Where we stand‎ > ‎News & Comment‎ > ‎

FIRST PEOPLES AND FEMINISM By Burton Sankeralli

posted 16 Apr 2017, 14:39 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 16 Apr 2017, 14:54 ]
I was extremely privileged to attend a symposium at UWI (March 30-April 1, 2017) hosted by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) under the new but capable leadership of Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, along with the Department of Geography.

The symposium was titled – Indigenous Geographies and Caribbean Feminisms: Common Struggles Against Global Capitalism. Present were First Peoples from, Suriname, Guyana, Belize, Dominica, St. Vincent and Trinidad and Tobago. Nations represented included the Garifuna, Maya and Calinago, also present were members of our own Santa Rosa First Peoples Community.

I say privileged because I do not think that in my entire life have I ever found myself in a room so filled with extraordinary human beings. It was also a particularly striking experience for me being one of the few men participating. Or perhaps it is the extraordinary energy of our First Peoples the keepers and guardians of our earth.

However let me say that what I offer here is more of my own reflection and elaboration rather than a proper report. Presentations revolved around the realities of First Peoples’ confrontations with the global capitalist machine that is plundering and destroying our planet. There was also focus on women of these communities in their struggles to survive, thrive and lead; this in and against a system and reality that is still colonizing and patriarchal.

It is clear that this is for them an intense and all too often painful journey. Here the gathering afforded a space where women can tell their stories
. Here we were able to learn of the great heroines who are carrying these burdens. It needs to be recognized the critical role First Nation women are playing in so sustaining our communities and keeping our vital cultural forms alive.

Cristina Coc
The keynote address was given by noted Mayan activist Cristina Coc, spokesperson of the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA). Cristina, at 35, has to be one of our region’s most talented, capable and charismatic leaders. She told her story of the Mayan confrontation with the Belizean Settler State for the right of First Peoples to their own lands; this in the face of the exploitative capitalist machine. Here the Maya has won landmark court decisions (including from the Caribbean Court of Justice) which the Belizean State appears quite happy to ignore.

Indeed in her struggle against that colonial Settler State apparatus for the Mayan people to implement their own laws and customs and to defend themselves against the threat of violence, her community was intimidated and assaulted by said apparatus. She described to us a scene of military invasion by the regime where she was placed under arrest and incarcerated in handcuffs at gunpoint.

Cristina is emerging as one of a cadre of First Nation warrior women. Here we mention Berta Caceres of Honduras murdered by the capitalists last year; the gathering was dedicated to her memory. Miriam Miranda a Garifuna activist who has been persecuted and harassed by the Honduran State and police.
Miriam Miranda
She has been forced to go underground under threat of death by this same capitalist machine, the conglomerates that want to seize Garifuna land. It is not surprising that Honduras has been declared one of the most dangerous places on earth for environmental activists. It is important that we stand in solidarity with these struggles.

A critical issue th
at arose is that of language. Language is a key carrier of fundamental worldview thus the erasure of a people’s language constitutes an act of genocide. Now the issue is not that all members of the First Peoples speak their original languages - this may be unrealistic. However, measures need to be taken to prevent further language loss in transmission to the next generation in communities where the languages are spoken. It is critical that these original languages be kept alive in the First Communities as a whole.

This is related to education. It was discussed that in many Indigenous villages there was still not proper access to education. This is a particularly pressing concern to the communities’ caregivers. There is also the question – What is an education? This at all levels. And we may further ask – What is the role of the Academy, that is, our own regional tertiary institutions? Across the board we require an education system that educates, one that is not about preparing slaves for the capitalist plantation.

The issue of land also arose. First Peoples practice communal holding of land consistent with their traditional egalitarian worldview. However members of the community were here encountering financing difficulties because they did not possess individual title to land. Here then is a clash of worldviews. On the one hand is the capitalist model of exploitative private ownership. On the other there is the fundamentally different understanding of community that does not “own” land but belongs to the land. In order for this traditional ethos to be sus
tained new financial institutions need to be established like perhaps an Indigenous bank.

There was as well the very important focus on healing, network building and community. It is a process that this conference appears to have stimulated and it is fundamental for the struggles ahead. Let it also be clear that the First Nation women themselves are fully committed and able to carry on this task.

The Guyanese scholar Shona Jackson made a very important presentation addressing the question of indigeneity. This needs to be squarely addressed as a great deal of our understanding and theorizing of the Caribbean has had as its point of departure the plantation. Here a key focus has been on African enslavement and its aftermath; this, while the Indigenous Peoples were rendered invisible and indeed spoken of in the past tense.

But our story does not begin in the plantation. In the first place it needs to be pointed out that enslavement in our region termed the “Caribbean”
 began with what the Europeans did to the Indigenous Peoples. But far more fundamentally these Peoples have and continue to sustain their own worldview, their own ontology. It is an ontology of all-embracing continuity and relation. It is that of the collective as embodied community. It is a cosmology that is radically alien to the fractured isolated violent and oppressive worldview of the modern individual. In this the vital ontology of the First Peoples the story of our space begins.

The plantation narrative has also been used to cut Africans off from their own ancestral grounding. They are presented as coming here as blank slates, culturally stripped, ontologically defined by and constituted in slavery and rendered “creoles”. As for the Indians, yes, they too were subject to the plantation but because they have all this out of place cultural baggage they have been viewed as not really belonging here and dismissed.

Let it be clear, the terrible violence of enslavement and colonization happened to us but it does not determine who we are as our primal point of departure. The survival and vital presence of the First Peoples is a constant living reminder of this.
Image result for garifuna village

We were truly blessed to have among us yet another warrior woman a senior elder in the struggle, Cynthia Ellis of the Garifuna Nation sharing her experience and midwifing the deliberations. Her presence was that of the wisdom and strength of the Mother Goddess herself. She also spoke of the women who gave their lives to this struggle calling by name Jacqueline Creft. In this context I wish to also mention Beverley Jones. In the discussions concerns were indeed raised for the protection of activists.

An important intervention was made concerning “Banwari Woman”. This is said to be the oldest Indigenous remains found in the region, this in South Trinidad. It was revealed that they were kept not far from where the gathering was taking place in the UWI zoological department. Deep concerns were shared concerning the inadequacy of this and the need for this prime Indigenous person to be treated with due respect.

This indeed casts light on the awful and inexcusable manner these issues concerning the First Peoples are treated by the colonial Settler State now called “The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago”. It is a tale that begins with the very marginalization of this community. Thus the State has still not adequately responded to and prefers to ignore the Indigenous remains found beneath the Red House a few years ago. The long tradition of colonial disrespect continues.

Naparima (misnamed San Fernando) Hill which was almost destroyed only a few decades ago has still not been properly acknowledged. It is sacred to the Warao Nation whose members are still among us. Then there is the very naming of our region as “Caribbean”. When we consider that Carib is a reference to “cannibal” the very word has the character of a racial slur.

Do not misunderstand me, I am not campaigning for or even proposing any specific solutions to these issues. It is not my place. But I am seeking to point out the depth, the enormity, of what might be termed the “ontological” violence that has been inflicted on our First Nations and on our landscape as a whole.

Even the word “revolution” does not begin to address these radical questions. But perhaps it is a good place to start. Of course in the midst of all this the elephant in the room is that of “power”. To stand up to the system First Peoples will need to fundamentally participate in the actual running of what are at present settler States. And their own Indigenous institutions will have to be vested with the real capacity for radical self-determination. Moreover we are dealing with colonizers who have never given ground willingly. The struggle is nowhere near completion until this issue of “power” is addressed. And let us be clear, this struggle against global capitalism is a fight to the death.

The First Peoples of “Our America” are still all too invisible. Yet this symposium has demonstrated that theirs is a very present presence across the region. Let us therefore desist from speaking of them in the past tense. Indeed it is necessary for all of us committed to this new world that is still very possible to join in the process of transformation together with the First Guardians of our earth - for they are also the future.

Moreover this gathering may very well indicate that it is the women who are the leaders. Cristina in her address spoke of the Maya being called “squatters”. But who is squatting? Surely not the People who have always belonged to the Land and who have led us all in the glorious path of resistance.

It is the colonial Settler State that is squatting. And I say unequivocally if we (from wherever we came) do not give this First Community due respect and acknowledgement; if we fail to seek its permission for our very being here then we are the squatters.

Let me close with a remark made by another elder during the gathering. Nelcia Robinson well known Garifuna woman and activist from St. Vincent told us that a Cherokee elder once shared with her that there is no such thing as “half a Cherokee”, that one can have a drop of Indigenous blood and be fully and thoroughly Indigenous. Hence when we speak of “blood” it is not about biological purity, it may only take one drop.

I suggest that blood here includes the reality of vital cultural connection, solidarity and continuity. Thus we recognize that many, perhaps even most, Trinidadians may legitimately define themselves as Indigenous in terms of ancestry and in terms of such vital cultural communal collective nexus. But do we have such an Indigenous awareness?

Maybe if the masses of Trinidad-and-Tobago as a whole were to collectively understand and claim these, the original inhabitants, as being our true source and grounding we can finally unite and deal with the real invaders.
Comments