August 1—Start of Santa Rosa Festival to August 9—International Day of The World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Long before August 1 was designated a National Holiday in commemoration of the emancipation from slavery, the Santa Rosa Carib Community (now known as the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community) observed the day as the start of preparations for the Festival of Santa Rosa.
Traditionally, a conch shell was sounded at 6 am on August 1, which was really a signal to the first peoples, that the month of August had begun, and they are reminded through the sound of the conch shell that they should gather to begin preparations for the festival. Subsequent to the use of the conch shell, a “mock blast” of the cannon donated by Governor Hollis to replace the conch shell, was introduced.
The ceremonial observance for August 1 is usually at 6am, followed by the traditional indigenous ceremony, which includes rituals using the five elements of nature and other indigenous ingredients to offer prayers to the Great Spirit. These rituals are done with chants, song and prayers.
After the rituals, a communal breakfast is shared among the participants. A date is announced when the community members would meet to outline the work schedule towards the major festival at the end of August.
This year will be the second year that the “mock blast” occurred on the First Peoples Heritage Village Site. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremonies will be limited in keeping with the Ministry of Health Protocols.
Following on the heels of the first activity of our Indigenous/First Peoples Community, is another important day for Indigenous Peoples—not only locally, but worldwide.
In 1994, the United Nations declared that August 9 would be observed annually as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The day provides an opportunity for indigenous peoples to reflect upon their respective situations. This year’s theme is “Leaving no one behind: Indigenous Peoples and the call for a new social contract.”
It is against this background that I would like to take our readers on a little journey starting with the mission in Arima, which was first established in 1749.
Note that I am starting my narrative from a certain period in history, and will not at this time reflect on the numerous atrocities committed against our indigenous ancestors.
This mission lasted for just 30 years because the missionaries had certain difficulties—as history tells us—financial and some resistance from the Nepuyo nation who lived in sporadic settlements in the area.
However, a second attempt was made in 1785, which saw the Amerindians, as they were also called, being moved from the encomiendas at Caura, Tacarigua and St Augustine to Arima—their new home in the Mission of Santa Rosa. There was an allocation of 1,000 acres of land for the “Indian Mission,” to which 320 acres were subsequently added. All these lands were taken way under the British occupation, leaving the Indigenous Peoples landless in their own land—a grave injustice to the Indigenous Peoples that is yet to be corrected.
In spite of these setbacks, the indigenous peoples and their descendants continued to celebrate the Catholic Feast of Santa Rosa, adding their distinctive indigenous flavour to the festivities. For more than 200 years, these celebrations served as the vehicle that kept the indigenous peoples in Arima and the environs together, and provided the space for the retention of aspects of the indigenous cultural heritage.
Many people have asked this question—“What happened to the indigenous people at the time of Independence in 1962?” The answer is that the indigenous community was so dominated by the Church and new teachings, that their leaders at that time were seen as just insignificant, symbols of a people, stripped of authority, with no real community. So contrary to the words of the National Anthem, the leaders of the Independence Movement did not place the indigenous peoples with pre-eminence as a special sector of the population, to be treated with rights as first citizens of the soon to be independent twin-island state.
Even the Republican Constitution did not correct this wrong principle that contributed to the invisibility of the first peoples.
With a resurgence among the indigenous peoples that started in the 1970’s, not only in Trinidad and Tobago, but worldwide, the indigenous peoples began to assess their situations and started movements to bring about social justice. With an awareness of their identity, indigenous peoples began to agitate for improved conditions for themselves, and respect as indigenous communities.
Imagine that when our community wanted our own headquarters from which to operate, and approached the church for a space to erect a community centre we were told that we had to register as a “Body” in order to be allowed land for the purpose. This was Mission lands belonging to the indigenous peoples, as indicated earlier, when the Mission was set up!
The money for the registration was $250, which the community did not have. It was the First Prime Minister who considered our plight, and authorised a grant of $250 for the stamp duty to register the company.
Since then, the community has lobbied successive governments for some form of recognition to take our people forward. It has been a long road, but we have made strides under successive governments, and continue our lobby for the establishment of the First Peoples Heritage Village which is in the making for over 20 years.
One may ask—“What is this “Heritage Village?”
It is a space to practice and promote aspects of our indigenous heritage:
• a space that will serve as the headquarters for indigenous continuity
• a space where people of indigenous descent can identify and feel a sense of pride in knowing that the country recognises the contribution of our first peoples, and seeks to ensure its continuity by developing this space as a living example of our indigenous peoples presence.
It is important to us because we see that all other ethnicities, who came after us have secured spaces and monuments, not only to remind of their respective cultures, but to ensure their presence and significance for years to come. In the light of this, the First Peoples must not be left behind.
We have been able to start some aspects of the Village with a small Grant from UNESCO of US$26,000, equivalent to TT$173,000. Much more needs to be done to bring this First Phase of development to completion. Here I must note with deep gratitude and appreciation that the Arima Borough Corporation through its Mayor and Chief Executive Officer have given technical in-kind support to our work. Our thanks also go out to the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force, 1st Engineer Battalion, Cumuto, who gave of their expertise at the start of the project. We are encountering some difficulty in achieving our goal because of lack of our own funds, dependence on the government systems, and the bureaucracy encountered in trying to move forward. What is needed here is a serious government intervention to take up this project together with the indigenous peoples, to give our sector of the population the recognition it deserves.
When the first “Cabinet appointed Committee” was established in 1990, it was with the intention to look at the issues affecting the indigenous peoples, with the aim of addressing the issues, and seeing how the needs are to be met. However, as with everything, time passes and so do people; and if persons on the committee change and others who come do not have the committee’s goals at heart, no progress is made.
The proposed Heritage Village is to be done over a phased basis, but if the 1st Phase can be realised, it will serve as a catalyst for the development of the other four phases. The Heritage Village is not for the sole benefit of the indigenous peoples, but for the Nation in that it will serve as an educational institution for the wider population. It will serve as a resource for primary, secondary and tertiary level students who seek information on the indigenous peoples of their country. It will create job opportunities not only for the indigenous peoples, but for those who are interested in learning about our culture, in the areas of craft, food, agriculture and preservation of the environment.
Without such an establishment for the indigenous peoples, sooner than later, all aspects of our culture will be lost, because it is difficult to preserve such a heritage in the wider dominant cultures of other ethnicities.
Governments who have signed on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have a responsibility to work more closely with indigenous peoples so that they can achieve the goals they have set for themselves.
Successive governments have contributed to the gains we have made over the years:
• Recognition of the Community as the legitimate representative of the indigenous people of Trinidad and Tobago.
• Hosted the ‘first gathering’ of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean (COIP) – St Vincent, Dominica, Guyana, Suriname partly funded by OAS.
• Hosted the “second gathering of COIP”.
• Receipt of the National Award “Chaconia Medal” (silver) for ‘contribution to culture and community service’
• December – Attended an indigenous conference in Baracoa, Cuba. Established links with the Caridad do los Indios. Re-established links with the Tainos diaspora there.
• Granting by the State of a Day of Recognition to the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago
• Restoration of five acres of land by the state to the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community
• Change, by the government of the original five acres to a 25-acre parcel within the Forest Reserves at the foothills of the Northern Range Arima (Calvary)
• Allocation of initial funding from the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP 2011-2012) for the development of the land, which was never released.
• Celebrated The Santa Rosa Festival and 12th Annual ‘Heritage Week’ of activities
• Investiture of a new ceremonial Santa Rosa Queen, Jennifer Cassar following the passing of the former Queen Valentina “Mavis” Medina.
• Commenced negotiations with the State to determine an appropriate method for handling the discovery of skeletal remains (dating from 450AD) and artefacts from on- going excavations under the Red House.
• Preparation of a Master Plan and Business Plan for the development of the Amerindian Village on the identified parcel of lands when it is made available and accessible to the community.
• Identification of sacred places and spaces of Indigenous importance and their respective appropriate signage.
• School Children’s Rally during First Peoples Heritage Week
• Celebration of “One-Off” Public Holiday under the Theme “On Becoming Visible Towards Meaningful Recognition”.
• Hand over of Lease for the 25 acres of land on 9th August the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.
• Completion of the Master Plan and preparation of a strategy for resource mobilization for the First Peoples Heritage Village.
We were comforted by the great tribute given to us by the Prime Minister who visited us, one year ago on the anniversary of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9th August – on the eve of the General Elections. It shows a level of commitment by the Leader of the country. What is needed is for those who are behind the wheels of the system, to put a little more oil to enable smooth operation of their efforts.
We continue to send our prayers to the Great Spirit seeking a spiritual intervention for those in authority to be infused with the energy to make things happen.
People may say that “the indigenous people are wiped out, or in museums and story books. However, the descendants of the original peoples inhabit areas all over the country. Everywhere we find remains or artefacts of our indigenous peoples, they are speaking to us and reminding us of their occupation of this land and what is owed to their descendants. On 21st July, 2021, a daily newspaper carried an article on indigenous stone axes found at “the Quinam Beach where there was once an Amerindian settlement”.
In this connection we would like to bring your attention to the plight of the Native Peoples in British Columbia, Canada when the bodies of more than 160 indigenous children were discovered in shallow graves, during excavations. These children were torn from their parents and homelands to boarding schools, where the many atrocities meted out to them, led to the death of many. Recently, we saw the emotion of those directly affected by the attempted Coup on 27th July, 1990. It is similar pain indigenous peoples worldwide feel when atrocities against them are revealed, because all have gone through similar experiences. At the reburial of the indigenous human remains at the Red house in October, 2019, we made a call for the erection of a Monument to the First Peoples on that site.
We continue to hear calls for the removal of symbols and monuments of the colonial past, and while that can be justified, these actions cannot be taken in isolation. As one colonial symbol is removed, it must be replaced to represent our cultures of today, but must start with the indigenous peoples. Our position remains that pulling down a statue is worthless to the First Peoples unless tangible actions follow to our benefit.
At the regional level the efforts of the indigenous peoples in our quest for social justice have not gone unnoticed.
During the 34th Regular Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government in Trinidad and Tobago on July 15, 2013, CARICOM Heads expressed unanimous support for an initiative to engage the United Kingdom, France and Holland on the issue of Reparations for Native Genocide and African Enslavement.
The 10-point Plan for Reparatory Justice proposes at Point 3, the establishment of an “Indigenous Peoples Development Program, since “Survivors remain traumatized, landless, and are the most marginalized social group within the region”.
CARICOM has placed itself on the right side of history in the pursuit of justice and healing for victims and survivors of the atrocities of native genocide and slavery in the Caribbean.
How do we go about achieving this goal?
In observing the determined actions of the first peoples in defending their homeland, one Writer, as far back as 1776 was convinced that “A courageous Chief only is wanted”, meaning that courageous chiefs are required as change agents. We call on the courageous leaders in relevant sections of this system, to assist us in our fight for social justice.
Our Ancestors paid the price. Let us now stand tall on their shoulders and move forward to the recognition and development that is long overdue.
It was Professor Brinsley Samaroo who, as a Chief in his profession, gave us this most courageous statement in recognition of the contribution of the indigenous/First Peoples: “The root of Caribbean civilization lies in the physical and spiritual preparations laid down by those who were the first explorers of the environment. This we must never forget.”
May the Great Spirit Tamushi Adayali Wachinachi and those of our ancient ancestors continue to bless us all and this land Kairi – Trinidad and Tobago –the heart stone of our world view. May the Great Spirit lift the scourge of this COVID-19 Pandemic, from this land, and replace it with healing of diseases of the body, mind and soul, as well as Respect for Mother Earth and the elements which nourish us.
Ricardo Bharath Hernandez
Santa Rosa First Peoples Community