by Rudolph Bissessarsingh
Often the language of our European colonisers distort the truth of reality. When Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the indigenous people were labelled Indians because he thought he had reached the East Indies by sailing west. The numerous tribes that were found in the islands of the Caribbean and the continent of South America in short time lost their distinctive individualities under the label of Amerindians. Even up to today, very little serious anthropological research has been done and the historical genocide of many of the first peoples have erased their record of existence.
All writers of the time however, testify to their intrepid spirit and their courage, sensitivity to nature and their hospitality. Their independence and love of liberty were equally marked. The myth of the languid and apathetic indian was never subscribed to by those who had first knowledge of them. Richard Schomburgk described in 1841 the Indians as a passionate race, vain, proud and ambitious with an intense love for family.
The Arawaks called themselves Lokono. The Caribs called themselves Carinya and the Akawois, Kapohn all meaning the People. It was written in 1841 that their pride was softened by their sense of humour and they indulged in practical jokes and gave nicknames to each other and foreign invaders. The tragedy of many first peoples were that they fell to the addiction of alcohol given freely to them by the colonisers for services rendered. Richard Schomburgk observed that it was “an uncontrollable passion in the Caribs.” It became the tool of demoralization and genocide more than the gun. Studies in Guyana where many of the Caribbean first peoples sought refuge list these other tribes. The Akawoi, the Wai Wai, the Warrau, the Maiongkongs, Maopityans, Drios and Pianoghottos. Many of these tribes were never assimilated but became extinct.
Their legacies however remain. The Warraus became noted as canoe builders. Another incorrect word was Caribisi. It was an Arawak word meaning 'Caribs live there'. Another explorer noted that the tribes of the True Carib Akawaoi, Macusi and Arecuna were the true names of the indigenous tribes.
First people's museum at Santa Rosa, Arima
W.H. Brett in his book 'The Indian Tribes' described the Caribs, 'the cloth which is worn by the Caribi men was secured around their loins by a cord and is of sufficient length to form a scarf. The coronal of feathers is sometimes worn around the head. The head is usually adorned by a large daub of arnotto and the forehead and cheeks are painted in the same vermillion colour. This makes them look ferocious.' “The women's dress was merely a narrow strip of blue cloth and their bodies were smeared red with the arnotto. Some painted blue spots on their bodies. They wore a tight strip of red cotton around the knee and ankle. This is called 'sapuru'. The most singular part of their appearance is the piercing of their lower lip adorned with either pins of thorns poking downwards. They have the ability to weave cotton cloth and have the technology of the spindle.” (1843)
There is still much to be written of these first peoples and much credit has to be given to that small group that survive in Arima' Ricardo Barath who has struggled to give them their place in the timeline in the history of not only Trinidad and Tobago but the Caribbean region. We salute these descendants of the first peoples.
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