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Land of many peoples: The First Peoples
In this land of many peoples and people of many ancestries, how do people see their ethnic heritage? How do they practice it, ignore it, or celebrate it?
On the occasion of our 54th anniversary of independence from Britain this year, T&T Guardian feature writer Shereen Ali spoke to T&T citizens of different backgrounds to ask how they see issues such as ethnicity, race and in some cases, their own uniquely diverse heritages.
She asked the same six questions to all respondents, through emails, face-to-face interviews, and telephone interviews. In the process, the participants helped paint a picture of an ever-changing, complex twin-island space which has seen waves of migration both into and out of the islands. She found among many respondents a sense of proud ethnic identities, not necessarily corresponding with easy categorisations of race or even ethnicity. But you be the judge.
Today, in part one of seven, we start with people who self-identify most strongly with the Amerindian part of their heritage. The Amerindians or First Peoples, also called the indigenous peoples, were among the first inhabitants that we know of in this land, with their ancestors settling here between six and seven thousand years ago.
Kristo Adonis has been Pyai (shaman) of the First Peoples in T&T for more than 40 years. A pyai or First Peoples spiritual leader is not elected, he is born.
When you have to fill in a form asking you your race, what do you put?
I put First Peoples, if there is that option.
How do you see your ethnic roots & heritage? Is it important to how you define yourself, or is it irrelevant, an accident of birth?
It is very important to me spiritually, culturally, and in all aspects of my life. I live my everyday life based on my indigenous heritage.
Our knowledge was not lost; elders handed it down to me when I was growing up. We are now doing writings because we want to keep up with the larger community, and we realise we are in an age of modern technology. But our stories and ways of life were handed down verbally over many generations.
Do you celebrate your ethnic heritage, ignore it as irrelevant, or have mixed feelings about it?
I celebrate it with all its spirituality, and with all its knowledge base. I celebrate it through my culinary traditions, my dress for rituals, and my adornment traditions. I teach students who do internships with me in spirituality and indigenous medicinal traditions.
We have special celebrations throughout the year. For example, this month, we celebrate the Santa Rosa Festival. Now, some looking on at that festival, may think it is a largely Catholic festival, but the First Peoples play an important part in it (due to our history at the Arima Mission).
Later in the year, on October 14, we celebrate Amerindian Heritage Day. That whole week we have activities and we welcome visiting contingents.
I personally have gone out of the country to attend different indigenous meetings, such as the first United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in New York (September 2014). Leading up to that conference, I was in another conference in Cuba, involving indigenous people of the Americas. We shared quite a lot in common, spiritually and otherwise. These conferences helped me in my way of thinking and in my way of dealing with other peoples.
Do you think race is important in T&T? Do you think different ethnicities have different values?
I think race is important in the sense of identifying with one’s ancestral background, and in teaching one’s children and young people belonging to the community about values. In order for someone to know where they are going, they have to know where they came from, and where they are right now.
So in that aspect, race or ethnicity is important.
I think we have some different values in different communities, such as in our outlook on the environment, and in how we look at animals.
I could give you this example. There is a view that man is dominant over all other entities on Earth, but indigenous spirituality and values teaches you respect for all that is around you. This space called Earth that we occupy, we occupy in coexistence with all other entities, such as the animals, the rivers, all of nature; and so we respect them all.
Those values, that respect for the environment, is what indigenous people share. If the wider world were to share that, I think we would not have so many problems with global warming and other issues. Now, some people may share the same environmental values as this; but different ethnicities do sometimes value different things.
How long have you/your family had roots here (best estimate)? What do you like and dislike about T&T culture?
(Laughs) My ancestors had roots here before Columbus came.
As to T&T culture, I will give you my personal answer as an indigenous person, and not as a representative of First Peoples.
Well, let me ask you this: Do you listen to the words of our national anthem? There is a line which states: “Here every creed and race finds an equal place, and may God bless our nation.” I feel at times, that not every creed and race finds an equal place.
I feel at times that we in the indigenous community are used to suit the whims and fancies of politicians or others in authority. If we are supposed to have an equal place, then why can’t we have a representative of indigenous background as an Independent Senator, for example? The Independent Senate could consider representing all groups.
Another thing. There is an organisation called the IRO – Inter-Religious Organisation. I don’t think they have any indigenous people represented there.
We at the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community recently had a visit from the American ambassador. For a long while I haven’t felt so comfortable feeling that that person genuinely wanted to be interested in us. I was so happy. But sometimes here in Trinidad I feel we are invited to certain things just as window dressing.
But there are positive things. I, as the pyai of my community, have interacted with people of all other groups and spiritualities, and I have found very good friends and very knowledgeable and loving people among almost all groups - Hindu, Muslim, Orisha, Baptist, Bahai and others. Wonderful people.
I myself was just talking with two young East Indian ladies, telling them that my wife could make roti, and we can cook it because we live as one with our neighbours. I enjoy Divali just as I enjoy Indigenous Celebrations. I attended Arima Hindu School when I was small. So what I love about Trinidad is that we are more tolerant of one another, and when you do hear any kind of upheaval, it is not from we the ordinary people, but from some crazy person wanting to start some kinda bacchanal.
I love everything about Trinidad because I am Trinidad, Trinidad is me, and Trinidad belongs to all of us, though we the First Peoples are the original gatekeepers.
I have Afro blood in me, I have East Indian blood in me, and who else knows what else again? (laughs) I relate to my indigenous ancestry more readily, but I am mixed, as everybody else is mixed. I think it’s a very good mixture, you know! There might be people who disagree with me, but I think it’s a good mixture. It makes us more tolerant, and it makes the people more beautiful. There is nowhere else in the world you will find more beautiful people than in T&T.
Do you know about the beliefs and lifestyles of T&T people of different ethnic heritages from your own?
Yes. I am invited many times to many spiritual ceremonies, and take part. And I feel enlightened, and I feel better off when I leave. And I observe the customs: for instance, before Divali ceremonies, I keep the fasts, because I respect them.
One of the pillars of indigenous spirituality is respect. And that means respecting every single person. There is a custom of our ancestors that if an enemy were to come in your house, while they were in your home they are under your protection, and you are supposed to give them food, you are supposed to clothe them. When they leave, you might go back to war again, you know, but whilst they were under your roof, they were under your protection.
I read a commentator the other day who wrote in a newspaper that in his opinion, Emancipation was more significant to him than Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Indian Arrival Day, Eid, Divali, or Baptist Liberation Day. I feel sad about that column because of the lack of respect for others it shows.
Also, people should remember that long ago, the reason the Africans were brought here, is because of the atrocities committed against the First Peoples. And when most of them died out, that is why the Europeans started to bring others as slaves or labourers.
Although I would like more of our young people to know about their Amerindian heritage, I would never want our young people to separate from the larger idea of T&T. We must respect everyone’s background and spirituality.
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