The stylized huts look rather familiar. “They’re from Pirates of the Carib­bean II — the cannibal village,” says Irvince Aug­uiste, project manager of Dominica’s Touna village. “Nineteen people from our village were in the film, and they gave the huts to us afterwards.”

Touna is not a cannibal village, but the tribe that inhabits it is fascinating in a different way. The inhabitants are Kalinago — or Caribs, as they are better known to outsiders.

Despite giving their name to the Caribbean Sea and islands, there are very few Caribs left. Their days were numbered soon after Columbus discovered the region in 1492. The Spanish Crown gave settlers and explorers a free rein to take the inhabitants of the islands as slaves, but the Caribs resisted.

Island by island, they were wiped out or forced to retreat until there was only Dominica left. They were saved by the mountainous, rainforest-covered terrain. It became their hideaway as the Spanish thought it not worth fighting over.

Following French, then English takeovers, the Caribs were left with a tiny territory of less than 200 acres (later increased to 3,783). But a small population survived — and now just under four thousand Caribs live in the territory.

Touna is home to a remarkable project which aims to show visitors a living Kalinago village. All 70 or so villagers have a stake in the project, and they are opening their homes to visitors.

The homeowners give demonstrations of traditional skills, such as basket-weaving, extracting juice from sugar cane or making cassava bread, but around them, life goes on as normal. Dogs wander around wanting their tummies tickled, children protest as mom brushes their hair and guests can chew the fat with residents in one of the traditionally-thatched outdoor living areas.

The idea is that everything is interactive. There are plans to let visitors stay in spare rooms and hammocks, while guests are also encouraged to try making their own baskets or sugar cane juice.

Each villager does what they can for the common good. Some organize gentle floats down the river in inflatable rings, some cook, some give explanatory walks round their herb garden.

Strolling through the valley between the houses, guests are encouraged to pluck guavas from the tree. Cocoa plants, breadfruit trees and pineapple bushes are pointed out and the villagers identify the plants used to make canoes and thatched roofs.

Auguiste, who is also one of the six members of the Kalinago tribe council, says that it is only in the last five years that the Kalinago have really started to realize the benefits of tourism. “In a way, we have been working in tourism for hundreds of years,” he says. “No one knew the island as well as us, so we were used as guides. But now the people are realizing the value of the traditions and are studying them again.”

His thoughts are echoed by Kevin Dangleben, manager of Kalinago Barana Aute (or Carib Model Village). This is a more slick, but less immersive Carib Cultural experience, which opened in 2006.

Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the village features reconstructed traditional buildings and a walking trail past trees and plants that have been historically used for canoe-building, medicines and buildings.

Kevin says that the new projects are catering for demand. “Tourists have always been interested in the Carib Territory,” he argues. “But they used to complain that they would just drive through and not see anything.

“Kalinago Barana Aute changed that. People can now get a feel for the pre-Columbian lifestyle.”

He also believes that the development has had a positive effect on the Kalinago — the model village employs basket weavers, bread makers, tour guides, dancers and musicians. It also offers the opportunity for local craftspeople to sell traditional goods in a place where the tourists will actually stop.

But there is a wider effect. In displaying over 5,000 years of history and culture, the often marginalized and oppressed Kalinago have discovered they have something to shout about.

“The Kalinago have always felt like a minority, looked down upon by outsiders — including other Dominicans,” explains Kevin.

“But the village has generated interest about the Kalinago way of life within the Carib Territory residents themselves. It elevates self-esteem and pride; we’ve realized that outsiders actually care and want to know about us.”

Centuries after the Caribs were forced to hide away in Dominica’s mountains and gullies, they are starting to welcome the insiders in. Survival is turning into a celebration of a culture which very nearly died out.

Good to know
• Touna, kalinagopeople.com, and Kalinago Barana Aute, kalinagobaranaaute.com, are around 15 minutes drive apart on the east coast of Dominica. Both are close to Melville Hall International Airport.

• There are no direct flights to Dominica from Canada — a change of plane at hubs such as San Juan, Puerto Rico, or Antigua is required. More information about getting to the island, where to stay and other activities both inside and outside the Carib territory can be found at www.dominica.dm.