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There's one group of people who will always remember the past and where they came from - these are the Gullah people of South Carolina

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Gulla People and Gulla Culture


While many bask in the sunlight on a sleepy sunny afternoon in hammocks between the Spanish moss covered Cyprus and Oak trees on the sea islands of South Carolina, the history of the land is often overlooked. But there's one group of people who will always remember the past and where they came from as they still hold on to their traditions given to them by their ancestors - these are the Gullah people of South Carolina.

The descendants of the West African slaves brought to the south during the years of the slave trade are referred to as Gullah or Geechee people, depending on what area of the south is being discussed. In South Carolina's Lowcountry these people are known as Gullah people.

In 2006, Congress officially recognized the Gullah and Geechee people and their way of life by designating the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. This area is managed by the United States Department of the Interior's National Park Service and encompasses a swath of land from Wilmington, N.C. to Jacksonville, Fl.

This area was inundated with slaves prior to the Civil War who were forced to work in the rice, indigo, and cotton fields for wealthy plantation owners. Although these people came to the country as captives and often times treated with brute force, they retained their cultural identity by implementing their former ways of life with their new circumstances.

For instance, when the enslaved Africans were ordered to work in the rice fields they had already done so in their native lands of West Africa and brought their skills for rice cultivation and tidal irrigation to the crops. This unexpected expertise lent itself to massive success and inspired more and more rice crops to develop throughout the south, which in turn drove more and more slaves into the country. This process also accounts for the fact that the blacks soon outnumbered the whites on the land they were forced to work. (The number of blacks also continued to rise as many of the African's had developed natural resistance to diseases like malaria so they lived while many whites on the plantations died).

Though the slaves worked tirelessly throughout the years they created a sense of community among themselves by holding on to their West African heritage. They used the grasses of the salt marshes to weave what we now call sweetgrass baskets. These baskets were used to store and carry dry goods. The skill of basket weaving was passed down from mother to daughter for generations so that it is still a major part of the lives of today's Gullah communities where the baskets are used in their daily lives and sold to tourists.

Another element of the past that the Gullah people are known for is their language. It is an English- based Creole language with roots in the Krio language used in West Africa, specifically Sierra Lione. It is thought that this language began as a result of the interaction with the whites of the land and was integrated with the native tongue of the slaves. Over the years, the Gullah language further developed into a strongly-accented form of modern English with select West African words or word-forms blended together.

The Gullah language was able to survive from generation to generation through the use of storytelling. This art form was done as a way to preserve their cultural past and impart that culture onto new generations. Gullah stories are available in many gift shops throughout the Gullah/Geechee corridor featuring traditional tales and the language of the people (along with translations in many cases).

The Gullah language also exists in popular culture with the spiritual song "Kumbayah." In Gullah this means "come by here" and in the context of the song the singer asks, "Come by here, o lord."

Religion is an important aspect in the lives of the Gullah people and in 1994 the American Bible Society published "De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Luke Write: The Gospel according to Luke." This book of the Bible was written in the Gullah language and translated by Gullah people.

Being of a spiritual nature, Gullah people often treat burial with a great sense of ritual like their African ancestors. The face of the deceased is always positioned in burial to face east to signify the circle of life and the rising and setting of the sun. Broken pottery also adorns the graves of the deceased and is done so to symbolically break the chain of death in the family.

The Gullah people also are known to perform various rituals to rid themselves, their homes, livestock, and other items from evil or untoward spirits that might linger after death or come about out of the blue.

This connection to the spiritual world and religion is another reason the Gullah people have remained a closely knit community as it has always given them a need to come together in times of rejoicing and hardship.

In addition to language and religion, the Gullah term is also applied to the medicine, food, and fishing and farming traditions of the West African descendants.

Even with technology making the world a smaller and more accessible place, the Gullah make it a point to live off the resources of the sea islands. They are believers in using natural forms of medicine that can be derived from the earth via roots, herbs, and concoctions of the two. Many Gullah communities have female elders who tend to those sick with colds and other small ailments by having them inhale various natural herbs believed to have healing properties. However, the Gullah people do not believe in "witch doctors" or any form of medicine that uses spells or hexes as this is a direct interference with their religious beliefs and practices.

Living off the land for medicinal purposes is nothing compared to what the Gullah people can do with the natural food resources of the sea islands.

Vacationers and other visitors to the Lowcountry frequently seek out foods that are based on Gullah dishes without even realizing it. Boiled peanuts (or boiled "gubers" as the Gullah people would say) are such a popular snack down south that few know where it got its roots.

Another popular dish with Gullah roots is that of gumbo, which has an okra-base and a host of other vegetables, spices, and meats. The word gumbo is derived from an Angola-based language in West Africa.

Visitors to Edisto undoubtedly have tried Gullah food if they've ever made or ordered what is commonly referred to as Lowcountry boil or frogmore stew. This consists of boiled shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes combined in a bucket and served steaming hot. This recipe enabled the people to make a feast off the readily available food of the land and water.

Throughout the history of the south both blacks and whites have made a living off the abundant water and land of the area. This living was made easier by the farming and fishing techniques implemented by the West African slaves and handed down through the generations to the Gullah people.

Through the use of weighted casting nets the Gullah people have always been able to catch fish, crab, and shrimp from the creeks that wind their way through the Lowcountry. These methods caught on with people of all walks of life so that now it is not uncommon to see tourists standing knee-deep in creeks throwing nets into the water hoping to make a catch.

While the Gullah ways have infiltrated the mainstream world, the Gullah people managed to hold true to their heritage and maintain their way of life for years while living alongside the ever-changing world. They are as much a part of the Lowcountry as the Lowcountry is a part of them. Their presence will forever act as a reminder of the past and how to properly respect that past it must be appreciated and understood.

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