14 August 2015

Being Amerindian in Trinidad

My name is Tracy Assing and I’m the only Amerindian in Town [Editor: in Trinidad, "Town" means the capital, Port of Spain].

I only have one brother but I think of myself as coming from a large family in Arima. Because my extended family has always had a huge presence in my life. I live in Cascade now.

My mom’s family lived at the top of the hill and my dad’s at the bottom, along the river bank, lots of aunts and uncles in-between. The Carib Queen, Valentina Medina, was my grandfather’s sister. I spent my early childhood up the hill, down the hill, exploring the river, watching it change with flooding and quarrying and pollution.

All the women in my family were schooled under the Catholic church from the time of the Arima Mission. I went to Catholic school. I understood it as formality and ritual. But I wasn’t “raised Catholic.” The forest is a temple. The waterfall is a place of worship. Nature takes its course. After we die, we go on to feed other life. Life everlasting.

Around the world, indigenous people have been swelling Catholic ranks for centuries. A common conversion tactic was the replacement of the Earth Mother with a Catholic representative: the Virgin Mary, Santa Rosa, etc. So they would, we would, go to church, but still hold on to our belief systems. I had formal religious instruction at the church and at school. I was very good at it.

For us, our Amerindian heritage is a way of life. Relationships with the river and the forest, with animals we raised and hunted were cultivated  very consciously. I didn’t think it particularly unique until I started going to school. First history lessons are inevitably that the island’s first inhabitants were decimated and the indigenous then disappears from the historical record.

I pray all the time. To the sun. The moon. The ocean. The river. The mountains. The land, so things can grow. The plants. I give thanks for everything I encounter, good and bad. I go in the forest. I am distracted by my worries. I stump my toe and fall down. I learn to pay attention to where I am going. I learn patience.

I was diagnosed with hyperactive thyroid at age 13 and docs wanted to put me on lithium and radiation. But I don’t take any of the classically—read “medically”—prescribed treatments. My dad started me on yoga and New Agey/Amerindian potions and crystals, changed my diet and for the most part it has worked. But it is hard for me to relax. I can’t even float. The closest I get to relaxation is having a hand-rolled “bush cigar” in the forest.

Instead of a teddy bear, I had a teddy cat. I share my apartment with a cat called “Cat.” I wanted to honour her wild, natural life and didn’t give her a “human name.” Although the landlady calls her Ninja. We talk often and she likes it when I call her, “Wild Girl” or “Sweet Girl”. (The cat, not the landlady.)

As I grew into being a writer and recognised the power of published work, I felt compelled to write the indigenous back into the story of these islands. My documentary, The Amerindians premiered at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival in 2010. It won best short documentary at Toronto’s Caribbean Tales last year and is being used in Caribbean Studies and Indigenous Studies classrooms at several schools in North America.

There were many reasons for indigenous people not to stand up before: being called uncivilised or cannibal. A beer is a Carib, right? And Arawak sells chicken. I think we will find that indigenous blood runs through the veins of a greater section of the population than we have allowed ourselves to imagine.

Being Amerindian is important to me and to my family. It isn’t all that I am but it is the who I am that I will always represent.

The best thing about being the only Amerindian in Town is that no one asks any questions when I disappear into the bush. The worst thing is (dealing with) the people who treat the place like they’re visiting. And they are terrible visitors at that. The other day I found a beer can stuck in the stone underneath a waterfall.

“Trini” is the title conferred to someone born here.

My blood is in the soil of Trinidad and Tobago.

Originally published on August 3, 2015, by the Trinidad Guardian