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Heritage Day on Naparima Hill

By Anne Hilton Thursday, October 28 2010

When my friend Cherry and I signed up for the National Trust visit to Naparima Hill to celebrate (albeit a day or two late) Amerindian Heritage Day we lived in hopes of travelling in one of the luxury PTSC buses imported specially to cushion VIPs' posteriors in transit to and from hotels to conference halls during last year's Summits – but it was not to be.

Instead, by 8 am on Saturday, October 16, three red-line minibuses were lined up outside the National Museum waiting to take us to San Fernando. By 8.30 am, well supplied with water for the journey, we set off, expecting to reach the Hill by about 9.30 or thereabouts but the Ministry of Works and Transport had other plans for us. Just past the Freeport Junction we joined a snail-pace crawl of a double line of traffic heading South – while “smart alecks” zoomed past us on the shoulder.

Seeing that blatant flouting of all the laws (and good manners) of traffic, privately I reckoned it was an accident waiting to happen. Sadly a few days later it did when one motorist lost control and a police officer lost his life. That, at any rate, is my take on the tragedy.

However, once past Couva (and the road works) there were no more problems and we reached the Hill in time for the talk on the importance of religious rites and rituals on Naparima Hill to the Amerindians (First Nation) people of the Orinoco Delta and Guyana.

First Nation People from Suriname and Dominica who had come to Trinidad for the official celebrations on October 14 and the Carib Community of Arima arrived shortly after us, all dressed in their colourful robes and headdresses to perform their traditional dances.

The celebration of Amerindian Heritage began with an Invocation to the Spirits and Blessing by Thelma, assisted by Carib Chief Ricardo Bharath Hernandez from Arima.Mr Sham Shaudeen of the National Trust welcomed the visitors before introducing archaeologist Professor Peter Harris to give a talk on the significance of Naparima Hill to the Amerindians of the Delta – in particular the Warrahoon of Pedernales. He said Amerindian Heritage Day sought to preserve indigenous heritage and culture in Trinidad.

Professor Harris explained that the Warrahoon used to come here partly to trade, but mainly to conduct their religious rites on Naparima Hill. He traced the history of the town of San Fernando and the Hill from Cazabon’s paintings in 1850 to the indigenous village of Petit Bourg back through the dwindling indigenous population, and further back to the time of the Capuchin missionaries’ conversion of the indigenous people when (if I read my notes aright) there were 150 chief and over 1,000 indigenous people living in five villages in Trinidad.

Further back to the years 1-700 AD, he said the indigenous people of Trinidad were governed from across the water in what is now Venezuela and Guyana. Professor Harris’ talk intrigued even as he bewildered (at least this member of his audience) in relating the myths and legends of the Warrahoon, of shaman leaders and human sacrifice, the transmigration of souls into birds, of tobacco ceremonies and the legend of the Pitch Lake as the entrance to the Underworld – tracing the First Nation people's existence in the land back to 6,000 BC according to the evidence of stone axes – an archaeological treasure lent to (and lost by) the Ministry of Tourism.

He ended with a plea for Naparima Hill to be declared a Heritage site, preserved and protected for those following the ancient ritual and rites of the Warrahoon and the Carib Community. He lamented the fact that the Hill has been used for "concerts" – and the damage suffered in consequence. And indeed, we noted an advertisement for a forthcoming "concert" on the drive down the Hill.

Following the talk came performances of traditional dances – that is best left to photographs to describe. A substantial – and very tasty – packed lunch ended the celebrations shortly before 2 pm.

Showers interrupted our speaker from time to time and we had to scamper to the minibuses when it was time to leave. However, the day's excitements were not over. From my vantage point in the minibus I saw huge thick black clouds of smoke rising from what appeared to be, and indeed was, Pointe-a-Pierre Refinery. A little further down the Hill the black cloud of smoke was transformed into a blazing inferno.

Photographing the dances of Surinamese and Dominican Amerindians that day had drained the batteries in my camera. I could only say unladylike words that I'd forgotten to bring back-up batteries to take a photograph of the conflagration to send to Newsday. Yet by the time we passed Pointe-a-Pierre itself the blaze was out, with only lingering traces of black smoke mingling with the black rain clouds overhead.

Apart from another snail-pace crawl to the road works on the highway, that was the end of the excitements of the day and the National Trust tour to Naparima Hill.

One hopes some of the powers-that-be will recognise the importance of the Hill for the indigenous people here and across the Gulf, that no more rock (or similar) concerts or gatherings will be allowed to disturb the peace of a sacred place.

However, one can only hope against hope…

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