24 October 2009

Forgetting the Caribs of Trinidad

A stream of newspaper articles, and public comments on their contents, have been published over the past six months in Trinidad's Guardian newspaper. It has been a while since I have had a chance to cover the latest news, as reported by the media. Though not unexpected, some of the news is very striking about the degree to which the indigenous Caribs of Trinidad are suppressed, even while supposedly being celebrated, and forgotten even as they are commemorated. It seems that the authorities and elites in Trinidad are not content with any display of Caribness that goes beyond superficial performances and outright simulation. To some extent, the organized body of Caribs, the Santa Rosa Carib Community, is also responsible for buying into that system of official diversity management, whereby select groups are trotted out solely for the purpose of public performance, as if they were barely living, quasi-archaeological artifacts dancing in the state's cultural showcase. Now it seems that they are growing increasingly upset with the superficiality of the attention paid to them, but have not yet devised a strategy that does anything other than produce more of the same: more commemorations in place of any real transformation.
Mockery and Superficiality at the 5th Summit of the Americas
Brian MacFarlaneLet us begin with this year's Fifth Summit of the Americas (see also on Twitter). The first in a series of articles that touched on the Carib "presence" at the 5th Summit was Foreign delegates to get taste of local culture, by Michelle Loubon (3 April 2009). There is no note of potential controversy -- on the contrary, it seems that some much needed post-colonial revision will be presented:
In history classes, children learn that before Columbus came, T&T was inhabited by the Caribs and Arawaks. This is followed by the description of the Caribs as ‘warlike’ and the Arawaks as ‘peaceful.’ The Arawaks were decimated, but there remains a strong Carib community in the town of Arima—which diligently celebrates the Feast of Santa Rosa every year. For the 2009 Summit of the Americas, visiting US president Barack Obama and the other dignitaries will get a cultural history lesson on these indigenous peoples from reigning bandleader Brian Mac Farlane.

Their legacy would form part of the opening presentation, expected to take place at Hyatt Regency Hotel, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain on April 17. The show, expected to take 45 minutes, will include a 600-member cast. As Mac Farlane, who will embark on a journey to tell the story of Caribbean colonisation, said yesterday: “The story begins with the Caribs and Arawaks. They were the first people.
Yet many strong criticisms have come in from diverse quarters concerning the cultural representations of Trinidad mounted by the government and the artists and managers it hired for the event, specifically Brian MacFarlane (photo at left), a prominent Carnival bandleader (designer). In Indian culture left out opening ceremony, published 20 April 2009, and written by Devant Maharaj, Chairman of the Indo-Trinbago Equality Council (ITEC), he complains about "the virtual absence of the presentation of Indian culture." More than that, the cultural production mounted to open the 5th Summit seemed to be a celebration of colonialism, and otherwise a very "town-centric" production (focused on urban Trinidad, especially Port of Spain, the capital):
"When Indian culture is now being considered as part of the mainstream culture you selected to give pre-eminence to our former colonial overlords—French and English—that enslaved and dehumanised our people. The Indian component lasted for no more than a mere 45 seconds."
He adds in the same vein,
"It is hoped that on the next occasion you attempt to view the rest of T&T that exists beyond the lighthouse in Port-of-Spain to be considered for inclusion."
In a comment on the article, one person wrote: "Contrary to popular belief, other groups do exist in Trinidad and Tobago - Chinese, Syrians, Spanish, French Creoles, Douglas, Caribs and many more...more than the two groups who grapple and tousle for their dance in the national spotlight."

Indeed, the criticisms did come in from more quarters as well. In Summit of cultural mimicry and disgrace, by Trevor Burnett (26 Apr 2009), he writes: "T&T’s cultural contribution to the world at the opening ceremony of the Fifth Summit of the Americas was considered quite a disgrace in some quarters." What was especially alarming was the degree of deliberate fakery and simulation, putting on shadows in place of the real thing. Starting with steelpan, "Pan Trinbago president Patrick Arnold said, 'It was quite disappointing that persons were placed there (Friday’s opening ceremony) to mimic steelband. Can you imagine in the land where steelband was invented a live steelband could not be seen or heard?'." Burnett then asks "Are the Caribs dead?" and he reports the following:
Another ugly feature of the cultural ceremony was highlighted by the shaman (medicine man) of the Carib Community Cristo Adonis. Adonis said, “It was disgusting and quite a bitter pill to swallow with the disrespect shown to the First Peoples.

Here in T&T we boast of our Carib ancestry, yet the world was presented with people acting as Caribs. “I have no political allegiances, I simply work for the good of the Carib community. The world when viewing the cultural ceremony must think that the Caribs are dead. “For whoever is responsible, am I a living dead?” Adonis questioned.
The sharp, and justified, criticism coming from the Caribs is ignored or submerged by those who fell in love with the Summit's stock display of cliched Caribs, rather than actually living ones. For example, in Macfarlane did justice to the various cultures (23 April 2009), an unnamed writer -- a woefully common practice in the Trinidadian media -- wrote in glowing terms of the display that will be shown in the video below:
First of all, people fail to realise that this country originally belonged to the indigenous people and I am talking about the Amerindians—the Caribs and Arawaks. We must not forget that!

A people who came to this land are talking about being left out. How unfair to the people whose culture has been ignored, who this land belongs to. They have been left out for far to long, their culture was pushed to the background. The Amerindian culture is not parang alone; there is more to their culture. For years they have been fighting to be remembered but how many have heard their cries? You don’t hear them making statements about being left out. My great grandparents are Amerindians, not mixed but pure.

I was proud to see the opening prayer and blessing of the Summit done by the indigenous people of this land. If anyone has to talk about being left out, forgotten and pushed aside it is the indigenous people of this land.
On the one hand, it is true that the Santa Rosa Carib Community is frequently called upon to perform blessings to open official ceremonies organized by the state -- and this seems to have backfired: rather than gaining recognition, they were subsequently sidelined by a Carnivalesque production featuring mock Caribs.

(For more criticisms of the 5th Summit, see also: Millions for Summit opening while...The arts starve, Willi Chen, 1 May 2009. In some ways, much of the same discussion about how Caribs were treated and represented seems to be a repeat from last year's visit by Prince Charles and Camilla to the University of the West Indies -- see: Royal Visit to UWI Highlights Lingering Colonialism (06 March 2008), and, Offering Earth.)

Now see the so-called First Peoples segment of the opening ceremony (see from minute 2:34):

Celebrating Conquest

Residents of Moruga and surrounding areas re-enact the discovery by Christopher Columbus of Trinidad with an elaborate ceremony on the Punta de la Playa beach. Photo: Rishi Ragoonath

In the village of Moruga on Trinidad's south coast (see map below), a peculiar practice is staged each August 1st: the enactment of Christopher Columbus' landing in Trinidad in 1498. In previous years, the Santa Rosa Carib Community received at least one invitation to mount a protest at the event, which did not happen, especially because August 1st is the date of a key public event in the Carib Community itself.

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In Villagers swarm beach for biggest event in Moruga (2 Aug 2009), Sascha Wilson produces a curious report that one hopes was not the narrative offered at the event by the organizers. She writes:
"It was around 3 pm yesterday when the Caribs and Arawaks observed three ships—Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina—coming ashore. Armed with spears they stood ready to defend their land. When the ships carrying Italian-born explorer Columbus came on shore there was a clash between the indigenous peoples and his army. The army overpowered and captured the natives."
Now the key thing to note about this statement is that it is factually wrong, almost in its entirety. Columbus had no army with him. There was no clash on the shore. The natives were neither overpowered nor captured. The ships were two, not three, and they were not the ships from his 1492 voyage, some of which did not survive 1492. And Columbus could not have been "Italian-born" because at the time Italy did not even exist.

Maybe the Caribs really ought to protest the event, for its slavish commemoration of conquest, and for the sheer ignorance produced in the form of the dominant narrative of the event.

The offenses multiply, however. In Trini wife begs for her husband, by Francis Joseph (14 Oct 2009) we read this comment: "The only true Trinis are the Caribs and Arawaks. Everyone else came from either Africa, India, China, Europe or the Americas. The only Caribs I'm seeing these days are in bars wearing a blue label, and the only Arawaks are chickens in plastic bags." The writer here refers to Carib Beer and Arawak Chicken, and says those are the only real Caribs and Arawaks left.

Blessing Development?

In Amerindians bless burial grounds in Sando (22 Oct 2009), Yvonne Webb tell us of an event in Trinidad's second-largest city, San Fernando, where the Caribs from Arima were called upon to produce an official blessing of a construction site, that may or may not be an old Amerindian burial ground. In the piece, we see some of the contradictory pressures that the Carib leadership tries to manage: on the one hand, acknowledging the potentially offensive trangression (which we are told others had raised as a problem), and on the other hand, not wanting to rock the boat. Hence, out come the colourful costumes and prayers once more.

Members of the Amerindian community put on a dance during Tuesday’s ceremonial blessing of the grounds on St Vincent Street, San Fernando, believed to be a former Amerindian burial
ground. Photo: Rishi Ragoonath
Indigenous people from Arima, Guyana and Suriname, wearing their native dress, created quite a stir on Tuesday when they blessed the grounds on St Vincent Street, San Fernando, believed to be a former Amerindian burial ground.

Some stakeholders have raised objections to the construction on sacred grounds. Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs, Junia Regrello, said there was no evidence that it was an Amerindian burial ground, but in the face of concerns raised, the project was temporary halted to undertake an investigation to see how authentic the claims were. After consultation with the Amerindian community, they agreed to bless the site so work could proceed. “We don’t want to offend any community,” Regrello said.

Work is expected to resume today, he added. Led by Chief Ricardo Bharat-Hernandez, the Amerindians called on the great Spirits to consecrate the grounds and forgive any disruptions which may have been caused by the construction. Visiting High Priest from Suriname Harold Taweroe, also led a song and dance around a container filled with dirt, and a half of a calabash filled with water, as the Native Indians smoked their peace pipe and shook their chac-chacs to complete the ritual. Bharat-Hernandez, Deputy Mayor of Arima, said the site, on which a basketball court was presently constructed, may have been an Amerindian cemetery. “I have asked for evidence, but no one could give that evidence. Burial grounds are very sacred, and in the absence of concrete evidence, we performed a simple ritual, as if it were a burial ground, to appease the Spirits and ask the creator to bless what is happening here now,” he said.

Bharat-Hernandez said the First People had no intention of stopping any development of the community. He said he was happy to hear Regrello say they were about putting people first and his intention to create a shrine or special place to preserve whatever remains or artefacts they may find. Bharat-Hernandez also used the opportunity to call on government to recognise the First People and put them in their rightful place. He said all of the other people who came to T&T has been recognised in many ways, but the First People, in spite of their contribution, had not. “Here we are concerned about the remains of our ancestors, but we have living indigenous people across the world and in our region and we are in a struggle for meaningful recognition.” He said without that recognition, a very important cultural heritage would be lost. “The Minister said we put people first, well I want to tell him to put the First People in their rightful position,” he said."
It does seem that no evidence was provided that the area concealed a burial ground, but what seems less clear is the extent to which the authorities went about finding evidence. What is also important to note is the Carib chief, Bharath Hernandez, repeating and renewing his calls for recognition. This is interesting, because on many occasions, when pointing to their successes as a community, official recognition is in fact one of the things they list as having won, with official recognition from the parliament, cabinet, and an annual subvention from the government.

I sense that, where strategy is concerned, the Carib leadership may be stuck in a rut. Previously, they explicitly rejected the idea that there ought to be a public holiday to commemorate the Caribs of Trinidad, opting instead for what they won: an annual day of observance, called Amerindian Heritage Day (on 14 October each year). That has now changed:

Another Holiday on the National Calendar

Carib shaman (medicine man) Cristo Adonis, with hat at right, at
Hyarima statue, Arima, conducting the smoke ceremony during the
World Indigenous Day celebrations last year. PHOTO: TREVOR BURNETT

In Amerindians call for public holiday (20 Oct 2009), Radhica Sookraj writes:
Indigenous people have called on the Government to give them a one-time public holiday as they celebrated Amerindian Day last Wednesday. After dawn, the indigenous community held a ritual ceremony at the monument area of the Arima Savannah, where they paid tribute to their ancestors who were killed by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. Following the ceremony, chief/ president of the Santa Rosa Carib Community Ricardo Barat Fernandez led his people in a street procession through Arima. Spectators stopped to enquire about the celebration and many expressed interest in knowing about the history of the indigenous people.
Please note that the correct name of the Carib chief is Ricardo Bharath Hernandez. Sookraj tells us that,
In an interview, Fernandez said a public holiday should be given by the Government to honour the contribution of the Amerindians. “People are not aware of our history and that is why we need a public holiday. We can even have a one-off public holiday. People are working and busy and it’s difficult to reach them so that they could support this. The indigenous heritage needs a public holiday or a one off, so the country can stop and recognise our indigenous past,” Fernandez said. He said if a public holiday was given, the Carib community could organise a heritage day."
Also noteworthy was the theme of environmental conservation raised by the chief:
The Carib chief also said T&T could learn a lot from the legacy of the Amerindian people, as they practised conservation and respect for life. “We know that they practised conservation in the way they treated the forests. They did not destroy the forests. They hunted enough to feed themselves. They also had knowledge on the medicinal value of plants, as well as a strong, vibrant agricultural tradition,” Fernandez said. He explained that people could also learn from the belief systems of the Amerindians, as they honoured their ancestors and showed respect for family life.
History, the chief, claimed is still being preserved within the Carib Community:
Fernandez said some indigenous instruments were still being used within the Carib community today. “Some people have lost interest in some of the traditional utensils but we still use the couleve, a long woven basket to strain the bitter cassava,” Fernandez said. Fernandez said the indigenous history was rich and needed to be preserved."
In an unrelated piece, Elgin Marbles: Tip of art repatriation issue (22 Jun 2009), a comment by one person echoed the call for greater recognition -- for overdue recognition, but of a different and more radical sort (assuming the writer was being sincere): "I surely hope that [Prime Minister] Patrick [Manning] will give back Trinidad to us living Arimian Caribs. As far as I read the Spaniards took it from us without paying us and the Picton took it from Spain without a fight. --Rik Hansel."

Without a Dance, They are Completely Forgotten

This story, Aripo residents feel trapped in natural paradise (16 May 2009), byYvonne Baboolal, concerns a district that I visited with Cristo Adonis and his work mates, Aripo (map below), where he has worked on a daily basis for years. What I read in the article struck me as a very accurate description.

In the context of the articles above, it is loaded with many ironies. On the one hand, a Carib chief blessing development, and here is a community -- not organized as a Carib community as such, but with many people of Amerindian ancestry -- that has seemingly not benefited from anything more than temporary handouts. They have not stood in the way of development, they have been completely sidelined by it. They are not called upon to perform ceremonial dances or formal prayers, they have no show troupes, they are not displayable -- and hence they remain largely forgotten. Read Baboolal's description:
Last Sunday, the Sunday Guardian visited the tiny village where there are some 500 residents, many of whom are descendants of the indigenous Carina (Caribs) and Locono (Arawaks). Aripo was the name of a flat baking stone on which the indigenous people made bread, said Christo Adonis from the Amerindian Project Committee. While they live in the midst of a natural paradise, the Sunday Guardian got many tales of transportation woes, general government neglect, unemployment and underdeveloped human resources.

Villagers depend heavily on the mini-mart for their grocery supplies. “We have to hire somebody to go outside and get supplies. None of the big trucks, like Kiss, come in here,” Blackburn said. School absenteeism was also common in Aripo, for the same reason. There is no school bus, no public transport and few private taxis, students attending school in Arima and environs often stay at home because they cannot find a way out.

In Aripo it’s a common sight to see residents hopping rides on the back of pick-up trucks that go in and out of the village for “greens.” Villagers are still waiting on the bus that Minister of Works and Transport Colm Imbert announced was assigned to Aripo a few months ago. “That we are yet to see. No bus ever came here,” Valentine said. Brian Juanette, head of communications at the Public Transport Service Corporation, admitted that such an announcement wwas made but said, “it as not feasible.” “The roads at Aripo made it very difficult for any of our buses to operate there. No maxi-taxi is willing to run the route either.”

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  • What strategies for representing themselves, and defending their rights, should the Caribs adopt?
  • Should they boycott all future requests to perform at functions organized by the state?
  • What should "recognition" mean?
Related posts:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not meaning to bash the press, but the Guardian's editorial standards have fallen drastically of late, so much so that I hardly ever buy it on a regular basis anymore.

Misspellings, inaccuracies, poor grammar and sentence construction seem to be the order of the day.

As Trinis, its so easy to forget that most of us are essentially immigrants on Amerindian soil. While I wish that we did more to highlight their role in our history, I sincerly think that they themselves should do more to ensure that the society in general regards them more than just tokens to be trotted out on special occasions.

About the 5th SOA Opening Ceremony? To me, everyone was treated the same way essentially by MacFarlane. I can't honestly say that anyone in T&T was genuinely happy with the entire performance. Yes, we were proud that we hosted such a gala event. Yes, we were happy that the world enjoyed the show... but we knew we were capable of much better use of the time and the space the SOA afforded us, especially considering our rich cultural, artistic and musical heritage. It made me actually wish that Minshall was given the contract!

Great post, Max!