The Snake King of the Kalinago – Dominica’s Kalinago Children Celebrate their Culture

A group of Kalinago children from Dominica has done something quite remarkable. They got together and wrote a storybook based on an ancient Kalinago legend which, from all accounts, is receiving rave reviews, even from fans as far away as the UK.

The book is called The Snake King of the Kalinago and it was written by students from the Atkinson Primary School  with illustrations by teenagers from the Carib Territory in Dominica. The Kalinago (erroneously called Caribs) are descendents of Dominica’s first indigenous settlers. They live on a 3,700 acre territory on the island’s east coast that was set aside for them in 1903. They number approximately 3,500 and elect their own chief who holds the position for 4 years.

The Snake King of the Kalinago tells the story of Bakwa, a great diamond-crested snake with magical powers which slithers out of the sea and goes to live in a cave in the mountains of Dominica. When Maruka, a Kalinago farmer goes to see him, Bakwa uses his powers to grant Maruka his wishes. Then strangers arrive and everything changes.  

L'escalier Tete Chien

The story is the retelling of an ancient Kalinago legend revolved around L’ Escalier Tete Chien (the staircase of the snake) a natural rock formation resembling a staircase that comes out of the Atlantic ocean unto the southern coast of Dominca in the hamlet of Sineku in the Carib Territory. According to the Kalinago legend, it is a pathway made by an enormous boa constrictor (or tête chien) that emerged from the ocean.

The book is published by Papillote Press with support from Wandsworth Ethnic Minority Service of south London, and all primary schools in Wandsworth will receive copies. Currently two of the schools are partnered with primary schools in Dominica. Asked to comment on the book, one child said, “It’s the best story I’ve heard in ages. I loved the snake – he brings so much good luck.”

Dominican historian, Lennox Honeychurch said, “This charming story based o an ancient myth is retold by the island’s children with refreshing liveliness.”

The Snake King of the Kalinago corresponds with similar legends which were prevalent in virtually all the leading cultures of the world.

Mystics throughout Europe have used the symbol of a serpent with its tail in its mouth – a circle, never beginning, never ending – as an emblem of light and eternity.  

According to a Cherokee legend, the snake (indädû’) has supernatural powers and a natural connection with the elements and plant life.

In Japan most children are familiar with the story of a young boy who goes fishing one night and catches a multicoloured turtle and brings it home. The next morning he wakes up to find the turtle gone and a beautiful woman in its place.

In Hindu mythology Lord Vishnu is said to sleep while floating on the cosmic waters on the serpent Shesha.

Numerous African legends feature a snake-god personified by a coiled serpent with its tail in its mouth.

In the Holy Scriptures Christ is likened to the bronze serpent Moses raised to heal the Israelites when they had been afflicted by fiery serpents in the wilderness (Numbers 21: 8- 9; John 3:14). The word for serpent used in the Bible is nahash and it has the same gematria (numerical value) to the word Messiah.  It also features in the book of Genesis, albeit as a purveyor of dubious knowledge.

The Hebrew letter Teth means “a serpent” and its numerical value is nine.

The rod of Asclepius is an ancient symbol associated with astrology, the Greek god Asclepius and with medicine and healing.

The serpent (specifically the adder) is an important magical symbol in Celtic mythology. Its image is found in carvings and sacred jewellery and represented wisdom, good fortune, healing, spiritual energy, cunning and transformation.

The list goes on and on.

In that context, the young authors of the Snake King have done their bit to further dispel the one-time European myth that the Kalinago were “uncivilized” and a people of inferior intellect. The Legend of the Snake King shows that the Kalinago had been on par with other cultures.

Nonetheless, the Kalinago chief, Garnet Joseph is worried that the influence of the outside world, especially North American culture, may succeed in eroding the culture of his people in ways that European conquest and colonization had not been able to do. He sees signs of that in the way some of the Kalinago youth wear their clothes, the music they listen to and the way they speak.  

“We are being plagued with the same problems that affect the youth across the country. Certainly there is no doubt that the impact of the Black Entertainment Television is having an effect on us. We are being bombarded with these negativities and our culture is being dragged from underneath our feet,” Joseph told Dominica News Online.  He said he is hoping to work in collaboration with the Government and ministry of education to ensure that the culture of the Carib people become an integral part in the schools syllabus.

“Within my five years tenure, I am hoping that the ministry of education will work with me to ensure that the Carib history is taught in schools around the country. We need to allow the children to become more aware of our culture. This has been lacking in Dominican schools. It doesn’t teach about the Kalinago history and that is bad,” said Joseph.

In their fight to preserve their culture, the Kalinago have an ally in The Snake King publisher Papillote Press.  An earlier book Yet We Survive: The Kalinago People of Dominica: Our Lives in Words and Pictures, was also published by Papillote Press.

The Snake King of the Kalinago is available from Papillote Press or email

For more information on the Kalinago of Dominica check out the following links:

3 responses to “The Snake King of the Kalinago – Dominica’s Kalinago Children Celebrate their Culture

  1. Pingback: New Books from Papillote Press put Dominica in the Spotlight « Caribbean Book Blog·

  2. Hi,
    My children and I are undertaking a project “Around the world in 180 books” next year. We came to this book through Ann Morgan’s project “Read the World”. We are hoping you can recommend books to us for a 6 year old girl and a 10 year old boy, written by carribean authors who are still resident in their home country? You welcome to email me suggestions joyleavesley1 (at) gmail (dot ) com.

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