01 February 2014

Educating Gabriel Haslip-Viera

We are publishing this response, in part to counter the unprofessional reviews to which Gabriel Haslip-Viera has taken to writing (with the now usual distortions on his part, a signature of what emerges as a a pattern of sloppy thinking, overweening prejudice and poor scholarship that must embarrass his colleagues and students), and in order to feature an exciting and important new book by Tony Castanha that helps to clean up some of the damage done to Caribbean studies by the perpetuation of colonial dogmas of "Indigenous extinction":

My Response to Gabriel Haslip-Viera’s Review of 
The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico) 
Tony Castanha 

Dear Editor: Guatiao.

I am writing to express my concern regarding a review published in your journal last year (CENTRO Journal 24(1): 192–7, 2012). The reviewer’s name is Gabriel Haslip-Viera, and the book reviewed is titled, The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). I would not normally comment on a book review, but because this one directly targets my own work and is unprofessionally done, I feel compelled to.

I am choosing to reply back, not so much because of the content, arguments, and opinions of the reviewer, which are mainly spurious as touched on below, but because Haslip-Viera misquotes, misrepresents, and thus takes my work out of context throughout the review. When it comes to contemporary material on the indigenous Caribbean, the reviewer is well known by some as a scholar who belittles and degrades any mention of native survival and continuity. He has contempt for descendants who rightfully chose to self-identify with their indigenous past and ancestors. When writing the book I was well aware of the controversial nature of the subject matter, the possible scrutiny it could invoke, and polemic neocolonial scholars like Haslip-Viera, or those who continue to uphold colonial ideologies within a supposed post-colonial era. What I did not expect was that my work and interviewees would be continually misquoted, misrepresented, and taken out of context. This is unacceptable.

For instance, on the bottom of page 196, he misquotes an interviewee by deleting the word “indio” and inserting in its place the name “Taíno.” He misrepresents her because this is not a term she used or meant to say. Her family and others throughout mountain and rural regions of Puerto Rico have little conception of this name because it was introduced from outside of their communities and is not a part of family histories. The name “Taíno” is also not an accurate word to describe indigenous Caribbean peoples of the northern Antilles as it was never used by inhabitants as a term of self-ascription, at least prior to its nineteenth-century anthropological invention. 

Haslip-Viera misquotes another interviewee by again inserting the same word where it was not said or meant to be said: “We (the Taíno) were a great empire” (p. 194). Is this scholarship? That sentence is not written anywhere in the book. He further should have known to use brackets instead of parenthesis when inserting words within quotations. In the Preface of my book, I provide an in-depth explanation of the terms used and how I arrived at using them. I personally do not use the word at all in the book except when it is cited or quoted by someone else. Haslip-Viera chooses to ignore this, thus misrepresenting the intent of my work in the process. (See other misquoted or incorrectly quoted sentences in the review on page 193 [second and fourth paragraphs and at the bottom of the page], page 194 [number 3 in the middle], page 197 [at the top], and use of incorrect page numbers on the bottom of page 193).

The reviewer also inserts whenever possible the fanciful name “Taíno revivalists,” basically placing myself and my interviewees into a misguided stereotype. He is enamored to using this term because he is apparently the one who coined it in order to be able to conveniently mock the subject. His edited book, Taíno Revival (1999), elevates the name and concept in a largely demeaning way. This is demonstrated by titles such as “Making Indians Out of Blacks: The Revitalization of Taíno Identity in Contemporary Puerto Rico” and “The Indians are coming! The Indians are coming!: The Taíno and Puerto Rican Identity.” Most of the material in the book essentially minimizes a modern-day indigenous presence and continues to perpetuate the extinction of “real” indigenous Caribbean peoples. This falls right in line with an almost five hundred year precedence of writing the original peoples of the region out of the history books. Much of the content of this work can only be seen as an orientalist neocolonial roasting.

My book has nothing to do with “revivalists.” Many of the sources used came out before the creation of such a term and a so-called “Taíno revival movement” popularized by Haslip-Viera and others. As I note, addressing past and present issues related to Western imperialism in Borikén are vital to the book. “As the oldest colony in the hemisphere, Puerto Rico fits this description and model quite well. Therefore, this is a very serious matter. It is not a depiction of a ‘romanticized’ past but of a people struggling right now under Puerto Rican criollo [elite] and American ‘gringo’ domination and control” (Castanha, p. xii). Many of my interviewees are hard-working, respected members of their communities. A number of them are elders. So when Haslip-Viera trivially puts the name in quotations (“elders”), he displays an utter disdain for those who are most knowledgeable about the past and shows how far removed he is from understanding the subject matter of my book. Should such a reviewer be taken seriously?

Another way he misrepresents my work is by mentioning how I rely on “journalistic sources,” in addition to academic ones. This is ridiculous. I cite three or four newspaper sources in the entire book. His real argument is with Stan Steiner’s book, The Islands: The Worlds of the Puerto Ricans, which is a scholarly narrative that is sufficiently cited with an assay of sources used. Haslip-Viera conveniently labels him a “journalist,” assuming one cannot engage in different forms of writing. This would logically make María Teresa Babín, who co-edited a book with Steiner, a petty journalist too. Steiner actually wore many hats. He was a historian, journalist, consultant, and taught extensively at the university level. He authored many books over the course of his career. The comment the reviewer makes about whether or not Steiner “actually believed” there were still indigenous peoples on the island when writing the book is beside the point. The abundance of evidence he provides for a contemporary Indian presence is clear and supports my thesis. This is a good reason evidencing how and why scholarship is done—to arrive at an understanding or dialectic of important and controversial issues through a variety of sources.

What is interesting about the arguments and opinions Haslip-Viera brings out is how most of them are addressed in the book, often in detail, despite his assertions to the contrary. For instance, since I don’t quote to his satisfaction a passage from Steiner about African slavery and influences in Puerto Rico, a “major claim” is “undermined” (p. 195). In fact, I go to considerable lengths to explain and discuss these issues in numerous places, including ethnic intermarriage and integration, but one would have to read the book to really know this. As examples, I write, “Accordingly, this book is not meant to disparage the African element of our heritage, which has been influential and strong . . .”; “African slaves also often fled, alone or in groups, into the forests and mountainous interior.”; and “The African presence and influence in Borikén has been significant ever since” [the late 1520s and 1530s] (p. 6, pp. 69–70). I acknowledge African, Spanish, and other influences, but Haslip-Viera’s review blankets this and gives the impression that history is frozen in time and that only so-called “pure blooded” Indian people really count. This is, not surprisingly, his central argument for upholding the entrenched notion of Caribbean Indian extinction.

The reviewer writes that the title of my book is inappropriate “because pure-blooded Taínos (100 percent Amerindian mix) became extinct probably by the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century as survivors mixed biologically and culturally with Spaniards, Africans, and others who came to Puerto Rico in the succeeding decades and centuries” (p. 193). Firstly, the time frame for this “extinction” is conjecture based on self-serving colonial Spanish accounts. Moreover, it is an anachronistic statement based on the discredited social Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest” as applied to humans, where “pure” identities were thought to have the best chance of survival. As Richard Grounds explains, “Rather than being a statement of fact or representing a scholarly analysis, the language of extinction is an expression of a social idea. This is the language of social Darwinism” (in Grounds, Tinker and Wilkins, eds., 2003: 302). Haslip-Viera’s statement infers that any human being on the face of the earth who is not “100 percent” pure is extinct, which is of course absurd. “Racial purity” has long been biologically proven to be a scientific abstraction. I go in-depth in examining issues and processes of active and passive resistance, cultural survival, adaptation, absorption and continuity, and convoluted notions of “purity” to show how indigenous Caribbean peoples, particularly the Jíbaro of Puerto Rico, are present today. This process has been similar to the survival and continuity of many recognized indigenous groups around the world.

In closing, maintaining theories of extinction and the issue of identity go hand-in-hand. Using “racial purity” and “blood quantum” to determine “extinction” is reductionist, racist, and a denial of one’s human right to self-identification. Continuing to erase the presence of a people invariably denies them this right. It is thus hard to believe that any scholar in the twenty-first century would be taken seriously for rationalizing such a thesis that denies a people’s existence and has been so damaging to countless numbers of peoples throughout history. Therefore all that is left to do now is to publish this rebuttal letter in your journal so your readers can judge for themselves the accuracy of the review and merits of all the arguments presented.

19 October 2013

‘Indigenous Guyanese youth facing racism, human trafficking challenges.’

‘Indigenous Guyanese youth facing racism, human trafficking challenges’
By Michelle Loubon
Trinidad Express Newspapers | Oct 19, 2013 at 9:27 PM ECT

Unemployment and human trafficking are two of the major issues confronting indigenous youth in Guyana.

Michelle Williams, a youth leader among Guyana’s First Nation Peoples, made this comment during a 2013 panel discussion on International First Peoples at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) campus, O’Meara Road, Arima, campus earlier this month.

The theme of the conference was “Exploring Heritage, Consolidating Traditions and Creating A Legacy”.

The theme of the panel was “Youth, Gender and Elders of the First Peoples Communities”.

Williams said: “Our youths are finding it hard to get a job. There is human trafficking. Some of them are lured away with promises of good jobs. And they are often faced with a different dilemma when they are far away from home. Some opt to leave their homes and the capital of Georgetown and they are exposed to different threats.”

They face other challenges like racism. They are called ‘bucks’. They do not mean Reebok. The Dutch called them buck because they are fleet footed. They say they move fast as a buck,” she added.

Apart from unemployment and human trafficking, Williams said there was the social problem of incest.

Incest is taboo in Guyana. Cousin to cousin and they are having relationships. The Village Council has a role in ensuring it does not happen. Some youths feel there is no shame in doing it.”

Despite the challenges, Williams said: “It is important to work towards leaving a lasting legacy and creating a fortified regional approach to the treatment of First Nation peoples.”

At the end of her presentation, Williams presented documents on data about Guyana’s First Nation Peoples to Chief Ricardo Bharath, from the Santa Rosa First Peoples’ Community.

17 October 2013

First Peoples hold the key: Protection of our natural environment.

First Peoples hold the key. Protection of our natural environment.
By Heather Dawn-Herrera
Trinidad Express Newspapers | Oct 17, 2013 at 12:58 AM ECT

As the events of Amerindian Heritage Week unfold we continue to be privy to smoke ceremonies, water rituals, and ceremonies to ancestral spirits of Anaparima or San Fernando Hill and much more. From the just concluded conference we learned much about the relationship between man and nature, how God manifests in all things natural.

The life of First Peoples the world over revolves around nature. In Central and South America, even as far as Australia, First Peoples are heavily dependent on nature. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, First Peoples have adapted to some extent to ways of life set upon us by our colonial past. Yet that is just on the face of things. Our First Peoples still practise their traditional ways of life as is evident in their contribution to our cuisine, spirituality, health and wellness of our natural environment, and much more.

My question is, is our natural environment being taken for granted in this modern day world even by our First Peoples?

As Dr Brinsley Samaroo observed at the conference, Nature was abundant before the coming of Europeans into the Caribbean. There was never a problem with lack of natural resources. There was generation and regeneration in the circle of life that our First Peoples lived.

Ricardo Bharath Hernandez Chief of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community spoke of the intimate connection that First Peoples have with nature.

First Peoples culture and spirituality is nature-based. God manifests through nature. We cannot exist without fire and water because we have these elements in us. Without them we cannot survive.”

My question is are we taking these basic gifts for granted in today’s world?

Because we live on two small islands Trinidad and Tobago, our lands are limited. We look around and see the extensive quarrying of our watersheds in important places such as Guanapo, Tapana and Blanchisseuse, some of our last remaining pristine areas.

Blanchisseuse is the very area where a minimal amount of land has been returned to our First Peoples. Our watersheds are not as inexhaustible as we may think especially in this period of the onset of climate change and the continuing abuse of man on our natural resources. We need water to survive. Water is life and it gives life.

We look around and see heavy deforestation across our landscape. We need our forested hills and valleys for food, shelter and medicines and much more. The threat of denudation of our natural landscape is very real. The air we breathe, the very survival of life forms that form the chain of life in our support system are threatened. This is far more serious than we think.

Cristo Adonis, Pyai of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community gave some insights into protection of the natural environment as practised by our First Peoples, some of which are no longer present in today’s existence.

We share the earth with other entities; fish, animals plants. We were taught to respond to all these things. Harmony in diversity. We ask permission of the plant when we approach it for medicinal uses. When we hunt, we hunt only for survival. All parts of the animal caught must be used and shared. Nothing is wasted because everything is sacred. This preservation of all things natural was destroyed by the invaders and now they are making more laws and setting boundaries.”

What needs to be done now is for a national call to be made for the protection of what remains of our natural environment. To this column’s mind, this is the most important decision that must be made before anything else. Preservation of what remains of our watersheds, our aquifers, and our rain forested hills and valleys must be enforced by declaring sanctuaries of them all.

The minimal amount of lands returned to the First Peoples does not have that vital presence of life support water, that precious element that is so basic for the activities that have been listed as part of the recreation of the life of the First Peoples Village.

Given the history of sustainable use of our natural environment, respect for nature and co existence with all forms of life, lands returned to our First Peoples must be increased to include a number of sanctuaries that only our First Peoples have the knowledge and practice to preserve.

As citizens struggling for equal importance in Trinidad and Tobago, our First Peoples must be given the chance to contribute to the health, wellness and productivity of our land. Our land must return to one of abundance as we see from the examples set by our First Peoples, examples that must be studied and emulated by all.

15 October 2013

Carib Community want National Holiday.

Carib community want national holiday.
By Camille Clarke
T&T Guardian | Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Amerindians representing different countries during a procession to commemorate
the launch of Amerindian Heritage Week, through the streets of Arima from the Hyarima statue
to the first peoples community centre on Paul Mitchell Street yesterday.
The procession was preceded by a smoke ceremony at the Hyarima statue.

Santa Rosa First People’s Community chief Ricardo Bharath Hernandez is calling for a national holiday to commemorate the Caribs, the first people to live in T&T. Hernandez was speaking after the smoke ceremony and street procession in Arima.

"The event today was in recognition of our history and Hyarima’s resistance to the Spanish in October 1637. There is a call for an international holiday on the 14th in recognition of the first people of this land. I know the authorities will have to think for another public holiday long and hard before they consider it,” he said. Hernandez said if the holiday was not possible the authorities could consider a one-day holiday event like the Chinese were granted in 2006, to commemorate 200 years since the arrival of Chinese immigrants.

Speaking about the contingent of Caribs from the Caribbean and South America, he said: “Spiritual leaders from Suriname and the other countries were called in for sanctification and interaction. To guide us in spirituality for this purpose. Some are still practicing the original tradition.” Yesterday, the smoke ceremony began at the statue of Hyarima at Hollis Avenue. Hyarima was said to have been known by the Dutch and Spanish forces who referred to him as “the great Chieftain of the Nepuyo people.

They filled calabash bowls with bay leaves, incense, shells, cassava wine, hibiscus, poui, lilac and other flowers and offered them up to the great spirit. The women and men wore traditional outfits with crocheted tops and feathers in fire-engine red. They beat drums, blew into a large shell and chanted. Hernandez addressed the crowd that gathered to pay homage to the creator.

We invoke ourselves and surrender ourselves to him/her recognising that we as humans are weak. He is strong and we ask forgiveness for our weakness,” he said. During the ceremony, first one, then another of the women had a “manifestation.” This manifestation, another one of the women said, was “an ancestor showing they were still around because the body is dead and the spirit is alive.”

Hernandez prayed for the ancestors, peace, a stoppage to all negativity and for the ancestors to keep coming in dreams before the group headed up Woodford Street to the Santa Rosa First People’s Centre at Paul Mitchell Street.