caicos is just as important as the sun shining every morning because the beach is really Turks & Caicos. The beach, the donkeys, the sea, it is us. What ties us all together beyond the people is the beach.” 

–Interviewee, Grand Turk 

 

To the people of the Turks & Caicos, these cultural values make life worth living. They are woven on the very fabric of their being and help them understand their past— but most importantly, navigate their future. Each new development on the Islands presents the opportunity for the inclusion of cultural values in the decision-making process. The coast provides far more than mere material benefits and it is time that the leaders of the Turks & Caicos Islands understand and put this at the forefront of our master plan. Only through understanding who we are and where we’re coming from will we be able to understand where we are going. 

I came home to document the cultural values of my people. In the process, I found a piece of myself that I did not know was lost. This is precisely why this topic is so important. To each of my interviewees and the persons who have helped me along the way, thank you. You all have made this research project an enjoyable experience and have imparted so much wisdom that I will carry with me throughout this lifetime. I am forever grateful. 

I leave you, the reader, with this piece of advice that was bestowed upon me in Salt Cay, “When you respect a person for who they are and they respect you for who you are, life becomes so sweet.”



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