07 November 2014

The First Peoples Narrative in Trinidad and Tobago

The First Peoples narrative

Originally published here
By Bridget Brereton
November 5, 2014

In my last few pieces, I’ve been writing about different narratives of T&T’s history—last time I looked at the Chinese-Trinidadian narrative.
There’s another old/new narrative of our past which is rightfully gaining much more public recognition these days. This is the Amerindian or First Peoples narrative, which puts the indigenous (aboriginal) inhabitants of the two islands at the centre.

A magazine type supplement was published by the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies and printed by the Express last month, in connection with the First Peoples Heritage Week 2014. Its several essays provide an in-depth version of the narrative. The authors include community leaders like Ricardo Bharath Hernandez and Rabina Shar, historians or archaeologists (the late Peter Harris and Angelo Bissessarsingh), and younger activists like Tracy Assing, who made the excellent film The Amerindians in 2010.

The narrative has a political (not party politics) agenda: to write the First Peoples back into the national (and regional) story. For too long, the “extinction narrative” has prevailed in T&T and the Caribbean islands (not in Guyana or Belize). This insists that all the Amerindians were “wiped out”, they “disappeared”, and they are no longer part of the living history of these islands. (As someone who has written about T&T’s history, I am as guilty as anyone).

This “extinction narrative” was linked to an argument about “purity”: No “pure” Amerindian descendants have existed in T&T since the 1800s, and mixed-race people with surnames like Bharath or Assing have no right to claim indigenous identity. We need only to think about the nature of T&T’s present-day population to see how ridiculous this argument is.

It’s the group led by Bharath Hernandez, originally called the Santa Rosa Carib Community and more recently renamed the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, which has done the most over many years to insist that the story of our indigenous peoples is the foundation of the nation’s (and region’s) existence. And, more than that, to insist there are still thousands of people in T&T today who are descended from those peoples, even if they don’t (yet) know it. There is also a newer organisation, the Elders Council of the Warao Community, which is based in the south and represents the Warao people.

In 2005, Canadian anthropologist Maximilian Forte published an excellent book with a very long, typically academic title: Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs: (Post) Colonial Representations of Aboriginality in T&T. This book narrated the history of the islands’ Amerindians during the colonial period, and documented the efforts of the Santa Rosa Carib Community to claim indigenous identity and to seek greater public recognition for the people it spoke for.

Of course this is an academic work, with a limited readership, so the supplement published last month, with its short, simply written essays, is very welcome. Hopefully, it introduced many readers to the First Peoples narrative of the nation’s history, and informed them about the efforts being made to raise public awareness of our indigenous heritage.

Speaking at the launch of First Peoples Heritage Week last month, President Anthony Carmona called it a “statement of resilience” and expressed a “sense of pride in history emanating from them” (the representatives of the First Peoples). Past wrongs can’t be altered, he noted, but we can influence the present and future. (Sunday Express 12 October).

It’s important to understand and support the multi-faceted movement to ensure our First Peoples are re-inserted into the historical narrative of T&T. The statement from the Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration (co-sponsors of the Heritage Week along with the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community), “The foundation of our society is built on the legacy of our First Peoples”, should be taken seriously.

Trinidad: First Peoples Heritage Week, 2014

21 August 2014

Yurumein (Homeland): A Documentary on Caribs in St. Vincent

(Director) Andrea E. Leland. Yurumein (Homeland). January 2014. 50-minute documentary / DVD format / 4:3 aspect ratio / surround sound.

Resistance, Rupture, and Repair: The Story of the Caribs of St. Vincent in the Caribbean


Yurumein by Andrea E. Leland effectively begins twice: first it begins in St. Vincent, and then, as a reflection of the contemporary relocation of the Garifuna, it begins again in Los Angeles, which probably has the largest number of Garifuna people outside of Central America and the Caribbean. The core of the film ostensibly follows the journey of Cadrin Gill, a Los Angeles family doctor, who self-identifies as Carib and who was born in Sandy Bay, St. Vincent, one of the residential areas of the island that contains a sizeable Carib population. Focusing on the reclamation of pride in Carib identity, and the beginnings of a cultural resurgence that happens in part as a transnational process of reconnecting indigenous communities in the Caribbean region (in this case the relinking of Honduran Garifuna and Vincentian Caribs), this film serves as an important document of the contemporary presence of indigeneity in the Caribbean. The film thus helps to fill in the map of indigenous cultural resurgence in the Caribbean, of indigenous communities that did not simply vanish due to European colonization, but that resisted and repaired what they could. In this sense the documentary helps to further challenge centuries of writings, and even modern historiography, whose emphases have been Carib decline and extinction. In addition, as there has been so little produced, whether in film or in writing, about the Caribs/Gairfuna of St. Vincent, apart from the occasional thesis or conference paper offered within regional institutions, this film further serves to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

Yurumein represents part of a growing series of films on indigenous Caribbean topics, but is unique as one that focuses on St. Vincent. As a contribution to documentaries about the indigenous Caribbean, this film joins Last of the Karaphuna (Philip Thorneycroft Teuscher, 1983, focusing on the Dominica Carib Reserve); Caribbean Eye: Indigenous Survivors (UNESCO/Banyan, 1991, focusing on contemporary indigenous communities in Guyana, Trinidad, Dominica, and St. Vincent); The Garifuna Journey (also by Andrea Leland, 1998, focusing on Belize); The Quest of the Carib Canoe (Eugene Jarecki, 2000, focusing primarily on Dominica’s Caribs, but also bringing special attention to Trinidad and Guyana); Three Kings of Belize (Katia Paradis, 2007, focusing on Belize, including a focus on a Garifuna musician); and The Amerindians (Tracy Assing, 2010, focusing on Trinidad’s Carib Community).

“That paradigm has changed,” Dr. Gills says in the film, a change in paradigm that involves increased recognition of “our history and our heritage.” It is an important point, as he adds that this has happened “only recently.” Indeed, we are now in the third decade of a region-wide indigenous resurgence in the Caribbean, one that arguably began at least on a formal, organizational level in St. Vincent itself in 1987, with a conference on the indigenous peoples of the region that would later result in the formation of the Caribbean Organization of Indigenous Peoples (COIP), whose first president was the Belizean Garifuna anthropologist Dr. Joseph Palacio.[1] (Coincidentally, in my own research context in Arima, Trinidad, 1987 was the first year that Trinidad’s Carib Community received delegates from seven different Guyanese indigenous tribes.[2])

On a local level in St. Vincent, this paradigm change has also occurred. “We were brought up as Englishmen, so we had an English mentality,” Dr. Gill explains, “and consequently there was not much knowledge about my history…. [I]n my days, it was not ‘fashionable’ to be called ‘Carib.’” Echoing what I found in my research in Trinidad, the film presents a series of individuals in Sandy Bay who explain that they did not know of their Carib ancestry until they reached adulthood, while others did know and could not hide it and were thus targeted for discrimination in the wider society as “ignorant,” “backward,” “warlike” and “cannibal” people, leading some to suppress their own identification as Carib. (Unfortunately, this juxtaposition of lack of self-awareness as Carib, while the wider society discriminates against them as Carib, is a paradox left unexplored in the film.) While there is now a positive acknowledgment of their ancestral ties (and explaining why this has happened recently exceeds both the scope of the film and this review), Caribs in this film also reflect on what they say is their own lack of personal knowledge of Carib history and language. While they point to a number of surviving traditions, such as the making of cassava bread (which one woman claims, without much credibility, to have learned to do all on her own), it is clear that the identity is also understood in racial terms, with a not infrequent reference in the film to phenotypical markers, specifically dealing with one’s face and one’s hair. The kind of racialization that historically distinguished the Caribs of northern St. Vincent, especially in the towns of Orange Hill, Oven Land, Sandy Bay, Point, Owia, and Fancy, from the Garifuna or “Black Carib” of the southern town of Greggs (which is never mentioned in this film), is not confronted in this film. Indeed, the seemingly inexplicable adoption of “Garifuna” for all Carib descendants was one of the surprising things I learned from this film, and as a local historian explains, this is “relatively new” (but we are not informed as to why it has happened).

On an international level, the film speaks of examples where Caribs today are still stereotyped as “wild cannibals” in a few yet influential quarters. Here the film showcases Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean (2003- ) as one of the latest examples of this malignant stereotyping. Those presented in this documentary explicitly comment on their task as one of combating the influence of Hollywood.

What “loss” means, what constitutes “knowledge,” and knowledge of loss, are all difficult questions that the film brushes against on occasion. If the Vincentian Caribs do not know what “was” their culture, how do they know what was “lost”? Rather than risk diving into and drowning in an essentialist exercise of trait-listing, I prefer the formulation of the New Zealand anthropologist Steven Webster, who argues that “Maori culture is not something that has been lost, it is the loss; being ‘a Maori’ is struggling to be a Maori.”[3] There is more to this however, as some knowledge of what it means to be “Carib,” that is actually in line with its original political meaning in the first century of European imperial invasions, is knowledge that persists. As Odette Sutherland, a Vincentian Carib, says in the film: “They were rebellious people. They didn’t want to work as slaves. The Caribs always liked to be independent and work to help themselves and their family,” then adding as she continues working in her yard, “I am proud to say that I am a Carib.” Another person declares: “That is our king … the chief of the Caribs … Joseph Chatoyer. He fight for the Carib country.” Cadrin Gill expands on this theme of resistance in remarking that during colonial rule in the Caribbean, “St. Vincent was the mecca of freedom,” where escaped slaves from nearby territories often sought refuge and were welcomed by the Caribs. This historical knowledge, of the Caribs as the original anti-imperialists of the modern world system, is further attested to in a dramatic fashion, on display for tourists and all visitors, at Fort Charlotte. There a sign states, “built by the British as the chief defence against the indigenous people and their allies,” and all of the cannons are pointing not out to sea, but inland. (It is also possible that the message of anti-imperialism is simultaneously lost by being displaced into talk of centuries past, focusing on the British, as Dr. Gill does not seem conflicted about displaying a portrait of Barack Obama behind his desk.)

One of the unresolved tensions in this film is that of claiming lack of knowledge on the one hand, yet currently producing knowledge of contemporary Caribness that in some senses accords with the original political content of the identification. Colin Sam, Gill’s nephew, repeats the complaint of a lack of cultural knowledge of self. Yet he and his fellow Caribs clearly know a great deal, but it is not formatted, packaged, and labeled in the same way that academics produce cultural history in writing. Hence, rather than a detailed report produced by an archaeologist, in this film we have: “the Caribs were here ever since.” It is simple, perhaps, but it is also an understanding that is necessary for any sense of indigeneity. In addition, among those speaking in the film is Nixon Lewis, a Carib researcher who spends his spare time doing archival research during annual trips to London, and when not there, then being “on the Net all the time.”

Further adding weight to the idea of a paradigm shift are the words of the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, who in speaking of the brutality of British rule declares: “let us not mince words: genocide by the British.” What is significant is the occasion on which these words were spoken: National Hero’s Day—an annual public commemoration of Joseph Chatoyer, a long sought-after national holiday first demanded by the Committee for the Development of the Carib Community (CDCC), an organization not mentioned in this film.[4] Demands for such a commemoration were rejected by the government for numerous years. In one scene of the film, we can barely make out a banner in the background on which these words are painted: “Indigenous People’s Day Rally.” Indigenous People’s Day is another of those events that Sherelene Roberts explained the CDCC had long pursued.

Some shortcomings of this film should also be noted, aside from some of the gaps and silences noted above. We are told that 2 percent of St. Vincent’s 120,000 people are Caribs, but the source for this not indicated, nor is the deeply problematic issue of counting such a contested and suppressed identity considered. Moreover, Roberts reported a figure of 3.1 percent reporting themselves as Carib during the 1991 Population Census.[5] The film might then lead some to believe that there has been a decline since then. The film also reports that there are a total of 400,000 Garifuna in the United States, Central America, and Caribbean combined, which is a very significant size (again, a source would have been useful). Aside from these points, there is no debate in the film about the problems with attempting to phenotypically define Caribness by the quality of one’s hair, and whether this could mean an implicit rejection of one’s Africanness. The film in fact generally ignores the African dimension of Garifuna identity and history (even when some of the traditions being taught by Honduran Garifunas to their Vincentian hosts are creole Afro-Caribbean ones). The fact that a largely African-descended population is the only population in the region to have kept the Island Carib language alive is surely one of the most spectacular stories of Caribbean history, and a key sign of trouble for any attempts to racialize indigeneity or to distill it out of larger processes of creolization. There is also no discussion in the film about the relations between Garifuna/Caribs and the national government. We hear Prime Minister Gonsalves delivering a stirring speech about British genocide against the Caribs, but then the film ends by pointing out that the Vincentian island of Balliceaux, where the Garifuna were imprisoned in 1795 before their exile to Honduras, rather than being safeguarded as land the Garifuna consider to be sacred has instead been put up for sale to private buyers. Also in the context of Balliceaux, the narrative in the film first claims that a radical cultural eradication occurred, but that then the survivors carried their culture intact to Honduras. Left like that, the statement makes no sense, and we should expect that a project that lists dozens of contributors in its credits would permit the opportunity for some to review and point out such contradictions that sometimes rendered the film’s narrative a bit too shaky.

In summary, several aspects of Andrea Leland’s Yurumein documentary are particularly noteworthy. One is the emphasis of an acute consciousness by Vincentian Caribs of their “cultural loss” and at the same time a renewed pride in their Carib ancestry. Another is the dimension of transnational resurgence, with Garifuna from Central America (originally from St. Vincent) returning to spearhead a renewal of Carib pride and to share traditions. A third observation we can make is about the degree to which this documentary is a nonacademic production, moreover one that is not mediated or narrated by any academic expert. A fourth notable aspect is the extent to which the project involved in making this documentary was locally constituted.
While the film’s gaps and the level of the narrative are bound to receive mixed reviews from academic audiences, this documentary could be useful for first- or second-year students in the North American university/college setting, and for the general public. With twenty years of immersion in indigenous Caribbean research, my own special interest has me enthusiastic to see just about any serious attempt at a documentary on the region’s indigenous peoples, given the paucity of such materials and my continued inability to complete my own long overdue video productions. One has to recognize the considerable effort that went into the making of this documentary, especially given its broad-based network of local contributors, the abundance of available narratives, the political implications of those narratives, the numerous topics deserving special attention, coverage of key local events, and on top of it all an effort to insert the viewer into some aspects of the daily lives of today’s Vincentian Caribs. With so many “moving pieces,” frustration and even failure are more likely than success. This documentary instead succeeds in encompassing a wide range of contemporary issues and historical processes, in a visually engaging manner, and really without trying to tell viewers what to think. In this last respect, it becomes ideal for the classroom setting because it leaves gaps to be filled in by a lecturer, and the work of interpretation open to discussion in the classroom.

I do not think, however, that this documentary should be viewed alone in the context of a course on the Caribbean or on indigenous peoples (or both), that is, in the absence of any other scholarly materials in this topic area. Having said that, it is at present the best current filmic resource on an indigenous community in the Caribbean, one that has long been virtually invisible in the academic literature and documentaries. Others may have done more, but they are becoming increasingly dated. That this documentary has already received some excellent reviews, including by specialists in Garifuna studies, further underscores its virtues.


[1]. Joseph O. Palacio, “Caribbean Indigenous Peoples’ Journey toward Self-Discovery,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 13, no. 3 (1989): 49-51.
[2]. Maximilian C. Forte, Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs: (Post)Colonial Representations of Aboriginality in Trinidad and Tobago (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).
[3]. Steven Webster, “Postmodernist Theory and the Sublimation of Maori Culture,” Oceania 63, no. 3 (1993): 222-239.
[4]. Shereline L. Roberts, “The Integration of the Caribs into the Vincentian Society” (BA thesis, University of the West Indies, 1996).

Citation: MAXIMILIAN FORTE. Review of (Director) Andrea E. Leland, Yurumein (Homeland). H-Caribbean, H-Net Reviews. June, 2014.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=41305

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.