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Writing the indigenous survival story in T&T

Published: 
Friday, October 13, 2017
Writer and filmmaker Tracy Assing, a descendant of the First People of Arima, believes today’s one-off holiday is the first step to righting our history.

A descendant of the original inhabitants of this country, Tracy Assing can be considered a “princess” of a proud people, the Caribs.

Originally from Arima, Assing—the great niece of a Carib Queen—has continued to keep traditions and memories of the first people alive.

She’s a complete media practitioner, having worked in print, radio and television. Assing is currently pursuing a degree in Mass Communications, doing film and considers herself primarily a “storyteller.”

Proudly speaking about her roots as a child of the First People, Assing said: “On both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family we have indigenous heritage. My mother’s family are from St Vincent and from Tamana and Arena, and my dad’s from Venezuela and Caura.

“My great-grandmother, my dad’s grandmother, Clemencia Hill, was one of the founding members of the Santa Rosa Carib Community, now the First People’s Community of Arima. My great aunt was Valentina Medina, a Carib Queen.”

Determined to keep her people in the foreground, Assing, who made a film on the First People—The Amerindians?—a few years ago, said: “I worked on it for two years before it premiered at the T&T Film Festival in 2010. The film is a continuation of my work exploring my heritage and identity.

“At the time when I made the film I had been writing critical essays in the Caribbean Review of Books and Caribbean Beat about my own family history and how it is part of that indigenous story of survival. I was encouraged to use the skills of my craft to examine the story we had been told about T&T’s indigenous history and also to examine what is left.

“My great aunt was the Carib Queen at the time of filming and she passed shortly after it premiered. I took the opportunity, while she was alive, to talk to her about how that role of matriarch had been interpreted.”

The Amerindians had its North American premiere at the University of Toronto and Assing gave lectures at other screenings held at York and Trent Universities to students in indigenous studies programmes, as well as those studying Caribbean history. Said Assing: “The film was very well received and just about every year I get requests to address to students at the University of the West Indies. It was also screened at UTT and recently for a group of history students at Costaatt.”

On October 14, there will be a free screening of The Amerindians at the Town Hall in her hometown Arima. “I will be there to answer questions about my work,” she said. “There are two other fantastic films in the line-up and the shows start at 12 noon. I am advising that people get there early as seats are limited. I am so excited.”

Asked if she feels her film created awareness and had any effect on the national community, or expedited the one-off holiday, the 42-year-old said: “I believe it has created more awareness of the fact that the ‘cannibal Carib’ and ‘peace-loving Arawak’ narrative had and continues to have an impact on real lives, as did the Cedulla of population between 1783 and 1793.

“The fact is the land on which the Arima mission stood, for example, was never meant to be sold. But the truth is, you know, these titles of land ownership were never important to the indigenous; it is the people who came that commodified the land.

“We didn’t understand the importance of that piece of paper (a deed) until the man with the deed came and said we had to work for him to stay there or get off the land.”

Assing continued: “When I did the film and when I wrote about my heritage, my end game, my vision, was never for a public holiday.

“I’d rather not spend time talking about holidays when there is work to do. I think sometimes giving a holiday is a politician’s band aid. I think the vision for indigenous recognition has to do with correcting the national history record, recognising that the youth in communities where there is a strong connection to indigenous practices can use some help to them help themselves.

“For example, they know about the bush and hiking so maybe they should have scholarships to help indigenous youth certified as rangers/tour guides so they can stay in their communities and still earn a living doing something they love. I am talking about young people in Brasso Seco, Blanchisseuse, Santa Cruz, Paramin, Maracas/St Joseph, Toco, Matelot...

“Building a community out of something more than a Catholic festival (the Santa Rosa Festival) requires leadership that is inclusive of many different views.”

Assing’s research and archiving of the Amerindian peoples has been a labour love. She said: “This is my life. This story is a part of me and I am bound to tell it. This is how I honour my ancestors.

“My family and I maintain a close bond with our environment, and we are fiercely loyal to the land. We do our best to protect our forests and our rivers and to honour our ancestors by telling their stories and sharing their legend with the next generation.

“We need to return to these indigenous practices, to maintain our partnership with the land, to ensure our survival.

“I am committed to continuing my work. I am not part of the structure of the official Santa Rosa Carib Community but that does not mean I am not a member. This is my heritage and I represent for it proudly.

“I continue to write our survival story.”