24 July 2018

On the Passing of Carib Queen Jennifer Cassar

The Guardian, July 21, 2018

“The Santa Rosa First Peoples Community is mourning the death of its Queen Jennifer Cassar. Cassar, 66, died on Thursday after a brief illness. She would have celebrated her birthday on August 4. She was elected Queen of the Santa Rosa First Peoples’ Community in 2011, until her death. Cassar succeeded then ‘Carib Queen’ Valentina Medina, who died at the age of 78. A statement from the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community said Cassar would be remembered ‘as being a very warm, humble and compassionate Queen of the Community, who worked tirelessly with the young Community members.’ She was a cultural activist for over 20 years and known for her advocacy for the arts…. The ‘Carib Queen’ as she was affectionately called, Jennifer Cassar was born on August 4, 1951 at Malabar, Arima to Nicholasa Lara-Pile and Rawle Pile. She is the first of five children. Her ancestral line was quite deep as she was descended from the full Amerindian bloodline through her maternal great, great, grandparents—Jose and Annicasia Lara (nee Lopez); Great Grandmother Maria Chichita Lara and Grandfather Pablito Lara, also called Hubert de France. Her paternal grandmother was also of full Amerindian blood from Guyana while her mother was also a descendant of the Caribs. Cassar was a member and Assistant Secretary of the Santa Rosa First Peoples (Carib) Community. She was a practising Roman Catholic who lived the Amerindian way of life through her grandparents who observed a staunch indigenous lifestyle through their involvement with the Santa Rosa Festival. She was a member of the Cabinet-appointed Amerindian Project Committee for five years. Cassar represented the Santa Rosa First Peoples Carib Community at the 3rd Indigenous Leaders’ Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama in April 2009. In December of that year she participated in a seminar on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for the Caribbean held in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. She had was a cultural activist for over 20 years and was a member of the Regional Carnival Commission with responsibility for co-ordinating National Stick-Fighting Competitions. As a career public servant, Cassar joined the Public Service of T&T in 1971 and served the country for 40 years. She worked in several government ministries including the Ministries of Education, Community Development, Culture, Sports, Health and the Judiciary. She was also a certified Home Health Care professional.”

Please note: Carib Queen—no quotation marks needed—is not an “affectionate title”. It is a formal title in the Carib community, as has been the case for a period stretching now across three centuries.

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Government of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, Statement from Prime Minister Keith Rowley.

“I wish to extend sincerest and heartfelt condolences to The Santa Rosa First Peoples Community on the passing of the Carib Queen Jennifer Cassar. As the First People mourn this loss so too do the people of Arima, as Mrs. Cassar was a symbol of strength, will and power within this community. Though today we feel sadness having experienced this loss, I feel comforted by the fact that as Carib Queen Jennifer Cassar was able to experience the celebration of the First People across Trinidad and Tobago in 2017. This celebration and recognition of the community showed to all of us the vigour, energy and excitement that was Jennifer Cassar as she ceremoniously paraded through the streets in this celebration. Mrs. Cassar was not only the Carib Queen but also heralded a career in the Public Service of Trinidad and Tobago and served this country for over forty years. She contributed to the development of her country through work in Education, Community Development, Culture, Sport, Health and the Judiciary. Today I take the opportunity to again express my humblest gratitude to Mrs. Jennifer Cassar for her yeoman service to the First Peoples Community, to the Borough of Arima and to Trinidad and Tobago. May her life be an example to those in and outside of the Carib community and may her legacy be carried with love, light and positivity. May she rest in peace”.

CNC3, no date

“Mrs. Jennifer Cassar worked tirelessly to sensitise us to the role and contributions of the First Peoples Community and continuously strived to preserve and revitalise Amerindian history and traditions. The Carib Queen was one of the key advocates who lobbied Government to honour a long-standing call for a one-off holiday to formally recognise her Community’s presence and contribution to our country. Government granted the request and the holiday was celebrated on October 13th, 2017 with Queen Cassar leading a procession through the streets of Arima. She was a member of the Cabinet-appointed Amerindian Project Committee from 2007 and also a member of the Regional Carnival Committee of the National Carnival Commission with responsibility for coordinating National Stick Fighting Competitions”.

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Carib Queen’s life celebrated by President
Sunday Express, July 25, 2018

President of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, Paula-Mae Weekes:

“Having worked for forty years in the public sector before her retirement, Ms. Cassar devoted almost her entire life to the service of her country. I have known her since 1996 when I had been working at the Hall of Justice. I quickly became aware of the esteem in which Ms. Cassar was held by members of her team and was struck by the diligence with which she executed her duties. She was fiercely loyal to the judge for whom she was the Executive Secretary for many years and involved herself with many other ancillary functions of the Judiciary until she retired. During her tenure at the Judiciary, Ms. Cassar held a deep concern for the welfare of the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago. She had always wholeheartedly embraced her indigenous identity and sought to encourage others to also take pride in their heritage. Her inauguration as Carib Queen in 2011 therefore acknowledged her many years of activism and her standing in the First Peoples’ community. I was pleased to follow her leadership as Carib Queen as she worked tirelessly to improve the unity and solidarity of the indigenous people and to secure greater recognition for their customs and traditions, such as stick-fighting [sic]”.

National Carnival Commission, July, 2018.

“The National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago (NCC) joins with the nation in remembering the life of Jennifer Cassar – beloved Carib Queen, organiser, and cultural pioneer – who died on July 19, 2018. Cassar is widely lauded as a smiling, kind-hearted leader who worked alongside her community to organise events such as last year’s grand celebration for the First Peoples Public Holiday. Additionally, she has been an invaluable contributor and guiding figure in the Annual Arima Fest celebrations, Santa Rosa Festival, and First People’s Heritage Week. Cassar would also have a tremendous impact in an area outside of First Peoples’ empowerment movement. She is also fondly remembered for her work in bringing Stick Fighting to the fore and her tireless energy in giving the artform the respect and recognition it so rightly deserves. Remembering Cassar’s legacy and invaluable contributions, NCC Chairman, Winston ‘Gypsy’ Peters said, ‘We, at the Commission, are deeply touched by her passing’”.

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Power 102 FM, July 19, 2018, Press Release from the Arima Borough Council.

“Mayor Lisa Morris-Julian and the Arima Borough Council are grieved by the passing of beloved Carib Queen, Jennifer Cassar. The Council describes the loss as a blow to Arima’s foundation, which is rooted on the First Peoples’ contributions. The Council laments the loss of a phenomenal woman of pure Carib descent. However, the council is thankful that she assisted in extensive work to keep persons of First Peoples’ lineage united and thriving in the Santa Rosa First Peoples’ Community. It recognizes her decades of labour which assisted to create a space in the borough where the First Peoples are acknowledged and respected. The Council recalls fond memories of the late Carib Queen as a smiling, kind-hearted leader who worked alongside her Community to organize events such as last year’s grand celebration for the First Peoples one-off Public Holiday. The Council will miss her contribution to this year’s Arima Fest celebrations, Santa Rosa Festival and First People’s Heritage Week. The Arima Borough Council wishes to express sincere condolences to her family, the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community and all of her loved ones”.

Daily Express, July 20, 2018, by Sandhya Santoo

“Education Minister and Arima Member of Parliament Anthony Garcia also extended condolences on the passing of Cassar….’She contributed to the development of her country through work in Education, Community Development, Culture, Sport, Health and the Judiciary. Today I take the opportunity to again express my humblest gratitude to Mrs. Jennifer Cassar for her yeoman service to the First Peoples Community, to the Borough of Arima and to Trinidad and Tobago. May her life be an example to those in and outside of the Carib community and may her legacy be carried with love, light and positivity. May she rest in peace,’ he said”.

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Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, July 20, 2018, by Carol Matroo

“Arima Mayor Lisa Morris-Julien said Cassar was not only Carib Queen but the ‘Queen of Arima’…. ‘We expected to have Mrs Cassar with us for a very long time. She was loved by everyone, by her neighbours, by the entire community. Every Arimian was proud that she was our queen. She was heavily involved in culture and I credit her for bringing back stick fighting back to Arima, always trying to ensure that we become the cultural mecca that we should be,’ Morris-Julian said…. It was Cassar’s dream to establish an Amerindian village in Blanchisseuse and the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community was granted 100 acres towards this venture. ‘Government gave them the land and I’m so happy that she lived to see the one off holiday (last October 13). Her role in the community could never be underestimated. She was the right hand of the chief (Ricardo Bharath) and she always took the needs of her people before her own. She was an excellent mother and wife,’ she said.”

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Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, July 24, 2018, by Carol Matroo

“Her casket will be open for public viewing at the Arima Town Hall on Friday from 10 am to 12 noon and a funeral service will be at the Santa Rosa RC Church. A full Amerindian ritual service will be conducted at the Santa Rosa Cemetery ‘where her body would be offered back to the elements from which she came.’ Indigenous members from Guyana and Surname are expected to attend”.

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Daily Express, July 23, 2018

“Viewing of the body will take place at the Arima Town Hall from 10 a.m. to 12 noon where a condolence book will be available. After this there will be a procession through the streets of Arima and then to the Santa Rosa Catholic Church on Woodford Street for the funeral service. Following the interment at the Catholic Cemetery, guests will gather at the Santa Rosa First Peoples Centre at Paul Mitchell Street, Arima. Nightly wakes will be held today and on Tuesday at Koon Koon Street, Malabar, Arima from 7p.m. to 12 p.m. On Wednesday, the wake will be held at the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community headquarters at Paul Mitchell street”.

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Caribbean National Weekly, July 22, 2018

“Carib Chief Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez has described her passing as a great loss to the Community, especially coming on the eve of the Santa Rosa De Lima Festival on August 26, the 223rd Anniversary of the festival. ‘She was indeed a Queen, for our time’”.

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Updated on July 29, 2018

04 December 2017

First Peoples: We are Trinis too

Originally published in Newsday
Sunday, October 8, 2017

Narad Mahabir acts as Hyarima in the play Hyarima and the Saints written by Gyasi Garcia of St Francis College during the First Peoples Schools Outreach programme, UWI-ROYTEC North Campus, on September 26. This was one of the events leading up to Friday’s First Peoples holiday.

After years of clamouring for greater national acknowledgement, the First Peoples in TT will be recognised formally on Friday with a one-off public holiday.

And to commemorate the observance, the community has organised a week of activities, under the theme, On Becoming Visible Towards Meaningful Recognition, in an effort to enlighten fellow descendants and others about the history and contribution of the indigenous peoples to the country’s development. 

The activities began on Friday with a lecture on the topic, DNA Testing of the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago: Identification of their genealogical ancestry, at the National Academy for the Performing Arts, Port-of-Spain.

Later that day, the group hosted a Waponaka Concert, a rich mix of parang, calypso and other cultural presentations at the Santa Rosa First Peoples Centre, Paul Mitchell Street, Arima.

Today, at 6 pm, the community is expected to host an orientation ceremony for visiting First Peoples delegates at the centre on Paul Mitchell Street. 

Tomorrow, the group is due to host an ancestral journey to Moruga, at which celebrants will perform sacred rites and various musical expressions.

Other events scheduled for the week include a symposium, titled, From Chrysalis to Butterfly: On Becoming Visible Towards Meaningful Recognition, at the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s O’Meara campus; a children’s rally and a ceremonial walk through Arima.

For Chief Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez, president of the Santa Rosa First Peoples, Arima–perhaps the largest and most vocal First Peoples community in the country–the holiday is not intended to encourage relaxation.

Rather, he said, apart from reflecting on the atrocities which were committed against the indigenous peoples, centuries ago, the holiday presented an opportunity to truly celebrate their contribution. 

It gives First Peoples descendants, numbering close to 1,500 in Arima, and others a chance to participate fully in the community’s events.

“Because, in ordinary times, without a holiday, people would usually say they can’t come because they have to work or their children can’t come because they have to go to school. So, my feeling and the community’s feeling was that with a national holiday, nobody cannot use that excuse not to participate.”

Outside of Arima, First Peoples descendants can be found in Lopinot, La Pastora, Maracas/St Joseph, Santa Cruz, Paria, Brasso Seco, Tabaquite, Moruga, Brazil, San Rafael and Talparo.

Bharath-Hernandez, who has said repeatedly they are not just another minority cultural group, insisted they had inherent rights with respect to land titles, which were supported by the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Some 144 countries, including TT, voted for the Declaration.

Bharath-Hernandez was cautiously optimistic that the group’s lobby for a heritage park–a permanent place to call their own–will become a reality.

Plans for the park began during the former People’s National Movement administration, under late prime minister Patrick Manning. A Cabinet decision was taken to give the First Peoples a five-acre plot of land along Blanchisseuse Road, Arima, which they found to be inadequate. The community later identified a hilly piece of land which had once been occupied by First Peoples centuries ago.

When the People’s Partnership came into office, in May 2010, it rescinded the PNM’s offer of a five-acre plot, and gave the community an additional 20-acres at the same site. The land has since been surveyed, following which an offer of lease was issued to the community from the Commissioner of State Lands on September 9, 2015. Alluding to the movement toward economic diversification in this year’s budget, Bharath-Hernandez said First Peoples in other parts of the region, namely Dominica, Guyana and Suriname, were already firmly entrenched in their islands’ tourism initiatives.

“We are still to reach that point but we see potential in our vision for a permanent space to call our own. We can contribute to the tourism sector".

Bharath-Hernandez said the parcel of land which the community has received for its park, is expected to provide employment in the areas of food processing and sales, handicraft, wildlife farming and eco-tourism.

The facility also will contain a museum, cultural/recreational space and living quarters for the Carib Queen and about a dozen families.

Yefan, son of the First Peoples

Originally published in Newsday 
By Tenisha Sylvester
Photo by Enrique Assoon
Sunday, October 8, 2017 

Yefan Sealey shows how his ancestors would have wielded a spear.

Ten-year-old Yefan Sealey is taking pride in his heritage, as he is a descendent of the indigenous people in Trinidad and Tobago.

"I feel very happy that I am a descendant of the First Peoples, it's exciting," said Yefan last Thursday at the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community Centre, Arima.

Yefan means strength and in his daily life he manages to eat a nutritional diet and his favorite foods are corn pastelles and cassava bread. He enjoys listening to parang music which is popular at Christmas time. Parang in TT is also a hybrid of Spanish and Amerindian music.

With less than a week left, the community centre is filled with people working feverishly on props, building huts and practising their singing all in anticipation of the First Peoples holiday on Friday 13.
Yefan explained that many still think that the First Peoples were war-like.

Arima was the home of the Nepuyo tribe whose active resistance to Spanish Rule limited Spanish attempts to control and settle in northern Trinidad. "Even though the best known of the Nepuyo was the war chief, Hyarima, who continuously harassed Spanish settlements from his base in Arima, they were peaceful people despite the war-like nature Columbus recorded. What they did was stand up for themselves against outsiders."

A statue of Hyarima is located in the heart of Arima. On May 25 1993 it was unveiled, in keeping with the theme of -The year of the Indigenous People.

Living in Valencia, Yefan visits the Community Centre twice a week where he learns about the history of the indigenous peoples; that they were nature-worshippers who believed in the Great Spirit who is the God they cannot see but is always present.

"I have also learned that places named Caroni, Arouca, Caura, Tunapuna and Oropouche have Amerindian origin."

He also partakes in the First Peoples rituals where they pray, chant, dance and play their musical instruments like the chac chac, whistles and drums.

"I also enjoy learning archery there because that's one of the main ways the indigenous people hunted for food and I am looking forward to seeing the lighting of the smoke-signal on Friday."

The lighting of the smoke-signal symbolises the beginning of celebrations for the First Peoples community and is followed by a series of ceremonial prayers.

The intelligent standard three student attends Christian Primary Academy, Elementary School where his favourite subjects are science and art.

" I love science because I learn a lot of things about technology and I love art because I like to draw and paint."

Yefan's goal is to become a scientist or an artist because he wants to use his creativity to invent something that could be used by everyone, to make their lives easier.

This straight-A student is encouraged to pursue his dreams by his mother Chelese Arindell , grand-mother Sheila Cumberbatch and the entire First Peoples community.

Yefan enjoys playing with his dog, Ninja and in his spare time he creates colourful drawings and paintings.

The First Peoples celebration begins on Friday at 7am in Arima for the lighting of the smoke-signal. Then there would be a sacred street procession to the Arima Velodrome where various exhibitions would be set up in honour of the indigenous peoples. At 11am there is the formal opening with the Prime Minister, leading up to the concert at 4pm.

" I am really excited and looking forward to taking part in the street celebration on Friday, I encourage everyone to come see the festivities because it will be amazing."