26 January 2012

Contesting Trinidad's Past: The Indigenous Peoples

A much appreciated revisiting of the dominant, almost doctrinal assertions made about the history of Trinidad and Tobago--with some attention paid to the ways historiographers diminished and extinguished the Indigenous presence (see from page 178 to 180, "The Politics of Indigeneity", from which the extract below was copied):

The Politics of Indigeneity 

In virtually all accounts of Trinidad & Tobago’s history, it is taken for granted that the nation has no indigenous population, that the aborigines – whether they were “Caribs” or “Arawaks,” both or neither – had disappeared by the nineteenth century and played no role in the islands’ modern development. The literature of the nineteenth and the twentieth century pronounced the absence of the indigenes. Using the powerful tropes of extinction and amalgamation, writers of all persuasions saw the full-blooded Amerindian as entirely lacking in the nation’s pluralist society and aboriginal culture as lost forever. As the anthropologist Maximilian Forte neatly puts it, the view was that “the only real Carib is a pure Carib, and the only pure Carib is a dead Carib” (Forte 2005: 2 , see also -32). The nation was seen as one of those states which were colonial creations, lacking any pre-European past, “modern” from the beginning of their colonial experience, and therefore lacking a primordial past on which to draw for images and symbols of nationalism. In this Trinidad & Tobago was different from Guyana and Suriname on the continental mainland, which both have significant Amerindian populations which have retained much of their cultures and languages (Eriksen 992: 42-44). 

Since the early 1 990s, mainly through the efforts of an organization based in Arima (an old town in northeastern Trinidad where surviving indigenes were concentrated in the late 1700s), the Santa Rosa Carib Community (SRCC), Trinidad & Tobago society has come to recognize the Amerindian/Carib as a valid symbol in nation-building and national identity politics. The result has been, in Forte’s words (2005: 33), “increased recognition of the Carib in narratives of national history.” To acknowledge the Amerindian presence helped to create “a sense of local primordiality and of territorial continuity with antiquity.” The wider society has rediscovered its Carib heritage, and has accepted the “First People” (an internationally used term increasingly deployed by the SRCC) as the nation’s territorial precursors and symbolic ancestors, even if not the biological ancestors of most modern Trinidadians. This is a development which, by restoring the indigenes to the national history, has given antiquity and chronological depth to the concept of the nation, symbolized by the now popular trope of the First People/Trinidadians. The Carib can also be seen as the first to struggle against colonialism. The shadowy figure of “Hyarima,” perhaps a Carib chief who fought the Spaniards in the mid-seventeenth century, can be enshrined as a hero of resistance; a statue of him has been erected in Arima which bears a plaque calling him the first national hero of Trinidad. The tragic episode in 1699, when a group of Amerindians in the Spanish Capuchin Mission at Arena (now San Rafael) murdered the priests and then the governor and his suite, only to be hunted down and killed, or captured, tortured, and executed, can be reinterpreted as an epic of resistance to colonial rule and forced conversion, rather than the horrific murder of noble Catholic martyrs. A recent editorial in one of the nation’s leading newspapers describes the site of this event as “the forest in Arena where 300 years ago, the First People of Trinidad made their last great stand against domination and injustice.” The commemoration of 1992 (the quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas) and 1998 (he sighted Trinidad and Tobago in 1498) also helped to fix the Amerindian/Carib as a central figure in the foundation of the national society.

The SRCC has pursued the “invention of tradition” with considerable success since about 1990. “Traditional” festivals and practices connected to them, shamanistic ceremonies developed from several different sources – what Forte calls “global neo-shamanic transfers” – crafts, building techniques, healing practices, and food culture have all been revived, invented, and marketed as authentic Amerindian/Carib folkways. Moreover, the SRCC leaders have successfully forged international linkages with indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and South America (especially Guyana), in Canada and the United States, and globally, to strengthen the legitimacy of their identity as recognized aboriginal people. The use of “First Peoples/Nations” is a hallmark of this globalizing process, similar in many respects to the globalization of various “Diasporas” in recent years. The SRCC has also shrewdly developed strong links with the political elite, enjoying an especially close affiliation with the PNM, which is in power at the time of writing, but also with the two other parties which governed between 1986- 1999 and 1 995-2000 . Partly for this reason, partly because the individuals who self-identify as Amerindian/Carib are very few numerically, partly precisely because of their status as indigenes, the people who were always here, the SRCC’s activities and claims have not been seen as a threat either to the nationalist narrative, or to the ethnic projects whether Afrocentric or Indocentric. Certainly, however, they have succeeded in rewriting the Amerindian peoples into the national narrative of Trinidad (Tobago is only marginally part of their discourse). This success is reflected in a local newspaper editorial which recently declared “it’s never too late to pay tribute to the First Peoples of the nation. They were the ones who had to bear the brunt of the initial bruising encounter with an invading culture and the peoples decimated in the largest number and perhaps most brutal manner by the ‘discoverers’” (Forte 2005: 8 -97, 99-2 3, 224).