04 July 2011

Last Stand for the First People

First published as an Editorial in The Guardian
02 May 2011

The loss of Carib Queen Valentina Assing Medina which was memorialised on Friday marks a key milestone in the continuing efforts of the local Carib community to carve out a distinct space for themselves in the landscape of modern Trinidad and Tobago. At the funeral on Saturday, a surprisingly emotional Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism Winston Peters, made an impassioned plea for the community to hang together or risk falling apart.

“You are your worst enemy,” Minister Winston Peters warned the congregation in a tone that seemed to convey a mix of frustration and loss. The need to present the Carib community as unified and coordinated isn’t simply a matter of getting things together for a common cause. As filmmaker and journalist Tracy Assing noted in an essay, The Long Walk Home, published in Caribbean Beat, “I stopped participating in the [Santa Rosa] festival when I was eight. Even at that age I realised that the story of its origin might have been only as real as the tales that captured my imagination in the books of Enid Blyton.”

Assing created a tangible corrective to the contradictory stories she grew up with in a film, The Amerindians, first screened in 2010. Raised as a Carib descendant, Assing’s struggles to reconcile the history her family shared with her with the official histories of Trinidad and Tobago provided the foundation for the documentary’s narrative. The young filmmaker, who grew up calling Valentina Assing Medina “Aunty Mavis,” created an important document in the narrative of the First People of Trinidad and Tobago, whose history lives on largely in the stories passed on from generation to generation, undocumented by the many conquerors who came to this island.

Under the previous government, the Carib community was given five acres of land at Blanchisseuse Old Road in Arima and Minister Peters seems keen to amplify that gift with input from his government’s resources. At this point in the history of the Carib community, with participation by the youngest descendants of the original inhabitants of this country dwindling, the most critical space that champions of this community can occupy is in the minds of the larger population.

Rebuilding the narrative of the First People in the consciousness and conversations of the larger population and stoking pride and interest among the scattered generations of descendants will do as much for the Carib community’s cause as the construction of the proposed museum, craft centres and recreations of historical village life.

Losing Valentina Medina was, ultimately, the loss of a remarkable resource of knowledge and memory of the experiences of the oldest truly native culture that this country can claim as its own. The formation of the Carib Santa Rosa Community in 1974 has been an effort at not just staking a claim on that kind of memory, but an attempt at knitting the stories of the region into a larger history and cultural archive as that organisation has reached out to surviving Amerindian tribes in the region.

Gathering these stories and rebuilding the rich, natural narrative of the lifestyles and history of the first inhabitants of Trinidad and Tobago is the only way to provide a real alternative to the readily consumed temptations available in the attractively packaged fictions of foreign entertainment. These are not simple matters, and time is against the elders of the Carib community. Encouraging and supporting efforts of local documentarians to preserve the history and traditions of the oldest elements of our history in modern media should be the first point of intervention by the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism in advancing the future of the local Carib community.

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