The return of the native

By Dylan Kerrigan

The Amerindians, directed by Tracy Assing and Sophie Meyer
(40 minutes)

Still from The Amerindians

Still from The Amerindians. Image courtesy the trinidad+tobago film festival

Historians tell stories of the past. These stories are always partial truths. These partial truths have consequences for how we imagine the present and the future. In this excellent documentary account of the contemporary Amerindian population of Trinidad and Tobago, and the issues the community faces, directors Tracy Assing and Sophie Meyer clearly illustrate this connection between past, present, and future. Amerindian identity, we are reminded, is not and nor should it be solely or principally about public events like the Santa Rosa Festival. There is far more to the story.

Assing was raised a member of the Santa Rosa Carib Community, based in Arima in east Trinidad. It is hard to put a figure on the size of this community, not least because the government of Trinidad and Tobago has no legal definition of the term “indigenous peoples,” nor does the country’s census ask questions about Amerindian ancestry. Within the community, some say the figure is around five hundred people, out of a national population of 1.3 million.

Yet in the existence of numerous Amerindian place names and words in everyday parlance, in cultural practices like hammocks, animal masquerades, and medicinal knowledge attributed to localised Amerindian forms, and in the fact that the settlement sites of many of Trinidad’s present day towns and many crops cultivated today had their origins in the pre-Columbian period, you can make an argument that Amerindian influences are everywhere in our local culture. For Assing, the common, simplistic, and erroneous tales told by earlier historians of the islands, of two local groups encountered by Columbus when he stumbled upon Iere in 1498 — the “Caribs” (war-like cannibals) and “Arawaks” (peace-loving farmers) — and the subsequent complete annihilation of the First Peoples, is a form of erasure and historical misrepresentation. The consequences of this misrepresentation, she suggests, can be overcome by “re-becoming” native.

The Amerindians offers an intimate, personal narrative about the dilemmas of such a re-becoming. Most specifically, it asks if this is a change the whole community wants, and who has the power to make the choices that have to be faced. Assing — whose great-aunt is the current Carib Queen, a symbolic figurehead — is a young and thoughtful member of the community. She uses the annual Santa Rosa Festival — the prime institution and cultural symbol of the Amerindians as they are represented in Trinidad and Tobago today — as a way into the community. The festival — celebrated since the late eighteenth century, when Trinidad was a Spanish colony, and centred on a Roman Catholic ceremony — has different meanings for different members; it divides as well as unites.

There is a general agreement that the Santa Rosa Festival probably saved the Carib community. It gave the community, whose history and identity were once recorded and passed on solely in oral form, something solid to hold on to, in the face of forced cultural assimilation. The Amerindians also suggests, however, that the Santa Rosa Festival narrative of identity disconnects the First Peoples from their roots, and ties them into a version of events told by the Roman Catholic colonial power.

On one side of the debate we meet medicine man Cristo Adonis and the local parish priest of Santa Rosa, Monsignor Christian Pereira, who both recognise the festival as a form of myth-making. On the other side, we meet self-appointed chief Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez, whose seemingly well-intentioned attempts at re-engineering indigenousness into the island’s history do little to instill faith in historical accuracy — not least because his desire for state patronage involves scant consultation with those in the community he represents.

From the opening shot of Assing, her back to the camera, crouched on the edge of a green pool in the forest, which slowly fades into the image of Christ on the cross, the film smartly switches the viewer from one side of the debate to the other. This is a consistent device throughout, a visual reminder of the different conceptions of what it means to be Amerindian in Trinidad and Tobago today. The forest and the Roman Catholic church are visual symbols and also characters that play central roles in the film.

Assing’s narrative device of competing voices, and her sensible concern about why — in the face of new research — what is known about the local First Peoples has not been updated within the community’s own cultural centre, set up a tension between the commodification of one cultural representation and those voices who clearly articulate that “there is more to us than the Catholic festival.” The Amerindians provides insights that should be included in any discussion of the island’s First Peoples and their descendents: about issues of accountability; about the connections between identity and politics; about who has the power to represent a group, and who should be included in the politics of representation; and about the forest as a form of education and core element of Amerindian identity. The legend that Caribs “ate people” is recast as a type of ancestral worship, and the collecting of the bones of those who have died as a way to communicate with them in the afterlife — a way of keeping them alive. Assing laments the erosion of such knowledge, and its replacement by a missionary narrative of cannibalism and complete annihilation. She feels this is an analogy for more than lost traditions: it is a statement about the contemporary difficulties of connecting to a past that has been rewritten.

The Amerindians is Assing’s directorial debut. It promises a bright future. That said, there are weak elements. The film is too short — at forty minutes, it feels almost incomplete, ready to be extended. Another problem is the filmmakers’ reluctance to fully explore the contentious issue of state patronage and accompanying financial support. In one scene, when the chief declines to discuss a consultation report he is submitting to the government on the future of the community, until after it has been approved and funded, the viewer is left wanting to know more about his evasiveness. The incident stands out even more when we later learn the position of chief is a construction of the Catholic church, and a form of patriarchy that has sidelined the traditional institution of matriarchy and the role of the Carib Queen. Alongside the chief’s telling use of the pronoun “they” to describe Amerindians of the past — rather than the inclusive “we” — it reminds us that the power relations of colonialism never died, they were transformed.

The film’s tagline is “the only true Carib is a dead Carib.” By its conclusion, it is clear the reality is quite different. The indigenous people of Trinidad and Tobago and their culture are alive and well — and not just at the Santa Rosa Festival. But The Amerindians also illustrates how dominant conceptions of the past silence other versions. And to counter the silence that many contemporary descendents of Trinidad and Tobago’s First Peoples experience about their heritage and identity requires a deliberate “re-becoming.”

This rediscovery, however, is not just about resetting the historical record. It is an endeavour connected to the future social and economic development of the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, because the identity of the First Peoples is about more than cultural festivals and remembrance. It is also fundamentally about a connection to the land, a land today scarred by refuse, badly planned development, and disconnection from its current modern inhabitants — us. Re-becoming native, then is not just for those with a direct bloodline to the First Peoples. It is an indigenous identity trait for everyone in Trinidad and Tobago, a prompt to reconsider our guardianship of and relationship to the land.

In the film’s final scene, we return to the forest. Assing now faces us, telling us about her understanding of the lessons the forest has taught her community. The last shot gently zooms out. Assing, her back to us once again, stands for a brief moment looking up at the canopy. With shards of sunlight breaking through the trees, we come to see what has been erased from plain sight for many of us in Trinidad and Tobago. The forest is and has always been a cathedral. It was the first religion of the island. It still is. We need to recognise that.


This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2010

The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2010

Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist, currently based at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. His recent research looks at the relationship between the accumulation of capital and the shifting construction of difference in nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban Trinidad.