“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:
“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?
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.
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.
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?
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?