Posts Tagged ‘identity

09
Jun
08

What is “American Art”? Thin-Lipped Gravitas

In an essay by John Updike, in The New York Review of Books titled “The Clarity of Things” (Vol. 55, No. 11, June 26, 2008), he asks what is American in American art? He quotes a 1958 essay by Lloyd Goodrich who wrote:

One of the most American traits is our urge to define what is American. This search for a self-image is a result of our relative youth as a civilization, our years of partial dependence on Europe. But it is also a vital part of the process of growth.

(This alone is interesting, because it reminds me of almost identical statements made by C.L.R. James, who argued that the West Indian search for an identity, is the West Indian identity, and who was one of a series of writers to cast the Caribbean as part of the Western cultural experience.)

Updike continues his piece by observing:

My impression is that inquiries into an essential Americanness are less fashionable than they were fifty years ago, since they inevitably gravitate, in this age of diversity and historical revision, to that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent. These thin-lipped patriarchal persons figure, as founding Puritans or Founding Fathers, as western pioneers or industrial magnates, at every juncture of traditional history books, and our diverse, eclectic, skeptical present population may have heard quite enough about them.

But far from turning his back on “dead white guys,” Updike takes us to revisit them, in a piece that is of interest for much more than its art history. Updike ends his article by essentially positioning the roots of “American art” in colonial terms, in relation to “nature” and “civilization”:

The American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principle study. A bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being, leads to a certain lininess, as the artist intently maps the visible in a New World that feels surrounded by chaos and emptiness.

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26
May
08

Restoration: More Indigenous than the Ancestors, in the Poet’s Eye

I was struck by this passage from Derek Walcott‘s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. I had read this at the time it was released and had forgotten this passage until I accidentally found it again in the last few weeks.

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.

The love that goes into restoration is even stronger than the love which took reality for granted. In the vision of the poet, what some have called the “Taino restoration” brings us face to face with people who are more firmly committed, attentive, and protective of indigenous heritage than even the ancestors that they take care to respect — what a refreshing difference from scornful remarks about the “neo-Taino” as mere “wannabes” who are not “real,” not “real” like “real Indians of the past.” I take it that “white scars” can have multiple meanings here: a direct reference to glue, thus of binding, and healing; the sea, uniting Caribbean islands, these fragments of the mainland; and/or, the history of colonialism, white domination, that wrought the breakage to begin with. And finally the poem places the Antilles within a South American embrace, now bringing together the poet with the archaeologist while reminding a region of a history that is too often forgotten, willfully even.

20
Aug
07

Twelve percent American Indian?

It is more than a little disturbing to see the relative ease which writers in major mainstream news media exhibit when reporting that a person is “12 percent American Indian.” This weighing of indigenous cultural identity on a scale, as if it were a sack of grain, not to mention the imposition of questions of “authenticity” (as if these persons were objects), is one of the perverse outcomes of the rise of DNA testing technology coupled with debates over membership in indigenous communities, and ownership of indigenous cultural artifacts. The most recent example, among a series, was authored by Ellen Rosen, in The New York Times (Sunday, Aug. 18, 2007) in an article titled, “Latest Genealogy Tools Create a Need to Know.” The caption to the opening photograph states: “Through a DNA test, Dr. Holden found out that she is 12 percent American Indian.” Not only that, she is yet another descendant of a “princess,” which is an amazing accomplishment for someone whose indigenous ancestors knew no royal or noble titles. Apparently pricesses made for incredibly prolific breeders, as it is virtually impossible to find anyone who claims to be the descendant of a “commoner.”
An American comedian–Stephen Colbert–recently claimed to have undergone some testing that revealed he was 75% Jewish, which gave him ample material for jokes about getting a “three quarters circumcision” or telling three fourths of a Jewish joke. When it comes to American Indian or indigenous identity, the subject no longer becomes the stuff of jokes, which it really deserves to be. I would hate to be a 12 percent American Indian in a debate about indigenous issues with a 13 percent American Indian.
10
Mar
07

Does Trinidad Recognize Its Indigenous People?

What Recognition?
Along with the leadership of the Santa Rosa Carib Community, I have been one of those who has frequently written that the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago has formally recognized the same Carib Community, a formally registered organization based in the Borough of Arima. The reasons for stating this can be explained as follows:

(i) According to News Release No. 360, issued by the Information Division, Office of the Prime Minister, on May 8, 1990, “Cabinet has decided that the Santa Rosa Carib Community be recognized as representative of the indigenous Amerindians of Trinidad and Tobago, and that an annual subvention of $30,000 be granted to them from 1990. Cabinet also agreed that an Amerindian Project Committee be appointed to advise government on the development of the Community….as the oldest sector of this country’s multi-cultural society, the Amerindians have, for some time, been recognized as having unique needs for their cultural and economic viability. Such needs come into higher relief and sharper focus as the country prepares to celebrate, Columbus’ Quincentennial in October 1992.”

The juxtaposition of ideas here is significant, because the news release highlights the context in which the decision became important: a commemorative event, held in conjunction with the Caribbean Festival of the Arts (CARIFESTA) hosted by Trinidad in 1992, where the Government sought to showcase indigenous peoples, including its own.

In the presentation of the National Trust Bill, in the parliament on Friday, March 15, 1991, the then Minister of Food Production and Marine Exploitation, Dr. Brinsley Samaroo stated the following:

“The third project that is being undertaken by this Government has to do with the way in which we have duly recognized the presence of, and importance of, the descendants of the indigenous peoples of our lands. That is another area that the Member for Naparima mentioned and I do hope he now believes that he is not being disregarded in the contributions that he has been making as we are addressing some of the issues that he raised. No one can deny that those who laid the first foundations of our civilization were the Caribs and the Awaraks [sic] the two largest nations of our early history and the smaller tribes such as the Tianos [sic] and Lucayos [sic] who also inhabited this country. These were our ancestors who taught us to use our hammocks and to boucanour [sic] fish and meat. These were the people who showed us how to live in harmony with nature and gave us our first lessons in the protection of the environment. From them we obtained such names as ‘Mucarapo’ from the Amerindian word Cumo Mucurabo, a place of great silk cotton trees; ‘Arima’, the place of water [sic]; ‘Naparima’, no water [sic]; and ‘Tacarigua’ being the name of an Amerindian chief from the Caura Valley. For many years, their local descendants, these descendants of early and first members of this country, were vainly clamouring for recognition from the past administration, as the representatives of the indigenous Amerindians of Trinidadand Tobago and for Government to help in preserving that part of the national heritage. It was this Government which gave such recognition by Cabinet decision of April, 1990. We agreed, among other things, to recognize the Santa Rosa Carib community as the representative of the indigenous Amerindians of this nation; we agreed to an annual subvention of $30,000 towards their upkeep and preservation of the national heritage; we agreed to make the contribution of the indigenous peoples, an essential part of our observation of the 500 years of our achievements which will coincide with the quincentennial of Columbus arrival here 500 years ago. The year of course for that is 1992. At the present time, the Government is talking to these persons whom we have recognized about giving them a piece of land as a permanent site for the establishment of a village to commemorate their ancestry” (see page 27 of the House of Representatives report for that date).

(ii) As a result of that decision in 1990, the Santa Rosa Carib Community has received an annual subvention from the Government of $30,000 TT per annum, along with $5,000 TT per annum from a local government body, the Arima Borough Council, still attached to the central government. (For confirmation of the first amount, see page 56 of the House Debates for 1992.)

(iii) Frequently, for many national events, the Government has highlighted the presence of the Santa Rosa Carib Community. This occurred on three occasions that CARIFESTA was hosted by Trinidad and Tobago, as well as several public speeches of commitment to provide the Caribs with land, and multiple visits by government ministers to a government-funded Carib Community Centre in Arima. (Where CARIFESTA is concerned, see an example of the festival-related “recognition” at: http://www.carifesta.net/art7.php.)

(iv) The Government also created a formally named “Day of Recognition,” presumably to be “observed” every October 14 (see the Hansard for July 18, 2000.)

Recognizing What?
In other words, yes, in multiple ways the Government has formally and effectively recognized…what?The fact of the matter is that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago has no legal definition of the term “indigenous peoples,” and frequently appropriates the term for referring to all people born in the country, in contradiction to established international conventions. Secondly, the Government has recognized only one specific organization, and worse yet, it has recognized it in a manner that suggests it is the only possible representative of Trinidad’s “Amerindians,” rendering any other claimants to an indigenous identity as fakes. Thirdly, while claiming to recognize the Caribs, the Government has not signed any international conventions or agreements that pertain specifically to the rights of indigenous peoples.

And Now Comes the UN
The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), in a report on the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean issued in June of 2006, found fault with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago specifically on the issue of its lack of legal recognition of the indigenous people of the nation. On page 534 in that report, CERD states:

“351. The Committee expresses its co
ncern at the absence…of specific information on the indigenous population as well as other relatively small ethnic groups of the State party in the report, and particularly the absence of a specific categorization of the indigenous population as a separate ethnic group in official statistics on the population. The Committee encourages the Government to include the indigenous population in any statistical data as a separate ethnic group, and actively to seek consultations with them as to how they prefer to be identified, as well as on policies and programmes affecting them.”

In a supplement, on page 536, CERD reveals with specific reference to the Caribs:

“34. Members of the Committee asked why the Caribs had all but disappeared, exactly how many were left, why they were not treated as a separate racial group and whether measures were being taken to help them, particularly in the economic and educational fields, so as to compensate them for the injustices they had suffered.”

In other words, CERD had been told by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago that the Caribs were virtually extinct, and as is typical of government statements on this matter, “the only remaining descendants are to be found in Arima.” What is especially remarkable is that CERD has been making such observations, and asking such questions of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, regularly and as far back as 1980, as the supplements to the report reveal.It is a fact that there is no population census in Trinidad that admits the category of either indigenous, Amerindian, Carib, or anything remotely related, as a choice for self-identification. This renders extraordinary the incredible statement recently made by the Minister for Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs, Joan Yuille Williams who proclaimed on Saturday, September 23, 2006, in the Carib Community Centre itself, that people of Amerindian and “mixed Amerindian” descent in Trinidad are “a very small minority,” as I myself heard her say this. In the absence of a census that allows for such identification, there is nothing to substantiate her assertion.

So why make such an assertion?

As a politician in a race-based political party, the People’s National Movement, Minister Williams knows how many votes have been won by her party over the decades by appealing to Afro-Trinidadians. Likewise, the other major political bloc in the country, formerly the United National Congress, seized considerable political power by appealing to Trinidadians of East Indian descent. These two major ethnic blocs have dominated national politics. Any third identification would radically upset the established way of calculating rewards and patronage, of dividing spoils in what is in effect a long standing Cold War that has rendered the country bipolar (perhaps in more than the political sense alone).

Secondly, the assertion is convenient when the main aim of the Government has not been to take the Caribs seriously. Instead, the Caribs are trotted out as mere showpieces for festivals and commemorative events, like a colourful little museum piece, but certainly nothing of any social or political import. The Santa Rosa Carib Community, in practice, is treated as a tokenistic, folkloric troupe–mild, smiling, doing its part to add a little more colour to the multicultural fabric waved by the nation to greet tourists.

Thirdly, the leadership of the Santa Rosa Carib Community has not vocally and directly challenged the government on these questions. This is in part due to strong political ties between the leadership and the PNM, the dependency on government funding, and the lack of any ambition to become involved in a national movement for the recuperation of indigenous identity. Such sentiments, in my experience, have been heard most loudly from expatriate Trinidadians who wish to recoup their indigenous identity, and who understand that if not a majority, at least an extremely large minority of Trinidadians could claim indigenous ancestry. Many more are in fact claiming this ancestry.

So when asking the Government of Trinidad and Tobago if it recognizes the indigenous people of the country, and it answers, “the Santa Rosa Carib Community has been recognized,” it is important to understand the evasiveness of the answer. The answer, in any legal and political sense, is that no, there is no such recognition.

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…

05
Sep
06

Letter from Cristo Adonis (Carib, Trinidad)

The following is a letter from Cristo Adonis, shaman of the Arima Carib community in Trinidad, forwarded thanks to Tracy Assing.

In his Historical Sketches of Trinidad and Tobago, K.S. Wise noted in 1934:

“No one can live long in Trinidad without being told that Iere was the aboriginal Indian name for the island … so much so that this name has become part of the traditional history of Trinidad and has been adopted as a place name.”

Wise also wrote:

“Caribs were an intractable and warlike people; they were proud and dominating and preferred death to subjection. Throughout history the Caribs have always been indomitable and implacable opponents of all invaders. The early Conquistadors found in the Caribs valiant and worthy opponents, and only too often the Spaniards suffered disastrous defeats.”

The Amerindian thus bestows on the nation a sense of antiquity and a sense of occupation of the territory that is Trinidad. – Maximilian Forte, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Concordia University. Author, Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs

Dutch archeologist Arie Boomert wrote in a 1982 article in the Trinidad Naturalist, entitled “Our Amerindian Heritage” that due to Trinidad being “one of the world’s most cosmopolitan populations” as a result “it is often forgotten that a few of the people now living in Trinidad are descended or partly descended from the original inhabitants of the island, the Amerindians.”

Bridget Brereton’s An introduction to the History of Trinidad and Tobago (1996) makes specific references to the contemporary Santa Rosa Carib Community. Her chapter entitled “The first Trinidadians and Tobagonians” following Dr Eric Williams’ (1962) designation of “Our Amerindian Ancestors”. She repeatedly uses phrases such as “the first people” and “the first Trinidadians” throughout her chapter.

The resistance theme appears in her text as well, without discriminating between Caribs and Arawaks: “Amerindians resisted … strongly. The Amerindians were good fighters and it was not until 1592 that the Spaniards could actually make a permanent settlement” (Brereton, 1996). Instead of arguing that Ameridians became extinct, Brereton opts for the view of Amerindians declining in numbers. She says:

“Only a few people in Trinidad and Tobago today have Amerindian blood, but we should all be proud of our first people. Their legacy is all around us. We can see it in many words and place names, reminding us that these people made the islands their own by settling down and naming places, rivers, bays, districts and things. We can see it in roads which date back to their paths. We see it in ways of cooking, especially dishes made with cassava. We also have a community in Arima, who call themselves ‘Caribs’ and are very proud of their culture. They are working hard to make us all more aware of the heritage of our first people.”

Identity

I have observed the Independence celebrations and noted that no invitation was sent to members of the First Nation People of Trinidad and Tobago to speak or offer any blessings to the nation.

We have also not been invited to participate in the recent discussions regarding the decision on what the nation’s highest award/honour is to become.

In sending greetings to the First Nation People of Trinidad and Tobago on the occasion of the recently held Santa Rosa Festival, which seems to be the only First Nation celebration of interest to the media and the Government, I have noticed that corporate citizens chose to use the statue of Hyarima … some people would be proud of that but we have live people as well.

We are grateful but this helps cement the view that the only real First Nations people in this country are dead.

The real honour for Hyarima lies in the smoke ceremony homage we pay to our ancestors.

I respect other peoples being granted their holidays, our people have been granted a day of recognition and we did not ask for a public holiday as we have so many of those.

When it is our day of recognition hardly anything is mentioned in the media. In fact, the media only recognises the existence of First Nations Peoples on specific days of the year for the rest of the year we do not exist.

But in our own country, in the country of our ancestors we continue to await the Promised Land.

Not the Promised Land promised to us by those who converted our ancestors to Catholicism but the land promised to us by the Government as a move toward reparation.

It is my belief that our people should be included in all discussions pertaining to the environment and the well being of our country. This is a land we understand. We understand the rivers, the sea, the mountains, the trees, the plants and the animals.

The story of the First Nation People of Trinidad and Tobago is one of survival.

Cristo Adonis

24
Jul
06

Trinidad Debates Eurocentrism and Indigeneity

As some readers will already know, a current debate taking place in Trinidad and Tobago concerns renaming the highest national award, the Trinity Cross. The debate itself is not by any means new, but a recent court ruling acknowledged that the naming of the award was offensive and discriminatory towards the country’s Hindu and Muslim population. Ironically, the same ruling, while supporting the charge of religious discrimination, threw out the motion to have the name changed since the name itself has been established in law.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Patrick Manning has agreed to change the name of the award by August 31st of this year, ideally choosing a word and symbol from the country’s indigenous history. However, there will be debates as to what Manning and the government mean by “indigenous,” as there is some suggestion that the steel pan may become the new symbolic emblem of the award, rather than the cross. In this case, needless to say, indigenous means “locally produced” rather than a pre-Columbian notion of “locally rooted.”

The irony is that the name “Trinity Cross” may change, but Trinidad (Spanish for Trinity) will remain unchanged. It is interesting, perhaps encouraging, to see Trinidadians grappling with the legacies of colonialism and European cultural domination, even if it is momentary.




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