Friday, June 15, 2007

Post-Mortem: Caribs and Arawaks

I attended the UTT/Peter Harris presentation of Caribs and Arawaks: An Indigenous Story, at the National Library here in Port of Spain last night. Although last night, according to the Power Point slide-show the title changed to: Caribs and Arawaks: An Indigenous Story?... and I hope one can appreciate the difference.

First a bit of background: when the UTT advertised the Senior Research Fellow and Research Fellow positions in the field of First Peoples study a few months ago, I was interviewed but in the end the positions went to Peter Harris and Patricia Elie respectively. I wasn't terribly bothered as I was more interested in finding out what their approach would be than in leaving the exciting world of publishing. But I digress ...

The packed little room at the National Library heaved a collective sigh of dissatisfaction and there were more than a few dazed or quizzical looks as people slowly filed out of the room last night when Mr Harris completed his nearly two hour presentation.

Mr Harris served up a regurgitation of the work of Arie Boomert and Linda Newson - so much so that a member of the audience said at the end: I am glad you've said thanks to Boomert and Newson as I am wondering what, if anything new, are you bringing to the discourse? (Those may not have been his exact words.) Mr Harris replied without answering the question. In fact, I don't think Mr Harris answered any of the questions posed to him last night.

Mr Harris, an archaeologist, confessed last night that he felt more like an ethnographer than an archaeologist. Mr Harris confessed that he had skimmed a lot of the existing literature on the subject but he worked very closely with Arie Boomert. Mr Harris served up a lot of half-baked assertions.

Mr Harris questioned the assertion of: the Dominican elite of 1640? the chiefs? the Spanish? (I'm not quite sure.) that the Caribs were fierce and the Arawaks were peaceful.

If anything can be culled from his presentation it was that: Arawaks were fierce, Arawaks and Caribs fought over women incessantly, that there is no real record of the Carib in archaeology - we don't know where they came from he offered ernestly - "We have no evidence of how we have all these Kalina. It is a phenomenon that has not been explained."

He suggests: Arawaks settled in Trinidad's South East, Nepuyos settled in the North East, Shebaio settled in the South West and South, Yaio in the South West and West, Carinepagos in the North West and Chaguanes in the West and Central.
He references a lot of Raleigh.

Mr Harris says the Arawak assisted Hierreyma and the Dutch in razing St Joseph. That the plan is nearly thwarted by a turncoat rebel who happens to be Arawak.

The Shebaio disappear in 1700. The Yaio disappear in 1700. The Kalina disappear.

The conclusions of Mr Harris: Three people flee early 1600 - 1620, 1498 - 1640 was a time of ethnic fluidity and the new arrivals arrived say from 1740s.

Other gems include: the Missionaries rescued the Warao in setting up the Siparia mission; Salibia is the Kalinago word for Trinidad; Urupaina is what Tobago was called and translates to big snail in the Kalina language; it is difficult for a person of indigenous descent to know who they are descended from.

What we can look forward to in three years from Mr Harris, Ms Elie and the UTT is all this and more in book and dvd form. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Speaking of political power ...

Trinidad's Prime Minister Patrick Manning has said he has the election date in his back pocket but he seems no closer to announcing it. The lack of a date has set the country's other political parties off the mark though and there is much posing, speechifying and promising on the hustings.

PLUS, it is at times like these the indigenous people are often fondly called to mind and at least one political party has found it prudent to stage an evening of recognition, where my great aunt - Carib Queen Valentina Medina is called out to be presented with a bouquet of flowers.
Talk about photo op!

The election race is well and truly on.

Caribs and Arawaks: An Indigenous Story

The University of Trinidad and Tobago is hosting a presentation with this title on June 14th at the National Library in Port of Spain.

Newly appointed Senior Research Fellow of UTT's First Peoples Project, Peter Harris is the main speaker.

The advertising for the presentation reads:

We all know the schoolbook story of the warlike Carib who conquered the peaceful Arawak, ate the men, and married the women. It came from a single source, the political elite of Dominica in the 1640s. How true is this story? It is not good research to base history on a single source. Still worse to use information from a political elite. We all know a political elite is less concerned with historical accuracy than with staying in power. Research shows a more complicated situation. Six indigenous peoples from three language families are recorded in Tobago in 1758. Before this date the ethnic situation in Tobago is unclear, as two groups are called the same name by both the indigenous peoples and the Spanish. History records inflows of four more ethnic groups in the 18-19C. First I discuss a widespread mental framework of indigenous geography. Then I report some highlights for each indigenous people, as it passes through different phases of its history: eg European contact, Limited settlement, Control through missionaries, Marginalization, and Cultural rebirth. The old ethnic groups are more or less relevant today. But there are numerous "People of Indigenous Descent" in the Caribbean. And they want recognition of their cultural identity.

Harris' development as an archeologist has been largely local. In 1970 he made a sample excavation at the Banwari site and the following year he joined the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology. He has worked closely with Arie Boomert.

The University of Trinidad and Tobago is part of the PNM government's 20/20 Vision. The main campus is meant to be situated at Wallerfield but is some way from completion. The University's focus seems to lean more on the side of industry, namely fuel technologies but Harris is part of the Research Academy at UTT for Arts, Letters, Culture and Public Affairs.