04 December 2017

First Peoples: We are Trinis too

Originally published in Newsday
Sunday, October 8, 2017

Narad Mahabir acts as Hyarima in the play Hyarima and the Saints written by Gyasi Garcia of St Francis College during the First Peoples Schools Outreach programme, UWI-ROYTEC North Campus, on September 26. This was one of the events leading up to Friday’s First Peoples holiday.

After years of clamouring for greater national acknowledgement, the First Peoples in TT will be recognised formally on Friday with a one-off public holiday.

And to commemorate the observance, the community has organised a week of activities, under the theme, On Becoming Visible Towards Meaningful Recognition, in an effort to enlighten fellow descendants and others about the history and contribution of the indigenous peoples to the country’s development. 

The activities began on Friday with a lecture on the topic, DNA Testing of the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago: Identification of their genealogical ancestry, at the National Academy for the Performing Arts, Port-of-Spain.

Later that day, the group hosted a Waponaka Concert, a rich mix of parang, calypso and other cultural presentations at the Santa Rosa First Peoples Centre, Paul Mitchell Street, Arima.

Today, at 6 pm, the community is expected to host an orientation ceremony for visiting First Peoples delegates at the centre on Paul Mitchell Street. 

Tomorrow, the group is due to host an ancestral journey to Moruga, at which celebrants will perform sacred rites and various musical expressions.

Other events scheduled for the week include a symposium, titled, From Chrysalis to Butterfly: On Becoming Visible Towards Meaningful Recognition, at the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s O’Meara campus; a children’s rally and a ceremonial walk through Arima.

For Chief Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez, president of the Santa Rosa First Peoples, Arima–perhaps the largest and most vocal First Peoples community in the country–the holiday is not intended to encourage relaxation.

Rather, he said, apart from reflecting on the atrocities which were committed against the indigenous peoples, centuries ago, the holiday presented an opportunity to truly celebrate their contribution. 

It gives First Peoples descendants, numbering close to 1,500 in Arima, and others a chance to participate fully in the community’s events.

“Because, in ordinary times, without a holiday, people would usually say they can’t come because they have to work or their children can’t come because they have to go to school. So, my feeling and the community’s feeling was that with a national holiday, nobody cannot use that excuse not to participate.”

Outside of Arima, First Peoples descendants can be found in Lopinot, La Pastora, Maracas/St Joseph, Santa Cruz, Paria, Brasso Seco, Tabaquite, Moruga, Brazil, San Rafael and Talparo.

Bharath-Hernandez, who has said repeatedly they are not just another minority cultural group, insisted they had inherent rights with respect to land titles, which were supported by the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Some 144 countries, including TT, voted for the Declaration.

Bharath-Hernandez was cautiously optimistic that the group’s lobby for a heritage park–a permanent place to call their own–will become a reality.

Plans for the park began during the former People’s National Movement administration, under late prime minister Patrick Manning. A Cabinet decision was taken to give the First Peoples a five-acre plot of land along Blanchisseuse Road, Arima, which they found to be inadequate. The community later identified a hilly piece of land which had once been occupied by First Peoples centuries ago.

When the People’s Partnership came into office, in May 2010, it rescinded the PNM’s offer of a five-acre plot, and gave the community an additional 20-acres at the same site. The land has since been surveyed, following which an offer of lease was issued to the community from the Commissioner of State Lands on September 9, 2015. Alluding to the movement toward economic diversification in this year’s budget, Bharath-Hernandez said First Peoples in other parts of the region, namely Dominica, Guyana and Suriname, were already firmly entrenched in their islands’ tourism initiatives.

“We are still to reach that point but we see potential in our vision for a permanent space to call our own. We can contribute to the tourism sector".

Bharath-Hernandez said the parcel of land which the community has received for its park, is expected to provide employment in the areas of food processing and sales, handicraft, wildlife farming and eco-tourism.

The facility also will contain a museum, cultural/recreational space and living quarters for the Carib Queen and about a dozen families.

Yefan, son of the First Peoples

Originally published in Newsday 
By Tenisha Sylvester
Photo by Enrique Assoon
Sunday, October 8, 2017 

Yefan Sealey shows how his ancestors would have wielded a spear.

Ten-year-old Yefan Sealey is taking pride in his heritage, as he is a descendent of the indigenous people in Trinidad and Tobago.

"I feel very happy that I am a descendant of the First Peoples, it's exciting," said Yefan last Thursday at the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community Centre, Arima.

Yefan means strength and in his daily life he manages to eat a nutritional diet and his favorite foods are corn pastelles and cassava bread. He enjoys listening to parang music which is popular at Christmas time. Parang in TT is also a hybrid of Spanish and Amerindian music.

With less than a week left, the community centre is filled with people working feverishly on props, building huts and practising their singing all in anticipation of the First Peoples holiday on Friday 13.
Yefan explained that many still think that the First Peoples were war-like.

Arima was the home of the Nepuyo tribe whose active resistance to Spanish Rule limited Spanish attempts to control and settle in northern Trinidad. "Even though the best known of the Nepuyo was the war chief, Hyarima, who continuously harassed Spanish settlements from his base in Arima, they were peaceful people despite the war-like nature Columbus recorded. What they did was stand up for themselves against outsiders."

A statue of Hyarima is located in the heart of Arima. On May 25 1993 it was unveiled, in keeping with the theme of -The year of the Indigenous People.

Living in Valencia, Yefan visits the Community Centre twice a week where he learns about the history of the indigenous peoples; that they were nature-worshippers who believed in the Great Spirit who is the God they cannot see but is always present.

"I have also learned that places named Caroni, Arouca, Caura, Tunapuna and Oropouche have Amerindian origin."

He also partakes in the First Peoples rituals where they pray, chant, dance and play their musical instruments like the chac chac, whistles and drums.

"I also enjoy learning archery there because that's one of the main ways the indigenous people hunted for food and I am looking forward to seeing the lighting of the smoke-signal on Friday."

The lighting of the smoke-signal symbolises the beginning of celebrations for the First Peoples community and is followed by a series of ceremonial prayers.

The intelligent standard three student attends Christian Primary Academy, Elementary School where his favourite subjects are science and art.

" I love science because I learn a lot of things about technology and I love art because I like to draw and paint."

Yefan's goal is to become a scientist or an artist because he wants to use his creativity to invent something that could be used by everyone, to make their lives easier.

This straight-A student is encouraged to pursue his dreams by his mother Chelese Arindell , grand-mother Sheila Cumberbatch and the entire First Peoples community.

Yefan enjoys playing with his dog, Ninja and in his spare time he creates colourful drawings and paintings.

The First Peoples celebration begins on Friday at 7am in Arima for the lighting of the smoke-signal. Then there would be a sacred street procession to the Arima Velodrome where various exhibitions would be set up in honour of the indigenous peoples. At 11am there is the formal opening with the Prime Minister, leading up to the concert at 4pm.

" I am really excited and looking forward to taking part in the street celebration on Friday, I encourage everyone to come see the festivities because it will be amazing."