The long walk home

What does “indigenous” mean in contemporary Trinidad? How has the island’s Amerindian heritage survived?

  • Early morning mist on the road to Brasso Seco, in Trinidad’s Northern Range. Photograph by Courtenay Rooks
  • Johnny Assing and Octave Medina tryout their parents’ Indian mas costumes (1957). Photograph courtesy Tracy Assing
  • Piaiman Christo Adonis leads a smoke ceremony for Independence Day. Photograph by Courtenay Rooks
  • Bertie and Valentina Medina pose with Helen, Kino and Tracy before joining the parade (1979). Photograph courtesy Tracy Assing
  • Rain sweeps down on the mountain village of Brasso Seco. Photograph by Courtenay Rooks
  • Rain forest, Morne Bleu. Photograph by Courtenay Rooks

On 31 July, 1498, Christopher Columbus and his men, sailing along the southern coast of the island of Iere, are said to have caught sight of three mountain peaks. Reminded of the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, Columbus decided to name the island Trinidad, and claim it for Spain.

At the time of his arrival, several tribes already inhabited the island, and we know they were not afraid of the sea and were well capable of crafting canoes. As the most southerly isle of the Caribbean chain, once connected to the South American mainland, it is easy to imagine Trinidad as an important hub for travel both north and south. People from the mainland had only to come down the Orinoco River, and through simple navigation they could make their way to the island, where they could settle or gather provisions for further voyages.

Oblivious to Columbus’s claims, the original inhabitants of the island kept to their regular routines — after all, they didn’t know that their island was being “ruled” by men and women in a far-off land, who believed in a god they might see only upon death — and the Spanish made no attempt to settle the island until 1531. They tried again in 1569, but both attempts to found a colony ended in failure.

Finally, in 1592, nearly a century after Columbus’s visit, the Spanish managed to secure their first permanent settlement in Trinidad, at the old capital of St Joseph. Later Capuchin monks moved in, establishing missions for the conversion of the original inhabitants. Those Amerindians who rejected Christianity were severely punished. Faced with the choice between Christianity and death, some of the original inhabitants of the community of Arena who had not lost their fighting spirit stood up to the oppressive forces occupying their island in 1699. The resulting conflict would be remembered as the Arena Massacre. They murdered the priests, the Spanish governor, and all but one of his men — an action for which, naturally, they paid dearly.

A small number of Spanish settlers did their best to carve out a living in the decades that followed. They never fully occupied the island, which still boasts large areas of virgin rainforest. It’s safe to suppose that their census exercises never achieved an accurate account of the island’s tribes. Somehow I find it hard to believe the Amerindians were all lining up to be counted by people who had been waging war on them. But it is believed that at least 40,000 inhabited the island in 1592.

These Amerindian tribes were referred to by various names, including Taino, Yaio, Nepuyo, Chaima, Warao, Kalipuna, Carinepogoto, Garini, and Aruaca.


At my Roman Catholic all-girl primary school, I was taught that there were originally two Amerindian tribes in Trinidad, Caribs and Arawaks. I was told that Caribs were war-like cannibals, and Arawaks were peace-loving farmers. I was also told that both tribes had been wiped out. But I was raised to believe that I was a Carib descendant, performing flower-girl duties for many years in the annual Carib Santa Rosa Festival.

I stopped participating in the festival when I was eight. Even at that age I realised that the story of its origin might have been only as real as the tales that captured my imagination in the books of Enid Blyton. Questions about my heritage would only multiply as I grew older, and I found there were many instances of written history contradicting the things I’d come to believe as life-practices.

The Carib Santa Rosa Festival is held in the east Trinidad town of Arima on the last weekend of August every year. It is the feast of Santa Rosa de Lima (the first canonised Roman Catholic saint from the Americas). There appear to be at least two versions of the origins of the festival. One story speaks of a young girl who appeared to three Amerindian hunters in the forest, who took her back to their village on Calvary Hill. She disappeared three times, only to be returned to the village. A priest explained that the young girl must be a manifestation of Santa Rosa, and that the natives should make a statue in her honour before she disappeared again. This the obedient tribespeople did, and the young girl duly vanished, leaving only a crown of roses to mark her presence.

Another story speaks of three hunters coming upon the statue in the forest and bringing it back to their village, where the priest explained that it was a likeness of Santa Rosa, it was a miracle to find such a statue in the forest, and such a find must be sign from God, and should be respected and honoured.

Today, the celebration begins with the blast of a cannon and a smoke ceremony led by piaiman Christo Adonis on Calvary Hill. Church services in honour of Santa Rosa follow, and a Carib king and queen are crowned, based on their knowledge and interest in the continuation of the festival. Then the king, queen, and the heavily adorned statue of Santa Rosa lead a procession through the streets of Arima.

When I took part in the festival as a child, it was a grand affair. The streets around the church would be filled, as Arima’s young and old would participate and observe; even those who were not thought to be descendants of the island’s original inhabitants recognised how unique the festival was. Young girls would prepare a path of pink and red rose petals for the procession, but this practice seems to have disappeared. Over the years youthful participation in the festival has dwindled. Young people in the community have the same concerns that I do, but it seems hard for the elders to give air to such questions, questions that challenge their life-practice.

The Carib Santa Rosa Community was formed in 1974. Its main mandate was the upkeep of the annual festival, but as time went on, the organisation’s president, Ricardo Barath, came to realise that there was much more at stake. He began cultural exchanges with the remnants of Amerindian tribes in Suriname, Dominica, and Guyana. These tribes are invited to celebrate the Amerindian Day of Recognition in October each year, when they take part in a smoke ceremony and parade. They also share their knowledge in workshops held at the Carib Community Centre on Paul Mitchell Street in Arima, just past the Catholic cemetery.

According to data provided by the centre, there are between 300 and 600 Amerindian descendents living in Arima. I have found there are many other people in other parts of the island who do not participate in the festival but claim to have Amerindian descendents, three or four generations back. Trinidad and Tobago’s census questionnaires ask no questions about Amerindian ancestry, so it is impossible to find a solid record of just how many people can trace their heritage this far back.

Piaiman Christo Adonis and an apprentice of his, Ricardo Cruz, participate in the annual Santa Rosa Festival, but have also formed splinter groups focusing on re-establishing links with other “First Nations” people, hoping that the fragments of information they gather will help them reclaim traditions erased by Catholicism. But most elders of the Santa Rosa Carib Community remain among the most faithful of Arima’s Catholics.


The current Carib Queen is Valentina Medina, born in the early 1930s to Thompson Assing, a tradesman of Chinese ancestry, and Clemencia Hill, whose father was a Venezuelan tribesman and whose mother could trace her roots to Trinidad’s original inhabitants.

Birth records at that time were so haphazardly kept that Valentina, who I have known all my life as Aunty Mavis, discovered recently that her birth certificate did not even bear her name. In fact, it carried no name at all.

Her brother, my grandfather John Assing, is now the eldest surviving member of the family. He was born in 1928 in Caura, a valley in Trinidad’s Northern Range, an area where just over a century earlier there existed a Capuchin mission dedicated to the continued conversion of what remained of the island’s original inhabitants.

Most of the Amerindians of the missions of San Agustin de Arauca (today’s Arouca), San Pablo de Tacarigua (Tacarigua), and the Partido de Quare (Caura) were amalgamated at the mission of Arima after a 1783 edict  that granted land to Catholic, mostly French, settlers. Those Amerindians who resisted the move to Arima and remained in villages like Caura found work on the estates established by the French settlers.

“I remember Caura,” my grandfather says when I ask him about his childhood. “There was a church and a river running along the village. We settled there because of the river — when my grandfather Benito came from Venezuela, they travelled up the river and settled there because the river meant life, water, and fish, and good soil for planting. I was born there, baptised there. I didn’t like it there, lots of old people, people lived to be 120 and more. There was cocoa, tonka bean, and coffee, and my brothers Sonny and Luis attended school. All we spoke was Spanish or patois.”

He remembers that there was an unpaved road leading to the Eastern Main Road — the thoroughfare running from Port of Spain to Arima — but those who worked on the estate favoured the old bench trails (pathways through the forest that have been there for longer than anyone can remember) that wound through the hills. These trails led to other similarly isolated villages in narrow valleys, like Lopinot and Paria, and also to hunting grounds, subsistence gardens, bathing pools, and waterfalls.

He recalls what life was like then: “We wore the one shirt and pair of pants we had to go to school, and went barefoot, so most of the time we didn’t wear clothes. It wasn’t the way things are now — people were not concerned with who was boy and girl. We had plenty fish and we used to hunt. We would hunt with a long stick with a sharp something at the end, like a spear, we called it a chuso. Buckets were like metal pails then, and we would remove the handle and cut it into the shape we wanted for the spear, sharpen it and tie it onto a rod. We used to stick the animals with that. And if you hunt and you can’t use all the meat at once, you could smoke and salt it — buccaneer it.

“We also used sharpened metal spokes we might get from old parasols and bicycles and make those into arrows . . . so we would fish with bow and arrow . . . a guy would take a piece of tania and coax the fish or the lobster [freshwater crayfish] out of their hole in the river bank, and another guy would be waiting on the bank to shoot it when it poked its head out. We cook with roucou and chadon beni, thyme.

“There was regular traffic on those bench trails, as people had estates along the way, and sometimes they would use their donkey to transport things.”

The family moved from Caura to Paria towards the north coast around1940. Walking along the old bench trails, it took about eight hours. They made the journey carrying all their belongings, without shoes, but it was a familiar trek.

“We would walk that trail regularly, as my grandfather Benito had an estate [a piece of land he acquired after years of saving money] in Paria. Caura was a big village, but in Paria is only every half mile or so you would see a house — it had mostly Spanish and indigenous people up there,” my grandfather explained. “There was plenty coffee and cocoa, and they would work for 16 cents a day picking cocoa.”

In Paria, life continued much the same as it had in Caura, but the village was even more isolated, several miles away from Arima and surrounded by tropical rainforest. People carved out an existence with what they had, learning to live in communion with the forest that surrounded them. They formed communities with others living in isolation along the bench trails. It is these people who kept to the traditions of Iere’s original inhabitants.

“People also lived on the road to Paria Bay [an isolated beach on the island’s north coast] . . . and we would sometimes walk out there to go and fish, and to collect honey and balata and vanilla, which we would put in coconut oil and use in our hair. We would make our own coconut oil too. The walk from Paria to Paria Bay took about half a day,” my grandfather remembers.

“We ate a lot of provision [root vegetables], we used to make plenty cassava bread, farine, yam and tom tom [ripe plantain crushed using a motar and pestle and then cooked]. We used both the sweet and the bitter cassava — after you grate the cassava, you put it in the culeve [a long, thin, hand-woven sieve used to process cassava] and squeeze out the juice, which is the poison. We drank a lot of fresh coffee and grew our own tobacco.

“We would make our own candles from beeswax and make pooya — spoons out of balata wood. We made most of our utensils out of wood and we would eat in calabash [dried gourds]. We would make mattresses out of coconut husks, and then line it with tapia grass — that was a fine grass — we would sleep on that just so. And we would stuff our pillows with buaffalo [the brown cotton-like seed pods of the cottonwood tree] — the pillow sack would be the bags that we bought salt in.

“We were always poor and we always lived in the bush, but we were never hungry. We depended on bush for medicine … once you had a particular plant growing in your yard, it had to have some medicinal use. We would know the time by the crowing of the cock, or by the shadows cast by the sun, or by the flight of the birds.”

When my grandfather turned 12, the family packed all their belongings onto a donkey cart and moved to Arima, following the availability of estate work. It was then that the family began to participate in the Santa Rosa Festival.

Life in Paria has changed, of course, but some things remain the same. Electricity arrived in the village only in 1996, and in the long run it may turn out that this helped preserve some of Iere’s history. Traditions of cooking with roucou, buccaneering meat, young men being encouraged to go hunting when they become teenagers, gardening, using the bench trails to travel through the Northern Range, are all lovingly maintained, although elders complain that the youths of the village are beginning to get restless, dazzled by the trappings of “development”.

My own father made sure that my brother and I became familiar with those trails and that way of life when we were growing up. He started taking us on hikes as soon as we could walk. My brother Che, now 24, has dedicated himself to this life-practice. I share all of my research with him, and he absorbs all he can from our father, our grandfather, the piaiman Christo Adonis, and Carl Fritzjames, a guardian of the Northern Range, long respected as the medicine man of Paria. As far as economics allow, Che spends at least half the year in the Northern Range — hunting, exploring, learning, and meditating. He encourages all the young men he knows to spend time there.

Every Easter members of our family walk the old bench trail from Paria village to Paria Bay, and camp on the beach there. Over time, our numbers have swelled from 12 to 30, with the youngest just four years old. We are often joined by friends, away from the trappings of “civilisation” with the forest, sea, river, and each other for company. We try to open these guests to the lessons to be learned from engaging in a closer relationship with the island they live on.

Many of the facts of the history of Trinidad’s indigenous people have been lost and can never be recovered, and many of my own questions about my heritage will never be answered. But on these family expeditions to Paria — following routes known to my ancestors for generations, and engaging with a land we cherished long before Columbus’s fateful arrival — it seems to me that we come as close as anyone can to understanding what it really means to be an indigenous Trinidadian. It isn’t just a matter of blood. It has more to do with a sense of love for this place, and a sense of pride in our relationship with it. When we get to Paria Bay, we arrive home in more ways than one.

Traces of the past

Over a hundred archaeological sites have been identified in Trinidad and Tobago, offering valuable information about the islands’ indigenous inhabitants, and it’s believed that even more remains undiscovered. These finds are sure to generate much interest among participants at the 21st International Congress for Caribbean Archaeology (IACA), being held from 24 to 30 July this year at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. Hundreds of delegates from the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America are expected to attend. Among the principal interests of the IACA are Caribbean prehistoric and historic period archaeology, terrestrial and marine archaeology, public education in archaeology, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, the ethics of archaeological inquiry, and the protection of sites and cultural objects of the past.

Trinidad and Tobago’s major archaeological finds include:

• Banwari Man: The remains of the island’s oldest resident were discovered in 1978 at Banwari Trace in south Trinidad. Carbon-dated to about 5,000 BC, they are the oldest human remains to be found in the southern Caribbean. As the oldest Archaic site in the West Indies, Banwari Trace clearly indicates that south-west Trinidad was one of the first migratory stops for the north-bound Archaic settlers who eventually colonised several islands in the Caribbean archipelago.

• The Erin Bottle: Found in the early 20th century in south Trinidad by John Bullbrook, an English geologist and skilled amateur archaeologist, this pottery “bottle” is almost complete and, for that reason, a rare find. It is from an era known as the Saladoid period (300 BC to 250 AD), which is characterised by the red and white pigment decorating much of the pottery of that time.

• The Gasparee Pot: “The most complete example of a prehistoric Amerindian ‘ceramic’ bottle to have been discovered in the Caribbean” was found in 1990 by a diver in the sea near the island of Gasparee, off Trinidad’s Chaguaramas peninsula. It is thought to be of the Saladoid period.

• The Carib Stone: In Caurita, a sparsely populated area in the Northern Range overlooking Maracas valley, there is a huge boulder of quartzite etched with petroglyphs, referred to as the Carib Stone. Archaeologists believe it may have been a tribal boundary marker, or a sacred place associated with spirits and ancestors, and may also have astronomical or mythological associations.

• In 1998, an archeological expedition led by Leonid Kerreneff (of France-based Jules Verne Expeditions) uncovered a large Amerindian settlement at Grand Courland Bay in Tobago, yielding thousands of artifacts. The dig also exposed two Amerindian burials, one of a very young child.

• Between July and August 2003, archeological surveys and excavations were conducted at Marianne Estate in Blanchisseuse, on Trinidad’s north coast. The site, which dates from 250 BC to AD 600, is one of the largest and most productive Saladoid locations in Trinidad and Tobago. It is situated on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Marianne River to the west. The excavation team, led by Dr Basil Reid of the University of the West Indies, yielded a variety of Saladoid pottery, including adornos with various zoomorphic (animal) images, such as bats, snakes, monkeys, and fish.

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