Feature Address by His Excellency Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona ORTT, SC President Of The Republic Of Trinidad And Tobago At The ‘Champions Of Peace’ Function
Hosted By The Santa Rosa First Peoples CommunityAt The Chaguanas Borough Corporation
October 13, 2016
On 8 May 2016, I received a letter from Chief, Ricardo Bharath Hernandez of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community and I remember being particularly struck by a portion of the letter, which stated, “Our efforts [to promote and support the recovery and preservation of our heritage] were intensified with Cabinet decision of May 1990 that described the [Santa Rosa] community as ‘representative of the Indigenous People of Trinidad and Tobago.’ This was followed by the granting of an annual ‘Day of Recognition commencing on 14 October 2000.” And this is the part that stood out, “This year we celebrate the 26th year of the acceptance of our identity and the 16th year of the First Peoples Day of Recognition.”
Imagine, for a group of people that has been in this country for hundreds of years, even thousands- yes, way before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498- you are, this year, only celebrating 26 years of the acceptance of your identity and 16 years of the First Peoples Day of Recognition. That type of maths simply does not add up. And when it does, it tells a tale of woe and historical obscurity.
The second thing that struck me when I read that letter from Chief Bharath Hernandez was that the identity of the First Peoples, the acceptance of that identity and the recognition of the First Peoples, came out of a Cabinet Note- and NOT, ladies and gentlemen, out of the normal flow of natural circumstances and historical consciousness. Why is it that like the Africans, Indians, Chinese, the Europeans- the due recognition of the First Peoples did not occur naturally, firmly embedded in a Nation’s consciousness? Why are First Peoples all over the world subjected to this type of psychological torture, humiliation, marginalisation and denigration of having to fight for their own innate identity and recognition in order to be accepted by the outside world? Why is it that all across the world, Parliaments need to legislate the identity of a people? Your identity is your God-given right. In much the same way that we sometimes have to legislate humanity, regrettably so, the result of man’s inhumanity to man, has rendered it necessary to legislate the identity of our First Peoples.
Ladies and gentlemen, the dignity and mammoth contributions of the First Peoples worldwide in shaping our civilisations require, that they be honoured and recognised, as a matter of RIGHT rather than the result of fight.
The First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago are an undeniable, integral and revered component of our history and of our rich, dynamic and multi-faceted cultural tapestry. Though confronted with afflictions and numerous challenges, this hard-working and persistent group continues to soldier on in their quest to preserve their cultural heritage and maintain their way of life- one that has certainly been challenged by the test of time and indeed, modernity.
In all of my professional career and even my personal life, I have been and continue to be an ardent advocate for real genuine inclusivity regardless of race, religion, class, socio-economic status or political suasion. There is absolutely no reason why one race should feel superior or inferior to another, in much the same way that our First Peoples must know that they are special to this country, to this society, because of the major role you continue to play in our rich Trinbagonian culture.
My paternal Venezuelan great-grandfather was a Warao, an Amerindian, the First Peoples of Amazonia in Venezuela- of that genre of cocoa payol; deep brown, hard-faced men and women who worked on cocoa estates in Erin, Arima, Rancho Quemado and Palo Seco. My DNA is therefore inextricably bound to the First Peoples and I do feel a deep sense of connection and bond to this culture, heritage and sometimes, to your sense of outrage. I am equally aware of the challenges you encounter to keep our culture alive and relevant. Acculturation, inter-culturation and cultural repression are also forces that threaten the cultural well-being of the First Peoples.
In Trinidad and Tobago, we do not give our First People’s pride of place when they wear their traditional garments. I have heard statements of ridicule as to ‘why they are wearing these costumes, Carnival is next year’. I have always emphasised, as President, that we must become more critically aware of our historical tapestry- because one must appreciate one’s past in order to not be blindly led into the future. That is exactly what history teaches us- an appreciation of the past in order to sufficiently understand the present and be intelligently informed of the future.
Events such as these and the celebrations that bring awareness to the culture, heritage and historical origins and evolution of the First Peoples, are a necessary ingredient in helping each of us, of all different races, to appreciate the rightful place and claim of the First People to this land.
And yes, I said the ‘rightful place and claim’ because what many of us in Trinbago and indeed, the world, fail to recognise about the First Peoples, is that they are the First Peoples, because they were FIRST– historically, they have the FIRST claims to Trinidad and Tobago, to Australia, to Guyana, to Suriname, to New Zealand, to Bolivia- because indeed, they were FIRST in time, above and before any other race or group who arrived later. One therefore, must not be made to reclaim what was theirs to claim in the FIRST place.
Perhaps, it is more than time that in Trinidad and Tobago, some of us stop snickering and ridiculing the dress, the lifestyle, the intricate culture of the First Peoples- yes, but you are still eating their paemi, arepa and pastelles. Maybe, we need to take a page out of the book of the people of New Zealand, who revere their First Peoples for the national value which they truly represent.
In New Zealand, the culture of the Maori people- the First Peoples of New Zealand- is so accepted that the Haka has become the war cry of sporting bodies and is a form of respect to persons who have contributed in an exceptional manner to that Nation. The Haka is known all over the world as a manifestation of New Zealand’s Nationhood and pride. This chant of the First Peoples has been fully integrated into the mainstream and conventional life of the average New Zealander. I remember quite well, earlier this year, seeing on the news, students in a secondary school in New Zealand putting on an exceptional display of the Haka at the funeral service of their respected teacher, Mr. Dawson Tamatea. I saw boys of all races and persons of indigenous descent in the group of students performing this unifying chant in deep grief as the hearse passed by the school where he formerly taught. Millions around the world applauded the ultimate respect given to a great teacher.
So great is this traditional war cry that persons who are not even rugby fans attend the rugby matches in New Zealand and they get their money’s worth from the electrifying aura that emanates from the Haka chant, when that New Zealand All Black Rugby Team performs the chant and movements before the start of all their games.
How many of us remember the Opening Games of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Jeniero, and the fantastic display and homage paid to the indigenous Amerindians of Brazil? These are proud and progressive ways for the world to appreciate the fundamental place of the First Peoples in our evolving civilisations.
I recall just recently, when I was invited to Guyana to be the Keynote Speaker for the Conference of Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges, the plea and cry of the Amerindians in Guyana for equal and legitimate human rights at the Opening Ceremony of this conference. This group of Guyanese Amerindians gave a powerful display of dance and poetry- a world message- pleading with the Judges, Chief Justices and Magistrates, of the Commonwealth, as the ‘guardians and guarantors’ of the Rule of Law, to pay heed to the cultural suppression and discrimination that Amerindians and First Peoples still face today and the environmental threats they face daily. Yes, for their very survival and existence, when governments and private companies just storm into their forests, cut down their trees at alarming rates for commercial logging and enterprise and storm back out without even the courtesy of replanting that which they have destroyed.
First Peoples have historically been suppressed by other races and this must not continue. But it has stopped in Bolivia under the charge and stewardship of President Evo Morales. Bolivia is the first country in the world, of modern time, to have a government primarily of elected First Peoples.
To go back in time though, and understand this type of historical suppression the First Peoples face, in or around 1498, Christopher Columbus, in the darkness of his false sense of superiority, wrote in his log, of the First Peoples:
“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
If ever there were a case of primitive and misplaced arrogance, Christopher Columbus exemplified it in its full glory when he and his accomplices took advantage of the gentle goodness of the Amerindians; when he viewed them as ‘servants’ and property- subjects of ownership and instruments of capitalist gain. And ironically, the First Peoples were in a position to offer Columbus far more, of greater value- I refer here to the sense of humanity that the First Peoples so naturally possess.
After centuries of subjugation and fighting for what is theirs in the first place, the world is slowly beginning to recognise the right of the First Peoples to be treated with the required respect and honour that they deserve. Ladies and gentlemen, your advocacy for First Peoples’ rights will bear fruit, but we simply need to lay down our weapons of intolerance, race and cultural isolationism, back-biting and inhumanity towards each other. We are too intelligent a people to be culturing that unprogressive mind-set in our society.
It is not a complicated matter you know, Ladies and Gentlemen- it simply has to do with advancing honour, basic courtesy, mutual respect and due regard when you encounter a descendant of the First Peoples. When Chief Bharath Hernandez came to my Office as a special guest at a courtesy visit by the Aborigines of Australia, who themselves were adorned in ceremonial wear, in traditional dyes, tattoos and beads, I ensured that Chief Bharath Hernandez was recognised and treated with the required protocol and respect. The visiting Aborigines immediately regarded him with due respect because the Aborigines of Australia, understand, perhaps more than anyone else, what it is to suffer disrespect and be categorised as uncivilised, primitive and unentitled. In fairness to Australia, things are improving.
That visit to the Office of the President from the Aborigines of Australia and Chief Bharath Hernandez of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community was a learning experience for all, especially the secondary school students, who I had invited as part of an initiative I implemented, since my inauguration, to give young people a platform to experience and witness international diplomacy at work.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have made very deliberate steps towards reparation for wrongs committed and mending the hurt of the past, but there is still much to do. The whole world is yet to recognise the inherent and traditional rights of individuals and groups. Quite often, we speak of reparation for slavery, but how often do we hear about reparation for genocide? The decimation and diminution of the First Peoples was undisputedly the result of unmitigated genocide.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, a Court of which I was a Member, adopted the legal definition of “Genocide” from Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of Genocide (1948) and as delineates genocide as “any means of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”
I recall during my time as a United Nations Prosecutor, the many vicious crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity and the International Criminal Court’s pronouncement that rape can be a form of genocide. In one particular matter, I prosecuted a Camp Commander at the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia and I recall the horror of the evidence, where 200 to 300 Muslim women were kept in a room, beaten and raped every night to the music of Mozart and Chopard- all this they did with a view to ensuring that no Muslim man ever touched these women again and thus with the intention of diminishing or destroying in whole or in part that religious group.
Dominic Selwood, a respected English Barrister and Historian in an article in the Daily Telegraph of the United Kingdom, titled ‘Columbus, Greed, Slavery and Genocide’ described the genocide of the American-Indians as an ‘orgy of looting and butchery.’ I can tell you tonight Ladies and gentlemen, that if I had remained at the International Criminal Court, those colonisers who decimated the First Peoples, based on established facts and evidence, would easily have been found guilty of genocide.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the Amerindians were used for their labour and denied their freedom by the Spanish Encomienda system on plantations located in San Juan, Tacarigua and Arouca and suffered a great deal of cultural erasure because they were forced to practice Christianity, and I can say that even though I am a Christian. The First Peoples worked on the fields of our ‘Brown Gold’ in the Northern Range, in Erin, Palo Seco and Buenos Aires.
On top of stifling their dignity and culture, the lands of the First Peoples were essentially stolen from them and this injustice of land theft, demonstrates yet another of the major travesties suffered by the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago. The Amerindians established themselves in Arima in the year 1759 and they were granted 1000 acres of land by Governors past, which was then upsized to 1320 acres, to be held in trust by the Church. Under the rule of the British, that land was seized and sold because the Amerindians did not possess the Deeds to the land. This brings me back to the point of the First Peoples having to reclaim what was rightfully theirs in the first place. The people of Trinidad and Tobago can do their part in ensuring that such injustices to our First Peoples, in whatever manner, form or fashion, do not persist in this day and age in our society. We, who now know better, can correct the wrongs of the past.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, having received the support of 144 States, represents according to a United Nations Press Release, “The dynamic development of international legal norms and reflects the commitment of the UN member states to move in certain directions.” The Declaration caters to the rights of Indigenous People to be treated equally to other peoples and their contribution to the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures. It also attempts to free Indigenous Peoples, who have suffered historical injustice of discrimination and to promote respect for their inherent rights. Overall, the Declaration seeks to advance the quality of life for Indigenous peoples socially, economically, politically and culturally. This United Nations Declaration must be engaged in real genuine terms in Trinidad and Tobago and worldwide. Enabling legislation must be reflected throughout the region, and the world, to give credence to this United Nations Declaration to the Rights of the Indigenous People.
Quite often, it is forgotten that among the First Peoples there was a system of structured governance and leadership within the proverbial tribe. As a Nation, we can learn so much from the traditional value systems of the First Peoples who placed greater responsibility and ownership on the community rather than on the individual and one’s self. Pivotal to the value system of the First Peoples is respect for the elderly and the institutional wisdom of the old Sage. The matriarch and the patriarch have great influence in these communities and their words of wisdom and advice were sacrosanct. They led and were not led by anyone.
Even the young Chiefs had the foresight and reason to source wisdom from these old men and women. One traditional value I have learned from the value system of the First Peoples- from in fact, my grandmother, the daughter of an Amerindian- with her dark, hard, brown face and piercing eyes- is to never become obsessed with problems but rather become motivated by creating and engaging in solutions. As President, I am not into fluff or problem stating. In my Office, I discuss and proffer implementable solutions because to do otherwise will be to fall prey to the society we have become- one of talk, talk and more talk.
There is a great amount of respect for each other within the families of the First Peoples. There are lines of authority that were never crossed and must never be crossed. This is not to say that certain traditions will not die a natural death in the face of the world becoming more enlightened and the emphasis on equality of treatment and the right to be independent, critical thinkers. The suggestion is not to go back to the old Stone Age. The motor vehicle was created to replace the donkey cart as the main mode of transportation. Every age has its wisdom and every era, its relevance, but every culture has values that can stand the test of time.
Modernity has on the contrary, created some value systems that are actually regressive and backward. It has also created forward-thinking values but we have to be vigilant, for in engaging modernity, we must sift through ideals and norms to determine what is applicable, relevant and required in our society. Modernity sometimes unwittingly has an embraced philosophy that is no different from acquiring fool’s gold. The traditional value system of the First Peoples can sometimes create the solutions that we often seek. What is required is the right mix of the old with the new. This means combining the ideas of the Sage with the ideas of the youth, modern day culture with traditional culture, to find best possible solutions that serve the interest of all.
There is no denying that today’s gathering is reminiscent of the inter-island trading networks of old. Just as our Amerindian ancestors traded with the Warao in Venezuela in days of old, our ties with Suriname, Guyana, Belize, New Zealand, Australia, Guatemala, Ecuador and the other First Peoples’ communities across the region and the world, remain as strong as ever, and are evidenced by the traditional splendour of groups who have come from far and wide to join us today. It is during the First Peoples Heritage Week that we can gain a window of opportunity into understanding the philosophy of the First Peoples. What is your philosophy? What is your philosophy as First Peoples, individually and collectively? I have some suggestions you may consider in shaping that philosophy:
- Maybe, raise the awareness of the indigenous spiritual traditions and world views,
- Maybe, highlight and propagate the importance of sustainable living practices of First peoples communities,
- Perhaps, revitalize the traditional skills associated with indigenous culture for the larger usages by different communities, and
- Further, seek a wider contribution and proactive participation of the First Peoples communities in the decision-making and policy implementation process of the Governments of the region.
- Or it can be as simple as learning and enjoying the food and cuisine of the First Peoples- their paime, pastels, arepas, and now that the hunting season is open in Trinidad and Tobago, some cassava stewed in wild meat- indeed, there may be nothing sweeter than cassava in stewed agouti meat.
It is a comforting honour to know that the history and traditions of our First Peoples are in a safe place in the hearts of our regional Chiefs and Queens, who continue to spread not only a philosophy of inclusivity, but a philosophy that guarantees a symbiotic relationship between man and nature and that ever urgent need to protect Mother Earth. Remember, the climate change policies of the world- the most recent being the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed some months ago among Nation States- are steeped and grounded in those very traditional values of the First Peoples as great champions of peace and protectors of Mother Earth.
As President of this Republic, Her Excellency and I welcome you all to this wonderful Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and we hope that when you leave here, you leave with a light that will burn brightly and light up your quest for full recognition and appreciation, which you rightfully deserve as First Peoples.
I thank you ladies and gentlemen.Share