Another new book to have come out this year is Selwyn Cudjoe's Narratives of Amerindians in Trinidad and Tobago; or, Becoming Trinbagonian
, published by Calaloux Publications. As I wrote in my commentary/endorsement of this volume: "Thanks to Selwyn Cudjoe's intimate knowledge of the history of Trinidad and Tobago, he provides the reader with a fascinating compendium of key documents on the narration of the Amerindian presence in Trinidad. There is much to be learned here, by both the novice and those with an advanced knowledge of the country. Professor Cudjoe has a keen eye for what is unique, central and foundational, coupled with great skill in bringing to light that which is little known at present. I would not want to begin, or continue, a study of the narrative history of Trinidad's Amerindians without the aid of this wonderful resource. In addition, this work is a testament to the efforts undertaken by Trinidadian scholars in deepening and broadening national self-knowledge, in redefining what Trinidadian means, and in revealing the deep roots of the nation". The book brings together a wide range of materials, from poems to plays, stories, and autobiographical essays that directly relate to the Amerindian presence during the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s, as well as providing some critically important colonial historical documents.
This year has seen the publication of a comprehensive new study by Dutch archaeologist, Arie Boomert, titled The Indigenous Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago: From the First Settlers until Today
, published by Sidestone Press
, and available for free reading online
. The book covers the many changes experienced in the lives of the Amerindian peoples who lived or still inhabit the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, from the earliest occupants, ca. 8000 BC, until at present. Using archaeological, ethnohistorical and linguistic data, it discusses the social, political, economic, and religious development of indigenous society through the ages. The Amerindian struggle with European colonization is chronicled in detail, following centuries of independent existence during pre-Columbian times, as well as the survival of the current people of indigenous ancestry in the twin-island republic. The text has also been endorsed by Ricardo Bharath Hernandez, Chief of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community in Arima, Trinidad: “This book is a welcome addition to the literature we are now seeking to inform our work here at the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, as it brings to light important aspects of our buried history. Of particular interest is the information on the involvement of the Dutch in the struggles of the First Peoples, and the connection with Hierreyma, our great Nepuyo Chieftain. It is an inspiration to those of us who are currently engaged in efforts to secure the rightful place of the First Peoples of this land – Kairi.”
My name is Tracy Assing and I’m the only Amerindian in Town [Editor: in Trinidad, "Town" means the capital, Port of Spain].
I only have one brother but I think of myself as coming from a large family in Arima. Because my extended family has always had a huge presence in my life. I live in Cascade now.
My mom’s family lived at the top of the hill and my dad’s at the bottom, along the river bank, lots of aunts and uncles in-between. The Carib Queen, Valentina Medina, was my grandfather’s sister. I spent my early childhood up the hill, down the hill, exploring the river, watching it change with flooding and quarrying and pollution.
All the women in my family were schooled under the Catholic church from the time of the Arima Mission. I went to Catholic school. I understood it as formality and ritual. But I wasn’t “raised Catholic.” The forest is a temple. The waterfall is a place of worship. Nature takes its course. After we die, we go on to feed other life. Life everlasting.
Around the world, indigenous people have been swelling Catholic ranks for centuries. A common conversion tactic was the replacement of the Earth Mother with a Catholic representative: the Virgin Mary, Santa Rosa, etc. So they would, we would, go to church, but still hold on to our belief systems. I had formal religious instruction at the church and at school. I was very good at it.
For us, our Amerindian heritage is a way of life. Relationships with the river and the forest, with animals we raised and hunted were cultivated very consciously. I didn’t think it particularly unique until I started going to school. First history lessons are inevitably that the island’s first inhabitants were decimated and the indigenous then disappears from the historical record.
I pray all the time. To the sun. The moon. The ocean. The river. The mountains. The land, so things can grow. The plants. I give thanks for everything I encounter, good and bad. I go in the forest. I am distracted by my worries. I stump my toe and fall down. I learn to pay attention to where I am going. I learn patience.
I was diagnosed with hyperactive thyroid at age 13 and docs wanted to put me on lithium and radiation. But I don’t take any of the classically—read “medically”—prescribed treatments. My dad started me on yoga and New Agey/Amerindian potions and crystals, changed my diet and for the most part it has worked. But it is hard for me to relax. I can’t even float. The closest I get to relaxation is having a hand-rolled “bush cigar” in the forest.
Instead of a teddy bear, I had a teddy cat. I share my apartment with a cat called “Cat.” I wanted to honour her wild, natural life and didn’t give her a “human name.” Although the landlady calls her Ninja. We talk often and she likes it when I call her, “Wild Girl” or “Sweet Girl”. (The cat, not the landlady.)
As I grew into being a writer and recognised the power of published work, I felt compelled to write the indigenous back into the story of these islands. My documentary, The Amerindians premiered at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival in 2010. It won best short documentary at Toronto’s Caribbean Tales last year and is being used in Caribbean Studies and Indigenous Studies classrooms at several schools in North America.
There were many reasons for indigenous people not to stand up before: being called uncivilised or cannibal. A beer is a Carib, right? And Arawak sells chicken. I think we will find that indigenous blood runs through the veins of a greater section of the population than we have allowed ourselves to imagine.
Being Amerindian is important to me and to my family. It isn’t all that I am but it is the who I am that I will always represent.
The best thing about being the only Amerindian in Town is that no one asks any questions when I disappear into the bush. The worst thing is (dealing with) the people who treat the place like they’re visiting. And they are terrible visitors at that. The other day I found a beer can stuck in the stone underneath a waterfall.
“Trini” is the title conferred to someone born here.
My blood is in the soil of Trinidad and Tobago.
Originally published on August 3, 2015, by the Trinidad Guardian
Subject: Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean: Memory, Identity, and the Politics of History
In this episode of the History Watch podcast series, Dr. Maximilian Forte
of Concordia University is in conversation with Dr. Audra A. Diptee
. They discuss memory, identity, and the politics of history as it relates to the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. For more on Dr. Forte’s work see openanthropology.org/
The First Peoples narrative
Originally published here
By Bridget Brereton
November 5, 2014
In my last few pieces, I’ve been writing about different narratives of T&T’s history—last time I looked at the Chinese-Trinidadian narrative.
There’s another old/new narrative of our past which is rightfully gaining much more public recognition these days. This is the Amerindian or First Peoples narrative, which puts the indigenous (aboriginal) inhabitants of the two islands at the centre.
A magazine type supplement was published by the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies and printed by the Express last month, in connection with the First Peoples Heritage Week 2014. Its several essays provide an in-depth version of the narrative. The authors include community leaders like Ricardo Bharath Hernandez and Rabina Shar, historians or archaeologists (the late Peter Harris and Angelo Bissessarsingh), and younger activists like Tracy Assing, who made the excellent film The Amerindians in 2010.
The narrative has a political (not party politics) agenda: to write the First Peoples back into the national (and regional) story. For too long, the “extinction narrative” has prevailed in T&T and the Caribbean islands (not in Guyana or Belize). This insists that all the Amerindians were “wiped out”, they “disappeared”, and they are no longer part of the living history of these islands. (As someone who has written about T&T’s history, I am as guilty as anyone).
This “extinction narrative” was linked to an argument about “purity”: No “pure” Amerindian descendants have existed in T&T since the 1800s, and mixed-race people with surnames like Bharath or Assing have no right to claim indigenous identity. We need only to think about the nature of T&T’s present-day population to see how ridiculous this argument is.
It’s the group led by Bharath Hernandez, originally called the Santa Rosa Carib Community and more recently renamed the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, which has done the most over many years to insist that the story of our indigenous peoples is the foundation of the nation’s (and region’s) existence. And, more than that, to insist there are still thousands of people in T&T today who are descended from those peoples, even if they don’t (yet) know it. There is also a newer organisation, the Elders Council of the Warao Community, which is based in the south and represents the Warao people.
In 2005, Canadian anthropologist Maximilian Forte published an excellent book with a very long, typically academic title: Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs: (Post) Colonial Representations of Aboriginality in T&T. This book narrated the history of the islands’ Amerindians during the colonial period, and documented the efforts of the Santa Rosa Carib Community to claim indigenous identity and to seek greater public recognition for the people it spoke for.
Of course this is an academic work, with a limited readership, so the supplement published last month, with its short, simply written essays, is very welcome. Hopefully, it introduced many readers to the First Peoples narrative of the nation’s history, and informed them about the efforts being made to raise public awareness of our indigenous heritage.
Speaking at the launch of First Peoples Heritage Week last month, President Anthony Carmona called it a “statement of resilience” and expressed a “sense of pride in history emanating from them” (the representatives of the First Peoples). Past wrongs can’t be altered, he noted, but we can influence the present and future. (Sunday Express 12 October).
It’s important to understand and support the multi-faceted movement to ensure our First Peoples are re-inserted into the historical narrative of T&T. The statement from the Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration (co-sponsors of the Heritage Week along with the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community), “The foundation of our society is built on the legacy of our First Peoples”, should be taken seriously.
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