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Filmmaker Tracy Assing: Inspired by the Amerindians

Published: 
Monday, July 4, 2011
Carib descendant/filmmaker Tracy Assing produced The Amerindians. Photos: Dilip Singh

Clutching tiny woven cane baskets filled with red and pink flowers, Carib descendant Tracy Kim Assing joined the Santa Rosa parade, through the Borough of Arima. She dropped delicate hibiscus and rose blossoms for her late aunt, Carib queen Valentina Medina to trod upon. The Santa Rosa Carib Community is the last remaining organised group of people identifying with an Amerindian identity and way of life. At Arima Government Secondary School, she learned Caribs and Arawaks had been decimated by los conquistadores who came in search of El Dorado. At eight, she had made a concrete decision to stop participating in the festival. During her stint as Assistant Editor Caribbean Beat, she documented it in an essay The Long Walk Home (July/August 2005).

Assing said: “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.” True to form, Assing kept pondering about her ancestors and First Nation Peoples. She took it upon herself to create a film—The Amerindians—which sought to address some of these burning questions. Assing, a former Guardian feature writer, relied upon her journalistic skills and natural curiosity. Assing, 36, shared her inspiration for The Amerindians. She realised she had to tell the story of her people for posterity. Assing said: “The media do not recognise us much. Except for the Day of Recognition (October) and the Santa Rosa Festival (August). In the 70s and 80s, there were fairly regular stories about what we were doing.”

Assing added: “The film started with questions. I grew up in the Carib Community. I went to school at Arima Secondary. I was taught the Caribs and Arawaks had been decimated. But I was still alive. I was of Carib ancestry. I wondered whether we did eat people. Do we eat people? I would ask my parents...I thought I would ask my priest (Fr Christian Perreira).” She lamented the Carib community was facing a sense of erosion. Assing added: “Where was the sense of identity...the sense somebody could apply. Young people started to distance themselves from ‘what it is to be Carib’. The word Carib became commercialised. A beer is a Carib.” Questions assailed her. “They may not have been Carib or any tribe called Carib. There were a number of tribes. People were put into missions.” Miscegenation had taken place within the Carib community, too. As she embarked upon the odyssey, Assing had tete-a-tete with archaeologist Dr Basil Reid, eminent historian Prof Bridget Brereton and her late great aunt Carib queen Valentina Medina.

Kudos to Askia Amon-Ra
When The Amerindians premiered at the 2010 Film Festival, Assing dedicated it to her former History teacher Askia Amon-Ra at Arima Secondary School. He had built a formidable reputation as a teacher who got full CXC History passes and encouraged his students to love history. Assing has read for History at CXC level, but she did not read for a degree. Yet the lack of tertiary education did not hinder her from creating The Amerindians. “I dedicated the film to Askia Amon-Ra. He was responsible for instilling that search of identity. “It is one of the reasons I dedicated the film to him. He encouraged us not to just accept what was written but to seek the truth.”

Challenging questions
As she continued to unearth the truths, Assing said: “I did get a lot of answers. In the interviews, people were honest academics. They were excited about my questions.” While Assing was reluctant to let the cat out of the bag completely, she noted the film explored questions related to the Santa Rosa Festival and Amerindian life in an era gone by. She asked: “Did they find a statue in the forest?” Fr Perreira gave an interesting answer. She turned to her aunt Valentina Medina, fondly known as Aunty Mavis. “What makes a queen?” she asked. She even remembered the stories her grandfather, the late John Assing had told her. Assing said: “I talked to them about their childhood. How did they know they were indigenous? They said “they just knew they were indigenous.” They set their story in Caura and Paria and working on the cocoa plantations. Great Caura was peopled by a tribe from Venezuela.” Assing added: “Indigenous people sailed down the Coora River in Venezuela and settled in Caura. They fashioned their bows and arrows to catch fish. They used the spokes of bicycle wheels to make spears. They used a lot of bush medicine.” As the storyline unfolded, Assing said: “I  became aware of my heritage.”

The Amerindians document
Assing paid kudos to Carla Foderingham and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company for their input into The Amerindians. She said: “It has the distinction of being one of the few films chosen by every film station.” Assing’s ace effort didn’t go unnoticed. Guardian’s editorial (May 2) saluted Assing’s efforts. An excerpt said: “The young filmmaker created an important document in the narrative of the First People of Trinidad and Tobago, whose history lives on largely in the stories passed on from generation to generation, undocumented by the many conquerors who came to this island. It added: “The formation of the Carib Santa Rosa Community in 1974 has been an effort at not just staking a claim on that kind of memory, but an attempt at knitting the stories of the region into a larger history and cultural archive as that organisation has reached out to surviving Amerindian tribes in the region.” While saluting her efforts, the editorial warned time was against them. It said: “Gathering these stories and rebuilding the rich, natural narrative of the lifestyles and history of the first inhabitants of Trinidad and Tobago is the only way to provide a real alternative to the readily consumed temptations available in the attractively packaged fictions of foreign entertainment. These are not simple matters, and time is against the elders of the Carib community. Encouraging and supporting efforts of local documentarians to preserve the history and traditions of the oldest elements of our history in modern media should be the first point of intervention by the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism (led by Winston Peters) in advancing the future of the local Carib community.”

Amerindians in T&T

Amerindian peoples have existed in Trinidad for as long as 6,000 years before the arrival of Columbus, and numbered at least 40,000 at the time of Spanish settlement in 1592. All of Trinidad was populated by several tribes, Trinidad being a transit point in the Caribbean network of Amerindian trade and exchange. Amerindian tribes were referred to by various names: Yaio, Nepuyo, Chaima, Warao, Kalipuna, Carinepogoto, Garini, Aruaca. Amerindian words and place names survive into the present: the Caroni and Oropouche rivers; the Tamana and Aripo mountains; places such as Arima, Paria, Arouca, Caura, Tunapuna, Tacarigua, Couva, Mucurapo, Chaguanas, Carapichaima, Guaico, Mayaro, Guayaguayare. Trinidad’s Amerindians formed part of large regional island-to-island and island-to-mainland trading networks; the Warao of Venezuela, who still exist, were frequent visitors until only recent times.

The Amerindians developed the canoe, the bow and arrow, and the ajoupa. Amerindian cuisine is enjoyed by many Trinidadians: Cassava bread and Farine; Warap; barbecued wild game; corn pastelles; coffee; cocoa; chadon beni. The Amerindians also gave Trinidad and Tobago its first major rebellion in the name of freedom: the Arena uprising of 1699. In 1783 Trinidad’s Amerindians were displaced from their lands to make way for the influx of French planters and their African slaves. In 1759 the Mission of Arima was formed, consolidated and enlarged in 1785, and the Amerindians were to have had control of 2,000 acres of land. A number of tribes were pressed into Arima, mostly Nepuyo, and generically referred to as either “Caribe” or “Indio”—Arima was the last Mission Town.

Parang, utilising both Spanish and Amerindian musical instruments, emerged from the evangelisation of the Amerindians. The Caribs in Arima, converted to Catholicism, were led by a Titular Queen.
The histories of major towns such as Arima and Siparia, two large former Amerindian Mission Towns, have given us Trinidad’s two oldest festivals: The Santa Rosa Festival of Arima, and La Divina Pastora in Siparia. At least 12,000 people in Northeast Trinidad are of Amerindian descent. (Taken from the Santa  Rosa Carib Communty Web site)

About the filmmaker

Assing has been invited to speak at the University of Toronto, Canada.  Assing, who was Editor of Discover T&T for three years, is currently considering taking it to the US and Caribbean. She is also considering a sequel The Herbalist. Assing said: “If young people took to the medium of film, they would spend less time viewing and filming violence. Less time with porn. They would check out ‘Where do umbrellas come from? Why does granny drink vervine tea?’ “The country is full of rich stories. Exploring stories on film is a means of documenting culture. Culture is everything.” Assing is signing a distribution deal with a New York-based company, Third World News Reel—which specialises in educational films.
It can be viewed on Facebook and some videos can be seen on Assing’s site, TriniWildIndian.