Friday, August 31, 2007

News about Trinidad's Caribs and the State

In an article in Trinidad and Tobago's Newsday, "Carib leader snubs COP" (by Irene Medina, Wednesday, June 13, 2007), the following extract is worthy of note. It concerns the work of a government-appointed Amerindian Projects Committee, which was formally (re)instituted in September of 2006:

a Cabinet-appointed committee to look into issues affecting indigenous people, submitted its first draft report to the Minister of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affair Joan Yuille-Williams for Cabinet’s consideration. The Committee, which is being chaired by Museum Curator Val Lewis is also looking into the issues of a public holiday for the Carib community next year and the issuance of a parcel of land. Lewis told Newsday: “We have made a number of recommendations that would improve the Carib communities generally throughout the country. Some of these include documenting the story of the Amerindians, immediate steps to protect archaeological sites and protection of medicinal herbs.” Lewis said talks have already been held with the Central Statistical Office (CSO) to identify the Caribs by name in the next census and that concerns were raised about the use of the Carib name as a product brand. He said three members of the Carib Community were on this committee and some major developments may be coming for the group.

Several elements of this story are noteworthy, some of which I have underlined in the passage above. The first has to do with the fact that the government appointed a museum curator to head the committee, which reflects the usual positioning of indigenous issues in Trinidad within the framework of history, archaeology, and the display of relics of a folk culture. This is not-so-subtle way for the government to suggest that indigeneity in Trinidad is shrouded in pastness, is not part of contemporary experience, and is to be managed by non-indigenous experts of the distant Amerindian past. The good news is that this is an orthodox position: for readers who may not be familiar with the writings of French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, orthodox views are articulated in defense of a position, precisely because that position is under question and open to contestation. In the absence of questioning, where domination proceeds unchallenged, there is no need to convert everyday assumptions into hardened ideology. That the existence of this orthodoxy--Caribs are relics of the past--has come into being reveals an unsteady state, and what is typical of unsteady states is moments of confusion and contradiction in official positions.

Thus, as if to contradict relegating Caribs to the dusty covers of history books, the article above tells us that now the Central Statistical Office may be planning to include a "Carib" category on the next census, something that seems to follow on the heels of an article published in this blog before the news above was made public (see: "Does Trinidad Recognize its Indigenous People?"). This is good news, and the effect of this inclusion may help to revolutionize the ways that Trinidadians self-identify.

What might seem more problematic is the notion presented in the article above that the government would improve the position of "Carib communities...throught the country": Who will do the identifying? What are the criteria they will use for indentifying these communities as "Carib communities"? What do they mean by community? What if persons who self-identify as Carib are not members of any kind of formal, identifiable structure that could be called a community? Indeed, it is arguable that were it not for the Mission, and the Santa Rosa Festival, there might not have been a Carib community in Arima itself, which is quite far from saying that, therefore, no self-identifying Caribs would have existed in Arima.

Also surprising is the news that a "public holiday" may now be established for the Caribs, something they have not requested. They have requested land, for decades now, and much further in the past as well, and there really is little excuse for not having granted any. What makes the ongoing stalling of a land grant all the more remarkable is that the head of the Carib Community, Ricardo Bharath Hernandez, is a devoted member of the ruling People's National Movement, which has been in power for most of Trinidad's history since Independence (coincidentally, to be commemorated on today's date). The article from which the extract above was taken is in fact primarily about Bharath refusing to attend a "heritage dinner" for indigenous people hosted by the opposition Congress of the People. As stated in the article:
“I would have gone in the interest of indigenous people but I felt it was inappropriate to attend that particular function in this, an election year. I did not want anyone to be unsure about where my allegiance is,” he said. Bharath-Hernandez added he was all for the development and upliftment of the indigenous people, but being a member of the PNM, felt attending wouldhave been a conflict of interest. He said he had written the COP declining the invitation.

One doubts that anyone will question Bharath's allegiance to the PNM. The question is whether the ruling party has shown sufficient reciprocal allegiance to the Caribs.


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