Gabrielle Jamela Hosein is a feminist, activist, poet and Director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.
This week’s column draws on two columns that were first published in the Trinidad Guardian in October 14th, 2016 and April 7, 2017.
In 1492, the current world order was established. The Caribbean was ground zero. Dispossession of indigenous peoples was the first founding act. Today, we in Trinidad all live on occupied land.
Across the Americas, indigenous sovereign nations, still living under (post)colonial rule, continue to challenge and refuse a global political economy built on invasion, decimation and extraction. Indigenous people didn’t become extinct. They don’t belong to a time past, and their systems of governance, economic management and ecology are not quaint or outdated.
Indeed, indigenous communities across the Americas are at the forefront of waging struggles against corporate capitalism’s state-managed privatization of water and destruction of forests, precisely because they have kept alternatives alive all these centuries. Movements such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, now more than thirty years strong, offer real, living examples of dignity, autonomy and justice in which we can all find new forms of order, labour and exchange.
Given that indigenous people are still here, their claims to repatriation of land remain as valid in 2016 as they did in 1493. For them, colonization isn’t an event that happened, it’s a structure that organizes their lives today, as it does ours. Let us not feign innocence about our own entanglement in the continued disruption that occurs in indigenous people’s lives from the violation and violence of such occupation.
What does this mean for Africans, Indians and others in the Caribbean, who, by force and suffering, had to establish our belonging over time by coming to see ourselves as ‘indigenous’ to this region? How do our claims currently and wrongly displace Indigenous people themselves? How does our affirmation of our humanity maintain an imperial legacy?
This is an even more important question for those of us involved in social justice work. For our legal and cultural investments in UN rights conventions, nation-state law, and democratization of land ownership (such as the Occupy movement in the Americas), all entrench settler colonialism, both others’ and our own. What, then, is our accountability to Caribbean indigenous people’s sovereign right to self-determination? These are not intellectual musings, but real political questions. For a generation of Caribbean young people who, for the first time in history, are experiencing biodiversity and climate changes that may not be reversed within their lifetimes, alternatives to business as usual are ever more urgent.
That model, established in and expanded from this region, is not all that is on offer, and it no longer offers us what our futures fundamentally need. This generation of Caribbean children can and eventually must move us from resistance to transformation. That shift requires us to decide what life and justice look like beyond the selves, narratives, relations, structures and possibilities built, like a chain link fence around us, since 1492.
There is no lack of realism here. Rather, there is clear gaze on a global political-economy that is neither timeless nor inevitable. There is clear reading of our potential choices in this place and time. Yet, having had fires of hope mashed down to ash from the Caribbean independence era to the present, many adults’ crumpled cynicism no longer remembers or prioritizes the necessity of upcoming Caribbean generations’ truly, globally, decolonial dreams.
No liberatory changes are possible without a vision beyond what is currently dominant, yet unsustainable. This generation needs radically transformative ideals as much as the clean air and water that adults have failed to sufficiently fight for. It needs world changing politics, and the life force of big collective and long-term ideas and movements, not merely individual and immediate workforce skills.
Why British government structures? Why shouldn’t we found just models for the world when an unjust model for the world was founded here from 1492? We live amidst cosmologies that are deeply Caribbean, and must stop seeing our history as beginning and our futures ending with colonization. Colonization, here, isn’t a metaphor. It’s the governing principle under which indigenous people dream of land, life and solidarity. Engaging each other to imagine freedom outside of colonial terms is ethical, urgent and necessary.
These were the central issues during an incredible three-day gathering held at the St. Augustine Campus ten days ago, titled Indigenous geographies and Caribbean feminisms: Common struggles against global capitalism.
When you are in a gathering with women leaders from Akawaio, Garifuna, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Macushi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warrau First Peoples, it’s best to simply listen.
These women, some of them among the few women chiefs in the region’s Indigenous People’s communities, represent those who have belonged to the land and who the land has belonged to for many thousands of years. Most striking in their stories is their struggle against lack of recognition of such belonging.
Listen to women like Faye Fredericks, who is Wapichan and from what is now known as Guyana, and who has been passionately fighting mining and logging’s shocking destruction of the very forest her ancestors and community have drawn their sustenance and cosmologies from as long as they remember.
Next time you think approvingly of Guyana’s economic model, ask yourself how we can so ignore her evidence and her community’s right to fish from rivers which haven’t been poisoned. Ask yourself if such ‘necropolitics’, or wielding of political and social power to determine life and death, is truly ‘development’.
Listen to women, like Christina Coc, who is a spokesperson for the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance (MLA) from what is now known as Belize, who has been battling the Belizean state for more than a decade to get back rights to land that was once theirs. The Alliance achieved an historic victory in 2015, affirming the right of 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities of southern Belize to the lands that they have historically used and occupied. The MLA website states, “This historic legal affirmation – which states that traditional land rights constitute property, equal in legitimacy to any other form of property under Belizean law – is the first indigenous peoples land rights victory in the Caribbean region”.
As I listened, I reflected on how much the Westminster model, and the notions of leadership, property and rights it has protected, has failed our region. I kept wondering why not support these struggles and these women who are on the absolute frontline of defending rivers, forests, alternative forms of farming and exchange, and shared approaches to land.
Might my daughter Ziya’s life be better if she could still swim in Santa Cruz’s many rivers in Trinidad and Tobago, as children could at the turn of independence? Might her life be better under Indigenous systems of governance which value nature, and not just as a ‘resource’ but a source of life, and provide greater respect for communal land? Might the trails of the Northern Range in Trinidad and Tobago be better protected if in the hands of First Peoples, as Tracy Assing dreams, rather than subject to the Ministry of Forestry?
These Indigenous women are engaged in absolutely contemporary political movements, against the states to which we declare loyalty, in battles in which we are entangled while pretending innocence about what outcome would be truly and historically just. They also struggle against corporate unsustainable practices and even banks that profit from their place in the region while providing no room for developmental loans unless communities allow themselves to be divided by the collateral of private property.
We must deepen our practices of recognition and inclusion, and welcome alternatives to our colonial inheritance. Think of Anacaona, a Taino chief or Cacica, who ruled the island of Kiskeya, now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 1503, during a meeting of eighty caciques, including Anacaona, the Spanish Governor ordered the meeting house to be set on fire to burn them alive, similar to what centuries later occurred to Rigoberta Menchu’s father and Indigenous Mayans in Guatemala in 1980. Cacica Anacaona was arrested and accused of conspiracy for resisting occupation, and sexual concubinage as an escape, and was executed. She was only twenty-nine years old.
In March 2016, Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres, a leader with the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, was assassinated for her defiance to mining and logging concessions, and proposed dams. Miriam Miranda Chamorro has taken over her work, moving in and out of hiding for her own safety.
These battles were being waged five hundred years ago as they are being waged today. It’s time we listen and stand with these women on the right side of history. As Berta Cáceres urged us all, in her speech accepting the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize which was awarded to her for her tireless activism, “Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time.”
Stories and interviews with Indigenous Caribbean women, on their struggles and leadership, are on the IGDS Youtube page. Visit it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBY40DZ4E7s&list=PLwNx1cuS64LiOcRTeNxrxC_Pq3Wob8ZWU Click, watch, and share them with our region’s citizens, students and children.