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Dear Editor: A ‘one-off holiday’ for First Peoples? Are they children of a lesser god?

“Is it really proper that, when the list of 14 public holidays includes Indian Arrival Day and Emancipation Day, Eid-ul-Fitr and Divali, there should be no annual national celebration of the autochthonous group?

“Is it really proper that, when the list of 14 public holidays includes Good Friday, Easter Monday, Shouter Baptist Day and Corpus Christi, there should be no annual national celebration of those aborigines the names of whose deities we have scarcely bothered to acknowledge, rarely to name?”

The following Letter to the Editor, which discusses the implications of giving the First Peoples no more than a ‘one off’ holiday in 2017, was submitted to Wired868 by Alana Abdool:

Photo: The First People hold an indigenous heritage procession through Port of Spain in 2016.
(Copyright Maria Nunes)

“If we know where we come from,” some unknown author has written, “we may better know where to go. If we know who we came from, we may better understand who we are.”

“To forget one’s ancestors,” a Chinese proverb warns, “is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.”

It is 2017 and Trinidad and Tobago is now 55 years independent as a nation. At this late juncture in our history, we have finally recognised the presence and the contribution of the First Peoples and marked it with a “one-off” holiday. Irony of ironies: As far as the number of public holidays is concerned, T&T is ranked in the top ten.

Of the dozen or so holidays that earn us that dubious honour, more than half are in recognition of religion, which, with a bible in one hand and a sword in the other, brought us salvation and destroyed our heritage.

Can we truly say that, as a nation, we have made the right choices in the age-old rivalry between heritage and religion? To what extent does our culture, in the best, broadest sense of that much mis-used word, reflect the values of the people native to these lands, who were here long before Iere became Trinidad and Tobago, as opposed to the values of those who came later?

Photo: Ninety-six year old Paul Navarro, Chief Moruga and surrounding regions and Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest active chief, performs a traditional dance during the First Peoples parade on Pro Queen Street, Arima on 13 October 2017.
(Courtesy Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

Is it right to make a distinction between those who were first here, those who came here and those who were brought here? And how does a national heritage forged mainly by immigrants affect a native narrative?

Are these questions which, as we belatedly celebrate and honour the folk who originally peopled these two pieces of rock in the Caribbean Sea, are important to us?

I know my answer but it matters not. What matters is our answer, whether there are answers on which we all agree or on which there is wide consensus.

I have often wondered where Trinbagonians stand on the idea of a national heritage. It seems to me that the average Trinbagonian, moreso the first half of that word than the second, are less interested in why a national holiday exists than in that it exists.

Left to them, the issue of whether today’s holiday should be “one-off” or added to the annual listing to move us up into maybe the world’s top five is a non-issue; what is the argument against a permanent holiday, many seem likely to ask; their interest does not go beyond getting to “eat ah food” or making official the time-off that they are likely to take anyway.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Carib queen Jennifer Cassar.
(Copyright News.gov.tt)

But there are those for whom celebration of a shared heritage does take pride of place. And it is evident that, for them, the idea of heritage has deep and highly emotional roots.

I was engaged in a conversation one night with a Chinese colleague on Chinese alternative medical practices. When the discussion eventually drifted to personal reflections on what we have learned within our unique diasporas, I noted the influence of Asia on my own lineage, in which I take as much pride as in any other aspect of my heritage. Perhaps I made the point in a manner that seemed dismissive or condescending or somehow unsatisfactory. My interlocutor’s response, I remember well, was to chuckle.

“Would you like to sign a waiver on that?” he asked.

We both laughed and that was that. Without a word, we agreed to change the topic.

That was many years ago and I was still blissfully ignorant of the real impact of being raised in a multicultural society. In T&T, we tend to take so much for granted; in a place where every creed and race supposedly finds an equal place, ancestry, heritage, race relations matter little, if at all—except when it suits the politicians’ purposes to, in seeking to rule, divide.

And that brings us back to today’s First Peoples’ “one-off” holiday.

Photo: Merselino Brids of Suriname dances on Pro Queen Street in Arima during the First Peoples parade on 13 October 2017.
(Copyright Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

Is it really proper that, when the list of 14 public holidays includes Indian Arrival Day and Emancipation Day, Eid-ul-Fitr and Divali, there should be no annual national celebration of the autochthonous group?

Is it really proper that, when the list of 14 public holidays includes Good Friday, Easter Monday, Shouter Baptist Day and Corpus Christi, there should be no annual national celebration of those aborigines the names of whose deities we have scarcely bothered to acknowledge, rarely to name?

Surely these people, these peoples, do not deserve to be treated as if they are somehow children of a lesser god?  How dare we argue that there are not enough of them to merit annual recognition when they are certainly not to blame for the smallness of their number?

I think today is a good time to reflect on what is the real message of the choice we have made, of the selective narratives we have perpetuated. Have we conspired to create an elitist society where what matters is only which group holds political and economic power and where those groups have little interest in anything other than their own rights and values?

Have we become so caught up in self-interest, in the interests of our narrow selves that we ignore the much broader interests of those without whom we would not be what we are?

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

My view is that, as responsible citizens, we have no choice but to honour our heritage. As responsible occupants of a land that was not originally ours, we must look beyond our noses, we must go beyond what is familiar and grant dignity to what is unfamiliar. We must examine, acknowledge and understand the scope of our heritage. We must be willing to ask hard questions and accept hard-to-swallow answers.

To do otherwise is simply tokenism, merely putting a rubber stamp on surface multiculturalism. And to do what we must requires patience, open minds and honesty. And discipline. And tolerance. And the political will.

Let us not forget the threat of becoming “a brook without a source, a tree without a root.” Nor should we forget that “if we know who we came from, we may better understand who we are.” And where, if anywhere, we are going.

For, I want to ask in closing, is treating the First Peoples as second-class citizens not to make a mockery of the National Anthem’s unequivocal affirmation that here every creed and race finds an equal place?

Or are we content to tacitly agree with the Orwellian injunction that all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others?

Photo: A First Peoples parade proceeds along Pro Queen Street in Arima on 13 October 2017.
(Copyright Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

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54 comments

  1. Let’s cut out the bullsh*t and get rid of all race centric holidays. Would it not be better if we just have one long weekend called National Day? After all, how many of us really know much about our ancestral past? Then we can educate our youths as well as ourselves on the history of TT. Who can speak about such??
    Then we get rid of ALL religious holidays. Let those god fearing natives celebrate their religious milestones in their own time. We can keep Carnival as Festival days, with the dates shifted closer to the end of the year to capitalise on tourism. Then to provide a break for the workforce we need a 4 day weekend for a gala multi-cultural fiesta.
    No more holidays. Really. We need to reshape an improved work ethic

  2. I concur. Give the people their holiday,every year.

  3. They asked for a one-off holiday though.

  4. Are these first ppl douglas…any pure breed

  5. So, we need to figure out a meaningful way to recognise all the myriad yet important elements of our Trinidadian and Tobagonian heritage without alienating others who aren’t recognised yet, but deserve recognition. Public Holidays are exhausted. I think everyone agrees either we give up to get or perhaps we stop and examine all. I will be sad to, but can easily say goodbye to: Boxing Day, Easter Monday, Indian Arrival Day (unless it recognised all who arrived) and Republic Day. Oh and Labour Day because — what have you done for me lately? And I am Trini, Catholic, Mixed heritage and working. All are important but some are more important than others. I like parades, I like working active museums, heritage libraries, monuments, days of observance without holidays and a school curriculum that really teaches respect and honour for our history both the parts we feel we may want to deemphasize and those we want to elevate. Cut the budgets of govt money for religious holidays and revert to restoring and rebooting our national museum and other heritage sites. I had more but I forgot.

  6. They said they wanted a one off holiday so it won’t be like other s where people fete.go boat rides Beach and not commoner ate the holiday

  7. You get your holiday what more all you want

  8. Let’s ask ourselves …do they ( first peoples) deserve a holiday…. in my view, yes, especially when you consider some of the reasons for other public holidays , they are probably more deserving of one, than any other . Secondly , when . At a date of their choosing , I guess. Now question is , do we just add another public holiday to our already ‘busy’ calender of public holidays or do we replace and existing one . Government and businesses may not want to add another , although , I’m sure , citizens won’t mind . Government also may not want to replace any , for fear of causing ‘ire’ by those affected . This is probably why they have not made any pronouncement on making it an annual holiday . I wouldn’t jump into the fray of to add or replace , but what I think we could look into , to appease both sides .. if not everybody , is to end this practice of giving the Monday off , If the public holliday falls on a Sunday … isn’t there at least one public holiday on a Sunday every year …or most years , thereby creating room for First Peoples , without adding an extra day ,per se. P.S that’s my pen name , so people don’t come looking for me to buss mah head .

  9. A very good read…thought provoking…. the First Nations people’s of Canada are treated the same way…and they are a force to deal with as the courts are now recognizing their treaties and Crown land and money is now being mandated for them

  10. Reading this crap and the mentality regarding holidays it would be simpler to make every day a holiday and then pick the days you want to work.

  11. Change boxing day to First People Day

  12. Isn’t it ironic that we who came thousands of years after, have conceded that we will let them have only one day, ever!

  13. Believe we need a day to celebrate EVERYONE with a street parade with each ethnicity dressed in their traditional costumes, maybe pick a Sunday in a month in the year for this to recognise everyone, do not think we need another holiday but one of the holidays could be changed to maybe T&T Day to celebrate the nation and the people of the nation. Remember we were supposed to have Arrival Day but it was turned in Indian Arrival Day….not against the East Indians Arrival Day celebrations but it could be turned into a day to celebrate everyone.

  14. One of the finest and best written articles I have read in a very long time! HATS OFF Annalicia Caruth you should be very proud. I for one FULLY AGREE with all that you have said and hope that your article gets seen by the right people and that The First People’s (who’s DNA I proudly share) gets what is due to them and an annual holiday be given in their recognitition.

  15. I totally agree,they deserve a whole lot . Make room for them.

  16. WOW! I’m loving this article Lasana and I’m very appreciative that someone took the time to write it. I commend the individual and absolutely AGREE with all that she has said. I hope the Government has the good sense to make this important day and annual holiday as it is rightly deserved.

    • I thought it was a wonderfully thought provoking piece as well. Thanks so much Alana Abdool.

    • Lasana Liburd I should say thank you for allowing me the opportunity.

      • Ms. Abdool in my humble opinion this is a much better piece than the one which preceeded it. In that one, though very well written (grammatically) I found that you failed to actually see your own biases and too many loopholes were created as a result. I was disappointed because the comments, (including my own) were harsh and I thought you would have wanted to defend your position on what was written (the same way you have acknowledged more complimentary ones from this attempt) So this is why I have decided (in the same way that I commented negatively on your preceeding piece) to commend you on a job well done on this one. With your quite evident eloquence, you have managed to provoke an abundance of thought through your article..which is all a writer can ever ask for. Congratulations again on a piece well written. And good luck with the ones to come.

  17. There are a lot of people in Trinidad AND Tobago who are descendants of the First People. I am one. I certainly do not bear the physical characteristics, but I know my history. Percentage of the population is therefore difficult to decipher, unless you are asking about pure breed, then the figure is zero, or close to it.

  18. Would someone please tell me what is the percentage of the population are the first people?Thk you!

    • Let’s say they are minorities. Is it that minorities don’t deserve the same rights as the rest of the population?

    • Mr Liburd,I was enquiring for my granddaughter ,for her class project!!What do you mean????

    • Allison, judging on the the content of the story I thought you were giving a view on whether or not they DO deserve a holiday. So sorry for misreading your intentions.
      Lisa Morris or Julie Jules, do you know the answer? Or can you tag someone who does?

    • Little over 2000 in Arima and I think the first peoples in South can be included in that figure . I’ll have to confirm with the Chief.

    • in the many conversations I’ve had with Chief on this topic , he believes that we have so many public holidays in tnt that having another one is too much for the business community….I guess that’s where we differ in our views about this topic…in my view as a proud descendant of the First Peoples of T&T, I preferred to have a permanent holiday and not a one-off which doesnt make much sense to me…mainly because the history needs to be told, the legacy to continue not for just for 1 year but every year.. some people say that FP no longer exist that we all died but we are still here..my grand father was “Carib” as we say in Trinidad and I would to see the legacy, the history, the mysteries unfold through Research done to allow FP the opportunity to take their place in our history books not just for FP but for our country ,not just for descendants but for all of trinbago also, how many people are going to remember this one-off? next year, the following year, & the year afterwards??? 10 year from now…the logic behind the one-off doesn’t make sense

    • Julie Jules and what if another holiday is taken off another group and given to the First People permanently. Would that be a good compromise?

    • which one? I don’t want it to result in bacchanal with other groups in our society…most holidays here are religious & ethnic/race related, the last thing we need is more war in this country

    • Julie one person mentioned Corpus Christi. Another mentioned Boxing Day… Dunno.

    • Corpus Christi is a RC holiday..I don’t think the RCC would sit by & allow this day to be taken away just like that because of what it means to the Church plus I don’t agree with it either..Corpus Christi to many RC people..Boxing day seems logical but the timing is all wrong..FP celebrations & all the plans cant be executed that time of the year for religious reasons as well as for the involvement of State officials, members of the diplomatic corp, visiting groups of indigenous peoples who take part in our celebrations to give their support will be available to come, they provide alot of support I know that for a fact. These have their own calendars of events in their own countries..For many who reads my comment here may not undertand why should this be important let me explain..the Carib Community would not be where it is without the involvement and support of indigenous peoples of our region..when the community emerged with a voice in the 1970s it was in part as a result of what was taking place with FP being marginalized and oppressed by colonizers and then came the independence movement. By the 1970s the indigenous world exploded, the voice of indigenous began to emerged including those in the region..with our Chief that;s what inspired him & those who passed on already to fight for the recognition of FP. So Boxing Day is not a possibility ..

  19. Correct…it is only fair that indigenous peoples have a day…maybe, can switch with Corpus Christi holiday…