01
Sep
08

Independence, Nationalism, Indigeneity: Pride in Patrimony or Prostrate before Princes?

A few “random” thoughts for today, August 31, 2008, Independence Day in Trinidad and Tobago, some of which revolve around the symbolized, emblematic figure of the Amerindian in the development of a national sense of identity (something that I wrote a lot about in Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005). I can start by saying that at least Trinidad has an “independence” day, a potentially subversive thought from where I sit here in the neo-colony/neo-colonizer that is Canada, that still celebrates “Victoria Day” and still conquers indigenous land.

Memory as a Medal

For at least the past several years there has been public debate in Trinidad around the coloniality of the “Trinity Cross” as the national medal awarded to distinguished citizens. Many felt that it symbolized Christianity, and thus stood as an act of discrimination against Trinidad’s other major faiths, notably Hindus and Muslims. Some defenders suggested that the Trinity in this case referred to Trinidad — they mean the same thing, the first in English, the second in Spanish. Perhaps this is another case where different values are attached to the same word in different languages: “Black” is better than “Negro,” even if Black is the translation of Negro. In comes the new order: the Order of the Republic of the Society of Distinguished Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago and Other Distinguished Persons, or, just simply the Order of Trinidad and Tobago. This is now almost official and there is little reason to doubt that it will be finalized.

Previously, two separate discussions that appear on this blog touched on some of the themes involved in creating this new order, so to speak. One concerned Trinidadian debates about Eurocentrism and indigeneity, and the bifocal nature of the official meanings of “indigenous” in Trinidad: one side referring to descendants of pre-colonial first nations, the other referring to anything “born” in Trinidad. Amerindians are indigenous people, and steelpan, on the other hand, is the indigenous instrument. The second relevant post asked the question of whether the state of Trinidad and Tobago really recognizes indigenous people in the country. My argument is that through subtle, circuitous means, no the state does not. So while the state “recognizes” a tiny fragment of possibility, the small, formally organized Santa Rosa Carib Community in Arima, it has so far refused all other nationals the opportunity to formally self-identify as indigenous, by excluding the category from the national census, even when pressed to do otherwise by the United Nations.

What the state does do is engage in a shadow play of symbolic veils, creating a sense of nation and locality when so many of its citizens have fled, and so many non-citizens have rushed in to buy up valuable natural resources, creating a sense of place just as the place is gutted and tossed into the non-place of capitalist globalization. As a result, one ends up with the conscious cultivation of tokens, to placate in the absence of lived reality — remember the past, because the present looks pretty grim. And one ends up with the following decoration:


Serving as a crown at the top of the medal is a feathered headdress:

The crest is represented by a familiar aboriginal symbol, the feathered headdress of an Amerindian chief….(i) The First Peoples: The design seeks to acknowledge the contribution of the autochthonous (or first) inhabitants of our land embodied in the crest surmounting the medallion.

And yet the medal is made of gold, more than just symbolic of the conquest, expropriation, and exploitation of the same indigenous people. I have no solution to the medal created by committee with all of its differing elements juxtaposed, and I am not one who normally thinks in terms of preferred nationalist symbols. What I think is a problem is the shallowness of recognition of indigeneity in the name of an inwardly squeezed, outwardly opened nationalism.

Show Some Pride, a Prince is Looking!

The other ambivalent display of indigeneity, this one directly involving members of the Santa Rosa Carib Community at one point, came when the “Prince of Wales, Charles Philip Arthur George and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, paid a visit to the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus, on Wednesday 5th March, 2008, as part of their tour of Trinidad and Tobago to promote environmentalism and to reinforce British ties with former colonies” (see: “Royal Visit to UWI Highlights Lingering Colonialism“). One can see images of the visit starting here. Trinicenter.com lays bare the ghastly display of subservience to which Charles and Camilla were treated:

The scene was reminiscent of when the Queen of England had visited the country in February 1966, four years after the country’s Independence from Britain. Speaking with a gentleman who as a child witnessed the event, recalled that children lined the streets with flags in hand in the hot sun singing, “God save the Queen!” He reminded me that homage was being paid to former slave masters by a newly “Independent” nation with citizens calling on God to bless and save the royals. Today, the atmosphere was not much different with children and adults scrambling to get a touch of the royals’ hands. “I will never wash my hand again,” was what one female intimated.

The spectacle reflected the wider societal historical neglect, with the University of the West Indies at the helm of the education system sustaining the colonial mindset. Of course, true thinking individuals would know that the university is still an agent of imperialism and colonial conformity with their statues of European figures lining the third floor university library and places such as the JFK Quadrangle and auditorium named after an American president. There is no prominent symbolism that I am aware of in the University to cause appreciation of our African and Indian past.

Yesterday we witnessed children being encouraged by their teachers to touch the royals, seemingly without knowledge of Britain’s historical legacy, or even with their complicity in the mass-murder of millions in recent history. Certainly, this is an indictment against the teachers (among others) who refuse to challenge bogus history and continue to feed young minds with a self-debasing concept of history.

UWI’s Centre for Creative and Festival Arts did a skit about climate change. Unaware of the significance of symbolic actions, their continuous prostrating in front of the royals looked like a reconfirmation of colonialist attitudes and the idea of White power and supremacy over Black subordinates.

Without explaining the history of the Steelpan and reminding all that the Steelpan was developed in resistance to colonialism, the royals were allowed to play the Steelpan like children with toys. This came over as a mockery of the instrument. The royals should have been reminded that the Steelpan was born in resistance to their drive to suppress African forms of expression.

Marvin George, artistic director of “Arts in Action” posted a critique of this criticism on Facebook, on March 23, 2008, arguing that its “Offering Earth” ceremony, commissioned by the British High Commission, was meant to display pride in Trinidad’s indigenous heritage. The fact that the performers stayed low to the ground, worshiping the earth, could only be mistaken as lying prostrate in front of “the Royals.” Instead, it was meant as an “Amerindian allegory” — and Arts in Action consulted available scholarly texts on indigenous peoples in Trinidad (all except mine of course, which would have been difficult to read and apply for producing a show for elites).

It would seem that Arts in Action really bungled things, producing the opposite reaction from that intended. While disclaiming that this was a minstrel show, the fact is that they went to pay their respects to “the Royals” at the “invitation” of the British High Commission. That they readily agreed, even more than the troubled aesthetics, is what I find troubling. Why was indifference not an option? Why the greed for attention?

“Independence” remains a promise, if one chooses to take the time to reflect on what it could mean.

Happy Independence Day…from Kobo Town

SING OUT, SHOUT OUT


forty years ago today
independence came our way
welcomed by our struggling songs
it came but would not stay
and we, wanting to believe,
let ourselves be deceived
by the well-groomed speech of ambitious men
who time proved to be thieves
but the years went by and nothing came
new flag, new name, same old game
where the lucky laugh and the poor endure
having lost the will to fight again

Chorus
I remember when we were young
and hope was strong
and we had waited long
to hear the midnight bell
that would dispel
the age that kept us down
I recall when we would bleed
’cause we believed
freedom was in reach
of those who seized the day
but freedom came and faded like a dream

children of a passing age
remnants of a dying rage
whose anthems swept across this land
proclaiming a new day
and we waited patiently
for the elusive decree
that would rub away the scars we bore
and set our voices free
but the years wore on and nothing came
tyrants just bore different names
while the official line promised brighter times
we knew all things remained the same

independence, what an elusive dream
things are never ever what they seem
marchin’ hand in hand awaitin’ the command
of the liberator, soon to be the henchman
people’s vanguard, propaganda ministry
freedom fighters fillin’ the ranks of the secret police
while the tale on the times told in obituary lines
we offer our resistance with these humble rhymes

sing out, shout out, the dream never dies….

Speeches: Jawarhalal Nehru, August 15th, 1947, On India’s Independence; Milton Obote, October 9th, 1962, On the Independence of Uganda; Winston Churchill, June 18th, 1940, Address to House of Commons.


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