05
Sep
06

"You Got Recognition"

I was reflecting on parts of the letter recently sent by Cristo Adonis (see the previous post of this date), and recalled a film I was to have shown in class today, You Are On Indian Land (1969, directed by Mort Ransen), which covers the barricades erected by the St. Regis Mohawks to block travelers along a highway from the US leading into Canada, a highway built on their land without their permission. They charged all travelers with trespassing and blocked the route. The police, who arrived in numbers, frequently told the prostesters, “you got recognition,” and it definitely sounded to me like the unspoken addendum to that sentence was, “now get lost.”

The Caribs of Trinidad “got recognition.” Recognition is a great achievement if for centuries your very presence has been denied. Recognition can also play into a politics of paternalistic dismissal: you have been recognized, we love to put you on display for select ceremonial occasions, and we give you various candies, but please do not dream of inserting yourselves into the serious politics of the nation in which you live, as if you could have any say. This is why in a previous post I called the state’s recognition of the Caribs “cosmetic respect” for indigenous culture: a superficial celebration of their presence, treated as tokens of the nation’s legendary past, but not viewed as holders of knowledge of alternative ways of living and fundamentally respecting Trinidad’s environment.

If the Caribs were to have a say in national affairs, this could prove very awkward for the state, and for the ruling party specifically. The government in fact seems intent on appropriating the label “indigenous”-as in Guyana–to denote anyone born in Trinidad, or anything created in Trinidad, whether Amerindian or not, which might be deemed reasonable on a number of grounds. However, it is also one way that indigenous peoples are pushed into the background of national qua “indigenous” decision-making.

That “recognition” is reduced to celebration is probably the reason why the Caribs are Trinidad’s only ethnic community not to have received land from a government ever since their lands were expropriated. Even Spiritual Baptists and Orisha communities, which were hardly core support groups for the mostly East Indian United National Congress which ruled Trinidad in the late 1990s, still received lands and buildings from that same government. The Caribs, most of whom vote for today’s ruling People’s National Movement, have received no such consideration, and that’s after three decades of promises. With friends like these…

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