By Tony Fraser
Trinidad's Amerindians seeking a heritage site
The fast-disappearing Amerindian community in Trinidad is petitioning for the national Parliament, housed in the history-rich “Red House”, to be moved.
Instead, they say, the area in downtown Port of Spain should become a heritage site dedicated to their ancestors buried under the building more than 1,700 years ago.
This community – approximately 1,000 to 1,500 descendants of mixed blood – are, thankfully, willing to compromise, but want some recognition as the first people of Trinidad.
“If that be asking too much to remove the ‘seat of power’ to allow a shrine to be built here to commemorate our ancestors, then in the restored building, there must be a recognition of our ancestors buried under the building,” said the chief of the Carib community, Ricardo Bharat-Hernandez.
The chief, the Carib Queen and a small group of the First Peoples of the Community of Arima were recently allowed access to the compound of the Red House.
The seat of the Trinidad and Tobago parliament is now undergoing major reconstruction. During this work, archaeological artefacts and human bones were discovered in March.
“What was found so far is a small amount of pottery, but it fits the period of AD 0 to AD 350,” said University of the West Indies (UWI) archaeologist, Peter Harris.
“While we haven’t got the whole story yet, I’m sure that if things were found so closely together in a place, they’re likely to be related.
“We’re a long way from knowing what village or what was there on that site, but we do know the bones found are almost certainly Amerindian.”
Chief Bharat-Hernandez told Caribbean Intelligence© that the small group of Amerindian descendants who went on to the Red House compound “communicated with the ancestors in the prayer and ceremonial ritual known as the Purublaka”.
Archaeologists believe the site could have been a battleground between two tribes, in what was then a forested area.
“The Community wishes to assert their rights to revitalise their cultural traditions and to maintain protect and develop this archaeological site and the remains found therein,” Chief Bharat-Hernandez said.
He sent a letter to the Speaker of the House, Wade Mark, seeking to establish their rights as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.
Article 11 of the UN Declaration states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs.
This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.”
Chief Bharat-Hernandez pointed out to the Speaker that the Declaration requires that “states shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”
Whether such claims would extend to a country’s seat of parliament is another matter.
But the Carib community are sure to press their claims for space and recognition as renovations at the 106-year old Red House continue.
Red hot Red House
Historically, the Red House is no stranger to controversy.
The present building was reconstructed in 1907, four years after the original building was burnt to the ground by residents of Port of Spain in protest at an attempt by the Legislative Council of the day to place water meters in homes as a means of charging water rates.
In the 1930s, the period of the country’s Labour Riots, it was a focal point of protest by trade union agitator Uriah “Buzz” Butler and a large group of Grenadian-born workers in the oilfields of south Trinidad, who engaged in a Hunger March to the city.
In 1990, at a sitting of the national Parliament, the Red House was the target of a group of Black Muslim insurrectionists under Imam Yasin Abu Bakr.
Having bombed the next-door police headquarters, the Muslimeen group stormed and took over the Red House, in effect the Parliament chamber, in their attempt to stage a coup.
Prime Minister ANR Robinson, several members of his cabinet and members of the opposition were held hostage in the building for six days before the group surrendered to the armed forces besieging the building.
The Muslimeen, having negotiated what they believed was an amnesty given by the President of the Republic, surrendered only to face lengthy national and appeal court hearings.
Raze the Red House
Today, the Amerindian population wants to level the Red House, or at least to see it recognised for different reasons.
But those ambitions of the Amerindian population long pre-date the archaeological find of a few months ago.
For many decades, the Amerindian community in Arima, a town 17 miles east of the capital which hosts a statue of 17th Century Amerindian warrior chief Hyarima, has petitioned successive governments for a 25-acre plot of land of its own.
“The intention is to re-create a model Amerindian village, to establish a cassava factory [cassava being a staple of the Amerindian diet] and to develop it as a tourist venture for the community to be self-sufficient; we don’t want hand-outs from the State,” said Chief Bharath-Hernandez, proclaiming the pride of his ancestral community.
He likens the idea to the Amerindian community in Dominica, which belongs to the Kalinago people of that nation.
The chief says that establishing the village community has the potential to encourage the young people of Amerindian descent to aspire to knowledge of their ancestral cultural patterns.
He notes that, at present, there is little that keeps them attached to the way of life of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
But Chief Bharath-Hernandez told Caribbean Intelligence© that, while there are far larger Amerindian communities in Dominica and Guyana with descendants who have stronger blood ties to the past, the smaller Trinidad community has still “preserved quite a lot of the rituals and ceremonies of our forefathers”.
Outside Arima, in the deep south-west of Trinidad, towns and villages such as Cedros, Icacos, Siparia and Erin all derive their names from the First Peoples. Communities of Amerindian descent have been claiming sites such as the San Fernando Hill, once named Naparima, and also want to establish them as heritage sites.
“We have been living here for the past 7,000 years,” Rabina Shar, leader of the group in south Trinidad, said in January 2011 in a letter of complaint to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
“We want to organise and approach the government for recognition and lay claim to sacred sites.”
He noted in his letter that the national census had failed to recognise and categorise the indigenous peoples.
“We are the first nation and everybody [else] come late. We want to be respected by all in society.”
The United Nations 2009 report State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples paints a frightening picture of the condition of indigenous peoples today.
“The situation of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world continues to be critical: indigenous peoples face systemic discrimination and exclusion from political and economic power; they continue to be over-represented among the poorest, the illiterate, the destitute; they are displaced by wars and environmental disasters; the weapon of rape and sexual humiliation is also turned against indigenous women for the ethnic cleansing and demoralisation of indigenous communities; indigenous peoples are dispossessed of their ancestral lands and deprived of their resources for survival, both physical and cultural; they are even robbed of their very right to life. In more modern versions of market exploitation, indigenous peoples see their traditional knowledge and cultural expressions marketed and patented without their consent or participation.”