People on the Brink

By Tony Fraser

In the manner of their great ancestors, the "remnants"of our Amerindian population and their kin folk from throughout the Caribbean and North and South America marched up the street to the Santa Rosa Catholic Church to protest gross denial of their rights as the original peoples of this country and the Caribbean.

(I thought "remnants" an unfortunate word when Ricardo Bharath used it to describe his people, those who survived the genocide-minded Europeans of the 15th century, the succeeding waves of pirates and buccaneers and post-colonial West Indian society which has acted as callously, if not as bloody-mindedly, as their European tutors, but perhaps he was being brutally frank, a characteristic not widely spread amongst leaders.)

At the Lord Harris Park-another symbol of the shaming of the so-called Caribs and Arawaks; why not Hyarima Park after the great chief of the Amerindians whose life must have inspired his people, who, tired of the forced and brutal conversion and subjugation by the Catholic priests of the day, put an end to it all at Arena at the end of the 17th century-Chief Bharath spoke with pain and incredulity that his people could have been denied the use of the park for their ceremonies by those with authority at the Santa Rosa church. According to the chief, the reason given by the Santa Rosa authorities was that the church was having a function that would clash with the celebration of Amerindian Heritage Day at the park. Could some accommodation not have been made to allow the indigenous peoples who first occupied the land-who, as the chief pointed out, built the original church, gave their lives literally for the faith here, were the first and only members of the church for a number of years in Trinidad to hold their festival?

As Hyarima would have done, using perhaps a different method, Chief Bharath promised that come 2006, he and his people would be there on the lands that were first owned by his ancestors and it would take force to move them.

The refusal must certainly qualify under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a denial of a people of the right to practise and in this case sustain their fast-diminishing culture. But this is merely one act in a systematic centuries-old pattern of mass murder and cultural and social discrimination against the Amerindian peoples throughout this hemisphere. And the pattern and treatment have been no different be the colonisers Spanish, French, English, Dutch or West Indian.

At the smoke ceremony that preceded the march to the Santa Rosa church, the beauty of the simple but profound belief of the Amerindians was on display. Through the fire, which cleanses, purifies and gave practical benefit to the indigenous peoples in the same manner that it does to sophisticated man today, the chiefs of the First Peoples of Canada, of the Seminole in Florida, the Tainos of Puerto Rico, the original peoples of Dominica, Suriname and the Dominican Republic gave thanks to the Great Spirit for the corn, cassava, tobacco and other necessities of life.

As the smoke rose and my unaccustomed nostrils and eyes started to protest, the Seminole queen from Florida patted me on the back and assured that "it will do you good." It must have as, not for the first time (I was there in the Arena forest in 1999 when the 300th anniversary year of the counterattack against European imposition was celebrated), I felt the pain of a people squandered, in the military, economic and social sense of the word, by western civilisation. As the inheritors of the domineering tradition of our colonial masters, West Indian governments have generally refused to even acknowledge the existence amongst us of those who first settled the land, those whose traditions of navigating the Caribbean Sea we have followed, those who have given to us rich cultural practices, including the understanding that we in the Caribbean have to live on the land as if it were one continuous mass separated only by water.

At the smoke ceremony, one chief from Puerto Rico told his brothers that back then their ancestors could speak each others' languages and there were no recognised political boundaries that deterred the free movement, hunting and exchange. More than five years ago, at another celebration of their survival, Bharath asked for a grant of land and practical assistance from the government of the day for his people to resuscitate their ancestral culture and to perhaps make an economic living from the craft and culinary arts remembered across generations. They are still waiting.

In these times of plenty, what more deserving peoples are there than our truest ancestors? It is not accidental that the only English-speaking Caribbean country in which there continues to be something of a real presence of the indigenous peoples, Dominica, the Amerindian possess Carib Territory, the lands of their forefathers given to them through a grant of Queen Victoria at the end of the 19th century. Further, the Carib community in Dominica is being assisted (1997) by the Government to develop model communities. The intention is to have people, foreign and local, visit the communities to share in the traditional cultural practices of the Amerindians.

However, even in a far more progressive environment such as that existing in Dominica, there are concerns with such an initiative that it could lead to a tragic exploitation of the indigenous peoples. Already, there are proposals for conversion of the system of communal ownership of the village land to private property so that the banks and financial houses can lend monies to the Caribs; a possible corollary being that the lands could eventually fall into the hands of the owners of the finance houses and the private sector. Progress western-style could then set in, with greed and jealousy taking over in the name of "advancement." At least, however, the estimated 3,000 remaining Caribs in Dominica have the basis for preservation of their ancestral culture.

We in the Caribbean cannot legitimately complain of exploitation and oppression by the industrialised powers while at the same time doing the same to what's left of the Amerindian population of the region. Indigenous peoples, whether they are in Australia, New Zealand, South America or North America, are on the brink. Western civilisation expends more time and resources on endangered species of Bengal tigers and king cobras (not that such programmes are unimportant) than they do on our human ancestors.

Tony Fraser is a veteran journalist and a columnist with the Trinidad Guardian.
Reprinted with the permission of:
Annan Boodram
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