The burden of heritage: claiming a place for a West Indian culture



The cultural construction of the past is of increasing interest to anthropologists, as well as to the people they study. Many of the most forceful and visible expressions of the past are fueled by the so-called heritage movement, which is becoming a worldwide concern, born of an uneasy combination of national ideology, ethnic politics, and tourist industry interests. I explore the cultural politics of heritage in relation to the different ways in which the people of the Caribbean island of St. John, the U.S. Virgin Islands, have made a place for themselves in time and space. An exploration of the role of oral tradition in constructing different versions of the past shows that the islanders themselves feel considerable ambivalence toward the expectations of the promulgators of heritage, including anthropologists. I raise questions both about the construction of historical identity in the Caribbean and, more generally, about the witting or unwitting role of anthropologists in the creation of heritage.