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