A first for First Peoples

“All peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilisations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind.” Those are words taken from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which this country voted in favour of in September 2007. This week, the country takes a significant step in realising the goals of that declaration.

The First Peoples, after struggling for decades to get recognition, will on Friday finally be able to commemorate a national holiday in honour of their place in this country’s history. A full week of activity – some of which began last Friday – is planned.

An ancestral journey to Moruga is to take place today, involving a full cultural event. Tomorrow there will be discussion of the concept of attaining meaningful recognition at a symposium at the O’Meara Campus of the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Wednesday will see a school children’s rally at the National Cycling Centre, Couva. And on Thursday there will be a gathering of First Peoples at the Red House, Port-of-Spain, where a burial site was discovered in 2014.

But the week will culminate on Friday with a gala event at Arima, the home to the Santa Rosa First Peoples. A smoke ceremony is to be held at the Hyarima Monument, followed by a ceremonial walk. With so many competing interests lobbying for the addition of holidays to our already crowded national calendar it is no wonder the Government has initially opted to make this holiday one-off. But even if the holiday is made into a permanent one, there would still be much more that needs to be done to further the interests of the indigenous community.

There have long been proposals for the allocation of a central space for the diverse groupings within the community. But over successive administrations the thorny issue of the allocation of land – how much is enough? where should it be located? – has not been fully resolved or acted upon. This, in the face of this country’s support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Beyond Friday’s holidays, educators must also play a role in passing on information about our history. It is important for current and future generations to appreciate the factors that have shaped us as a country and a society. Though their population was severely depleted by the clash of worlds that occurred in the 15th century, the impact of the First Peoples remains profound. Names such as Arima, Mayaro, Chaguanas, Guayaguayare, Mucurapo, Aripo, Tamana, Oropouche, and Ortoire bear witness to this, as well as our flora and fauna: carat, timite, tobacco, cacao, manicou, agouti and lappe. The DNA of our society has, in some cases literally, been shaped by our indigenous heritage.

Not only must there be adequate inclusion of local history in the school curriculum but informal community outreach initiatives and activities should continue. There is no reason why this week’s many events should not continue throughout the year. This, however, requires careful planning and support from members of civil society, including the private commercial sector.

We must also remember the regional and economic aspects around this issue. With a push towards diversification, we should be poised to draw upon the rich cultural heritage of the First Peoples. We should also not be afraid to make linkages with fellow Caribbean nations which have already been able to do this, such as Dominica, Guyana and Suriname.

As we, this week, celebrate a first in our history, let us do more than look to the past. Let us examine the present and boldly look to a future which includes those whose were here first.


"A first for First Peoples"

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