Friday, December 15, 2017

Amerindians left their mark on T&T

Arima, Chaguanas, Piarco...


landmark: Statue of Carib warrior Hyarima.

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TRADITIONAL SKILL: Weaving by Amerindian male.

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When Christopher Columbus reached Trinidad in 1498, there were thousands of Amerindians already here.

Up to 1593, when Spanish Governor Antonio de Berrio ruled, it was recorded that on the island, "there were some 7,000 souls and many Indians that exceeded 35,000".

But the European brought the epidemics small pox, and cholera, and the Spaniards would decimate the local population. The decimation was accelerated by the displacement from land they had occupied for centuries, to make way for the French planters and their enslaved Africans.

Today, all that remains of that early civilisation are descendants of the Caribs who have formed themselves into an organisation called the Santa Rosa Carib Community.

For several years efforts have been made to bring alive the history of the Amerindians who were referred to by Europeans as "subhuman and a people without a history of their own".

This month, several tribes from the mainland of South America will be guests to the Carib community of Arima. During the week long visit it is expected that there will be several cultural and historical events aimed at reviving a dying culture in Trinidad.

Among those who will be remembered is Francis Evelyn Hosein, elected in 1928 to the Legislative Council, to become the mayor of Arima two years later.

His play, Hyarima, is one of the few remaining documents detailing the image of the 17th Century First People war chief and fighter.

During his tenure as mayor, Hosein entrenched the right of the Carib community to fire a cannon at 6 a.m. to start the Santa Rosa festival while he took a faithful interest in his Amerindian charge, wrote Sir Harry Luke.

Prof Bridget Brereton has lamented that "only a few people in Trinidad and Tobago today have Amerindian blood".

They have, however, left the place names as an ever lasting memory. Some examples are Chaguanas, Paria,  Piarco, Guaico, and Arima.

It is a reason why those belonging to the community are proud of their culture and history, and are hard at work in making people more aware of the heritage of the First People.

The Arawaks had developed a technique to remove the poisonous prussic acid of cassava juice into a kind of non poisonous vinegar by cooking it. They called this cassareep. With added spices the cassareep was made into pepperpot. The Arawaks further developed the grater for making cassava cakes.

They also cultivated cotton which they used for making hammocks. Such was the culture that existed until the Amerindians were decimated by the Spaniards. Many of these cultures and traditions would have been lost had it not been for the efforts of the Carib community of Arima to keep them alive in the face of adversity in different ways.

They recognised the importance of celebrating festivals in honour of patron saints in addition to their respects to their own gods. Santa Rosa in Arima and the feast of La Divina Pastora in Siparia were two festivals that they celebrated annually.

Many of the skills are known only to a few now, including the canoe, the bow and arrow and ajoupas. They gave the country cassava bread, farine, (cereal) warap, (cane juice) boucon (barbecued wild meat), corn pastelles, coffee, cocoa and chadon beni (herb for seasoning meat) and roucou for flavouring and giving colour to meat.

They invented the couleve (a strainer made from tirite and used for straining grated cassava), and could make fans, carry cases, and mats. They had developed the skill of making tapia walls, roofs thatched with tirite palms and carat, internal walls fashioned from plaited coconut palm leaves and floors made from compressed mud mixed with animal dung.

These practices are now being kept alive by the Santa Rosa Carib Community of Arima, a body that was formalised in the 1970s and was the recipient of an award in 1993 for culture and community service. Reclaiming The Land is the theme for this year's celebration of Amerindian Heritage Day.