17 June 2020

The Pandemic: Indigenous Perspectives on Survival, Adaptation, Rebuilding, and Preparedness

Statement released by Chief Ricardo Bharath Hernandez,
Santa Rosa First Peoples Community,
Arima, Trinidad & Tobago,
June 16, 2020.

As Amerindians/Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean, we are historically well acquainted with a series of epidemics and pandemics. We therefore have a lot of historical experience in suffering and surviving from both local epidemics and regional pandemics. We have seen some of the worst in the past, and now the rest of the world is getting a small taste of what we had to go through. The big difference is that we did not have a World Health Organization looking into our situation; nobody came to our assistance; there was no protection or support from the authorities; we were left to our own devices. We have survived the very worst, rebuilt our economies, and we are still here today thanks to our ancestors’ survival skills. We have some lessons to offer from those experiences.

Here are some key points from our historical experience:

(i) “by 1518 only 16,000 [Taino] survived. That year a smallpox epidemic swept through the Spanish colonies, a pandemic, according to the historical demographer Henry Dobyns, that by 1525 had left no American culture untouched. By 1545 the 29 sugar mills on Hispaniola were using nearly 6,000 non-Taino from the South American mainland and the Lesser Antilles and 3,300 Africans as laborers”.i
(ii) In 1739, a smallpox outbreak “decimated” Trinidad’s Indian population.ii
(iii) In 1817 the Yellow Fever Epidemic swept Trinidad, followed by the cholera epidemic in the 1850s; and, smallpox in the 1870s.iii
(iv) In 1854 a cholera epidemic struck North coast Indians* heavily” (pp. 14–15); “The same epidemic decimated the Amerindian population living in the hills around the old Arima mission”.iv
(v) “On the north coast...the surviving Amerindian families were brought together in the mission at Cumana (Toco); but they disappeared inexorably, and the cholera epidemic of 1854 apparently exterminated nearly all the north coast Indians. By 1885 there were only perhaps a dozen half-caste Amerindian families on the north coast”; “In Arima the story was the same. In 1840 there were only about three hundred Indians of pure descent in the old mission, mostly aged. Occasionally surviving members of a group of Chayma Indians used to come down from the heights beyond Arima to the Farfan estate, to barter wild meats for small household goods. But after 1854 they were seen no more: cholera had extinguished the Chaymas”.v

Chief Ricardo leading his people in prayer
Our Amerindian/Indigenous peoples are closely connected to Mother Earth and all the life she sustains. Of benefit to the modern world are the Caribbean Indigenous lessons on listening to and learning from the natural environment; revising our relationships with animals; and building self-sustaining local agriculture.

Part of this pandemic appears to stem from an imbalance between humans and other animals. We cannot afford to continue viewing the natural environment with contempt, or as something to be devoured. The “Medicine Man or Woman” is very important in our culture, with knowledge of the healing herbs and minerals which are gifted to us in the natural environment. The Caribbean Amerindian/Indigenous relationship with the natural, animal world was intensely intimate. It was not just a matter of living in a “harmonious relationship” with nature—it is about being one and the same with nature, inseparable, indivisible, and indistinguishable. On the mainland Amerindian ancestor communities in places such as Guyana, heralded themselves as members of the “Jaguar clan” or the “Eagle clan”—this was not just a matter of empty symbolism. They firmly believed that their ultimate ancestor was a jaguar, or an eagle, and so on. We need to reinstitute that relationship of respect, knowing our limits as human beings, and being attentive to the realities of where we live.

Instead of being constantly and repeatedly exposed to destruction from recurring phenomena, we must learn lessons from the past, and implement changes.

A hurricane will flatten one of our Caribbean neighbours, razing as many as 90% of all structures. So what do they do? They rebuild the same sort of structures that are vulnerable to destruction from hurricanes—square or rectangular houses, with jagged rooftops. The best structure is the Amerindian/Indigenous one, which is conical, and at the very worst is easy to rebuild.

The same is true about having an abundance of root crops (ground provisions), as practised by the Amerindians/Indigenous People. Ground provisions cannot be destroyed in a hurricane, thus ensuring that people have a ready supply of food in order to rebuild.

This pandemic revealed similar frailty. We are fragile by design: it is an outcome of inappropriate policies, and inadequate planning. Our dependency on foreign imports of food placed us in a situation of great insecurity. People were also dependent on going out to buy food, rather than turning to supplies that could have been provided by their own gardens—we were over exposed, and for no good reason.

In rebuilding, there needs to be a dramatic new investment in local agriculture, and a national plan that includes everyone—not just career “farmers”. Every yard needs to be planted. There should be an abundance of cassava flour that renders imported wheat flour too expensive, and is even a less healthy alternative to cassava flour. We need to teach our people what they can do with local products, that they are not currently doing. A national farming system could turn every household into a unit of production, with excess supply purchased by the state, and processed into items with a long shelf-life. National education, through government media programming, could teach people how they can contribute, or how they can use items such as cassava flour.

What can we do to make life during the next pandemic more bearable? How can we act now, to not be like victims in the future? What must change? How can the Indigenous People of Trinidad & Tobago offer some vital guidance?

Trinidad’s Indigenous People are prepared to lead in establishing the foundations of a national cassava industry. We already have the support of the University of Trinidad and Tobago. The First Peoples Heritage Village, currently under construction, is well positioned to become the nucleus of an expanded agricultural enterprise—it will be a true model, to all other Trinidadians.

i “Indians” here as stated by the Authors, refer to the Amerindians, and not East Indians. From: Keegan, William. (1992). “Death Toll”. Archaeology (January/February), p. 55.

ii From: Ottley, C. Robert. (1955). An Account of Life in Spanish Trinidad (From 1498-b 1797). 1st ed. Diego Martin, Trinidad: C. R. Ottley, p. 42.

iii From Page 253 in: Joseph, E.L. (1970 [1838]). History of Trinidad. London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd.

iv From: Goldwasser, Michele. (1994-96). “Remembrances of the Warao: the Miraculous Statue of Siparia, Trinidad”. Antropologica, p. 15.

v From: Brereton, Bridget. (1979) Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 130–131.

16 June 2020

Trinidad: Chief Asks How Does Removing Columbus Statue Improve First Peoples?

Defaced: Red paint is splattered on the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Square, corner of Independence Square and Duncan Street, Port of Spain.

Don’t kill Christopher Columbus a second time just for killing sake.

It will not do the First Peoples any good unless it’s accompanied by tangible measures to advance the indigenous people of Trinidad and Tobago.

So said Chief of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, Ricardo Bharath.

“We want to kill Columbus a second time and it doesn’t do one blooming thing for us,” Bharath told the Express yesterday.

His position comes even as another indigenous group, supported by the Emancipation Support Committee (ESC) through its Cross Rhodes Freedom Project, is making a call for the removal of Columbus’ statue in Port of Spain.

Bharath said he was invited by the ESC to make a statement at a recent indigenous ritual ceremony where the call for the removal of Columbus’ statue was made.

He said he made his position clear but it was drowned out.

Bharath said there remain several issues relating to the First Peoples which have not been addressed.

He said indigenous people of T&T were the ones most affected by the coming of Columbus in 1498.

He said it was 200 years after Columbus came, however, that the Spanish authorities began the decimation of the First Peoples.

“They forced them to give up their religion and their language. If they did not accept the new religion, they were sometimes put to death. Some of them fled and killed themselves,” he said.

“You hear about so many suicide points around the country. Many accepted the new religion because they did not want to face death or starvation.”

Bharath said only a fraction of the First Peoples remain today, most of them having intermarried.

Leader of another indigenous group, Queen of the Warao Nation, Donna Bermudez-Bovell, last week called on Port of Spain Mayor Joel Martinez to remove the statue of Columbus from Columbus Square and replace it with an indigenous freedom fighter.

The Warao Nation and the ESC have begun an online petition for support and thousands have responded.

Their calls to remove Columbus and other “racist” monuments comes after the removal of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Britain by Black Lives Matter protesters.

But Bharath cleared the air on the Santa Rosa First Peoples community’s position on the matter.

“I am not a Columbus fighter saying his statue must remain and neither am I asking for its removal,” he said yesterday.

“How does the removal of Columbus’ statue improve the lives and the plight of the descendants of the First Peoples today?

“If it is just removing Columbus’ statue for the sake of removing it, I see no benefit and no merit. The removal must be replaced with something significant to advance our cause today.

“And if that cannot be done, it’s a waste of time in fighting for the removal of a statue. What is done is done. By removing Columbus’ statue we cannot undo the past.”

Bharath said they have already presented a model of a monument to a government committee concerning the removal of the bones of indigenous peoples during excavation works in the restoration of the Red House.

He claimed funding has been the cause of the keep back in the setting up of this monument, which comprises an indigenous figure and remains of the First Peoples.

The Red House, site of Parliament, is a colonial relic allegedly constructed on a burial site of indigenous peoples.

Bharath listed some present and ongoing issues affecting the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago.

He said even though the descendants of indigenous people were considered a small group, they want a political voice, both at the local and central government levels.

He said they were promised assistance to establish an Amerindian village in Blanchissuesse and, to date, were still struggling with this with a small UNESCO grant.

“There are funds in the Public Sector Investment Programme for this but nobody seems to be able to get this out.

“We have land issues. There are areas we would like to see protected which are now being destroyed by quarrying.

“If none of those things can’t be done, I don’t see what is the fuss about this Columbus statue,” he said.

Trinidad & Tobago Government Breaks Ground on First Peoples' Site, Pledging More Support

Originally published as:
on Loop News, by Nneka Parsanlal, February 4, 2020

Minister of Education, Anthony Garcia has pledged $5000 of his own money to the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community. 

He made the promise at the sod turning ceremony for the construction of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Village in Arima today. 

Garcia says that as the Member of Parliament for Arima and as President of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Trinidad and Tobago, he’s pleased to be part of the progression of the First Peoples in T&T. 

Calling the Santa Rosa community, ‘the official indigenous community in Trinidad and Tobago’, Garcia also said that he’d be ensuring that they get further governmental support for their community. 

Earlier in the ceremony, Chief of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, Ricardo Bharath Hernandez lamented that the community felt forgotten and overlooked by successive governments. He said that the community was ready and willing to meet government agencies halfway to get their village constructed, but the government never held up their end of the bargain. 

Garcia promised that this time around would be different.  

“You have my fullest commitment in the two roles I represent here today,” he said.  

Hernandez also raised concerns about the First Peoples not getting their budgetary allocations, but Garcia promised that they wouldn’t have to worry for much longer. 

“I want to assure you also that we will be speaking to the Minister of Culture, Community Development and the Arts, Dr Nyan Gasby Dolly to make sure that the allocations in the budget will be made available to you,” he said. 

The proposed village will feature a number of traditional and indigenous depictions, including a cacique’s (chief) home, a kitchen and other familiar structures. 

They'll also be hosting a fundraising event on May 23, in order to further facilitate works within the community. President Paula Mae Weekes has pledged her attendance.

UNESCO T&T pledges $176,000 to Santa Rosa First Peoples Community

Originally published on LOOP NEWS, February 5, 2020

Education Minister and President of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) of Trinidad and Tobago, Anthony Garcia.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) of Trinidad and Tobago, an agency of the Ministry of Education, has approved US$26,000.00 which is equivalent to TT$176,000 to the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community (SRFPC) to finance the construction of phase one of the First Peoples Community in Arima.

Speaking at the sod-turning ceremony on Tuesday, the President of UNESCO Trinidad and Tobago and Minister of Education, Anthony Garcia, said the investment highlights the importance of the project for the preservation of history and culture.

“Through the involvement of UNESCO we will be able to share with the wider society of Trinidad and Tobago insight into a culture that is so integral into who we are as a people today. Trinidad and Tobago boasts of an eclectic and cosmopolitan mix of religions, people, traditions and beliefs and this, is evident simply by looking around at the persons gathered here today. For many of us, tracing our lineage and understanding our heritage is difficult because of generations of misinformation, separation or migration. Therefore, to be able to engage in the establishment of this Heritage Village will be to the benefit of so many people who will now be able to have a better understanding of where they came from and what has contributed to the life that we know today.”

Garcia said the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community is recognised by the Government as the official representative of the country’s indigenous people. In December 2012, the Government agreed to allocate 25 acres of forested lands in the Arima Forest Reserve, to this community. The intended purpose was to demonstrate how a community could engage in sustainable forest-based livelihoods and contribute to the socio-economic development of the wider community while maintaining traditional cultural and spiritual values.

Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries, Clarence Rambharat, also attended the sod-turning ceremony. He urged society to begin recognising the First Peoples with the degree of pre-eminence which they deserve and that is now the norm in other countries, such as in Canada.

Chief of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, Ricardo Hernandez Bharath, in delivering remarks, thanked UNESCO for the assistance. He said this First Phase of the Heritage Village will consist of a building depicting the traditional home of an Amerindian Cacique/Chief, the traditional home of an Amerindian family and a traditional kitchen for the preparation of indigenous foods. These structures will serve as the genesis of an established physical Community for the Santa Rosa First People.