Several Amerindian tribes inhabited the Caribbean archipelago long before Christopher Columbus made his grand arrival in the late 15th century believing he was first to set foot on the chain of islands.
Trinidad was first settled by pre-agricultural archaic people at least 7,000 years ago, making it the earliest-settled part of the Caribbean. Ceramic-using agriculturalists settled on the island around 250 BC, and then moved further up the Lesser Antillean chain. At the time of European contact, Trinidad was occupied by various Arawakan-speaking groups including the Nepoya, the Suppoya and Cariban-speaking groups such as the Yao, while Tobago was occupied by the Caribs and Galibi.
Tracy Assing’s film, The Amerindians, traces the First Nations presence in the twin-island republic and explores her identity as a member of the Arima-based Santa Rosa Carib Community, which was established in 1974.
The film made its Toronto premiere last Friday night at the University of Toronto’s William Doo auditorium. Organized by the university’s Caribbean Studies program at New College, the screening was supported by a Principal’s Initiative Fund grant.
“Until now, Amerindian descendants have depended on the stories of grandparents and great-grandparents for their history while the indigenous story of survival has been written out of the history books,” said Dr. Alissa Trotz who is the director of the Caribbean Studies program. “The unbalanced and often incorrect stories that made their way into school text books have impacted generations of indigenous descendants and the wider community continues to be ignorant of the rich history of the Caribbean islands.”
The film premiered on the same day – October 14 – that Amerindian Heritage Day is celebrated in Trinidad & Tobago. The highlight of the annual celebration is a smoke ceremony at the Hyarima statue. Hyarima was a Carib warrior leader and he’s considered T & T’s first national hero.
“This day of recognition was negotiated as a way to honour the legend of Hyarima’s resistance to the islands’ occupation by colonizers,” said Assing who has written widely on indigenous issues. “This recognition though is difficult to parlay in a space as culturally diverse as Trinidad & Tobago. Every creed and culture has their own day of recognition, their national holiday, their mas’ and their carnival.
“This casual recognition went some way towards raising the awareness of the continued indigenous presence in a space where the story of the decimation of Caribs and Arawaks established firm roots in the education system. The story has alternatively being referred to with a sense of absence and a sense of presence…indigenous descendants have been recognized and denied almost simultaneously. While one would be hard pressed to find a pure-blooded Amerindian now, it doesn’t make us less proud to be.”
Barbadian-born U of T history professor, Dr. Melanie Newton, admitted to drawing pictures of Arawaks and ceremonial stools in school and being taught that Arawaks and Caribs no longer existed.
“When I started teaching, I was quite determined that I was not going to repeat those kinds of narratives and would find other kinds of information,” she said. “I think it’s interesting that the Caribbean and Canada are the two largest geo-political areas of the Americas that are actually named after indigenous people.”
Canada is named after the Iroquoian word for village while the Caribbean is named after the Caribs.
T & T-born video artist Richard Fung, who saw Assing’s film while in the twin-island republic last January and brought it to the attention of Trotz and the Caribbean Studies program staff at New College, said it represents a first for Trinidad & Tobago’s Amerindian community.
“When I first saw the film, it was the first time that I was seeing something on video that was done as self-representation of the Carib community,” said Fung who in 2001 won the Bell Canada Award for Lifetime Achievement in Video Art. “The difference between others representing you and you representing yourself is really remarkable.”
Assing dedicated the film to her great aunt and former Santa Rosa Carib Queen, Valentina Medina, who succumbed to breast cancer last April at age 78.
Medina spent much of her reign advocating for greater recognition of indigenous people and petitioning the T & T government for a Carib reservation.
Jennifer Caesar was sworn in last August as the new Queen.