SINCE pre-Columbian times Warao people landed their canoes at what is now King’s Wharf, San Fernando, and made their way to the Hill they called Nabarima. On March 4, Shaman Raoul Keith Simon, 66, will lead members of the Warao Nation of TT on the same walk. A vision directed him to initiate the walk to honour the tradition the indigenous group stopped observing 525 years ago, crushed by Spanish colonial authorities.
Only 0.11 per cent of the population, 146,082 people, identified themselves as “Indigenous” in the 2011 TT national census, but Simon thinks that figure is wrong. Encyclopaedia Britannica says that there are 20,000 Warao, period, living in Venezuela’s Orinoco River delta, Guyana and Suriname. But Simon said that there might be as many as 300,000 Warao and their descendants in Trinidad alone.
“No European has ever written our history,” said Michael Babeae Tang Yuk, 73, an artist popularly called Mikkitang. He too is Warao. “Our history was handed down to us orally from generation to generation to generation. Hence the reason I could take a certain part of my personal family history to the late 16th century. All I say is prove me wrong. To get proof you have to go to some kind of European document and they are the people that have been lying to us all the time. So could lies be your proof?”
“Ancestry has nothing to do with race,” said Colin Harris, 63, an academic who studied anthropology. Like Mikkitang and Simon, Harris is an executive member of the Grand Chief Council of the Warao Nation of TT. Harris points out that late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was indigenous, like his successor Nicholas Maduro and the current Venezuelan ambassador to TT, Coromoto Godoy Calderón. They all had different facial features, as do Harris, Simon and Mikkitang, who variously resemble their European, Indian, African and Chinese forbears.
The three men all grew up being called Amerindian or Carib. Mikkitang calls the words “obscene”, and dismisses them as part of the European and Christian “garbage” that colonisers forced indigenous people to adopt after Columbus arrived.
There’s a Carib Street in San Fernando; it’s part of the Warao trail and that’s likely where the street got its name. On a hot mid-February day, Mikkitang walked up Carib Street pointing out ancient Warao tracks, one cutting through an industrial compound and another wedged between a fenced-in WASA well and the backyards of homes on Marryat Street. Simon highlighted the bricks of buildings made with aggregate quarried from Nabarima.
The name Naparima is a corruption of the original Warao word, they said. In Trinidad even the name Warao, which is pronounced “wahr-OW”, became “warahoon”— Trinidad Creole for a dirty or badly-behaved person.
Harris Promenade was built over a Warao sacred site, Simon said. “Where the bandstand is, it had a burial site there. The engineers of the hierarchy of most countries always built churches on indigenous spiritual sites for reasons to keep it hidden. Dormant. We don’t exist. And that was a very terrible problem.”
At the corner of Carib and Coffee Streets, he stopped to say that the Warao made brief fire offerings along the trail to Nabarima.
This was one spot where they used to do so. Above? The imposing façade of Presentation College, a Catholic school.
The Hill has been decimated, a pale argillite carcass picked over by those unaware or uncaring that it was a sacred place for the Warao. Nabarima is one of two similar hills in this hemisphere venerated by the canoe-journeying indigenous group. It is now two-thirds of its original size but it retains its status for the Warao.
Simon and the Warao Nation of TT perform smoke ceremonies on Nabarima every new moon.
There was a Warao village where St Vincent and Chacon streets now stand in San Fernando, Harris said. “When they come from the Orinoco [on landing] one set would go there, another set would go to the hill to perform the ceremony to the top of the hill.”
The Ancestor Walk won’t take all the trails of the ancient Warao, but rather will wend its way along Circular Road, a longer route but one with more even terrain than the old paths.
For Simon leading the walk is a spiritual task, one his ancestors bid him to do. It is a signal to the colonial past and the capitalist present.
“Because they have been desecrating our land,” he said. “They took our land, killed our ancestors for no reason, take them and make slaves out of them—rape, sodomy, everything, the worst you could think about—and push us down in the gutter.
“But they cannot destroy us forever. We will rise again. And we aren’t violent as most of the Europeans say we are. We never eat nobody. We want to bring our natural habitat back to what it was. That doesn’t mean we will take a piece of apron and wear and use bow and arrow to fight anybody. But psychologically we will erase the garbage and replace it with the original. That is what the ancestors ask us to do and we will do it wholeheartedly.”
Everyone is invited, Warao or not. It’s free. Wear sneakers and bring an open mind, Simon said. The walk starts at King’s Wharf at 8.30 pm, March 4.
For more info: 356-8802.