The following is a speech given on May 16th by Nichie Abo, Chief and President of the Tribal Council for the Kalinago Indians, at the Cosmos Club in Washington DC. The tribe is indigenous to the Caribbean; today 3,000 members live in the 3,700 acre Kalinago Territory on the Island of Dominica. According to its website, “The Cosmos Club, founded in 1878, is a private social club of men and women distinguished in science, literature and the arts. Among its members have been three Presidents, 36 Nobel Prize winners; 61 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 55 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” References in Mr. Abo’s speech include Dr. Michael McDonald, Coordinator: Global Health Response and Resilience Alliance; and Steven Bingler, founder and CEO of the firm Concordia: Community Centered Planning and Design.
Thank you Dr. McDonald and to all of you for having me here this afternoon, and for receiving me with great warmth, kindness and generosity. I am deeply honored to be here.
Let me just take a moment to recognize the great spirit that has always been with me and my tribe, and let me just also recognize the ancestors who have come before us, and who I believe still look over us and guide us, and are in our presence, if we had eyes to see them.
I was born in a little place in Dominica called the Kalinago Territory, and it is the final refuge of a people who occupied the lands from Trinidad in the southern part of the Caribbean, to St Croix in the northern part, when Columbus accidentally stumbled on the region. The first contact that Columbus made with the Kalinago people was on the island of St Croix, in a place called Salt River, where he ran into a community that obviously thought that an alien species had arrived, and must have been quite afraid, and tried to defend their lives and the lives of their families and children. So that was the first skirmish, where several Kalinago people were killed and others taken into slavery, I suppose. And since that time there has been a constant struggle for survival, a constant struggle against violence that has lasted for 400 years, maybe more.
But the Kalinago people have always been a strong, resilient people, and we have survived 400 years of persecution, warfare and discrimination, all of those adjectives and words. So in 1903, the administrator who was then running the island of Dominica wrote to the crown and said that there is a small handful of natives who are occupying this little northeast portion of the island, the most rugged, and I am fearful that if we do not protect them that they will become extinct, and the crown agreed, and so the reservation was established in 1903, and this is where we continue to live today.
I have learned a new term in my travels this week, and it is one that I intend to use often, and that is: “topography is destiny.” It’s an amazing phrase, and I just learned it two days ago I think. And it is the topography of Dominica, the topography of Waitukubuli, the Kalinago name for Dominica. It is that topography that has actually saved the Kalinago tribe and allowed us to be alive today, because had it not been for the topography of this country, this “tall is her body”—that’s what Waitukubuli means, “tall is her body”—had it not been for the forest and the difficulty to get in there, and the harsh conditions that existed, the Europeans would have simply done what they did on the other Caribbean islands, just take it over, occupy it, turn it into sugar cane fields, cotton fields and whatever else they were growing, and the Kalinago would have disappeared. But because the topography was so rugged, the island could never be truly colonized on the terms that colonization has been used in the rest of the Caribbean, because the Kalinago people could hide in the forest and they could fight guerilla warfare (I suppose that is what the current terminology would be), and so because of that we are here. But that is a part of the essence of indigenous people: a relationship with nature.
We believe, and this has been an integral part of our spirituality, that everything that nature has created is alive, and that we are just a part of that, that the trees that breathe and give oxygen to us are just as alive as we are, that the animals that roam and give us food sometimes are just as alive and important in this circle of life as we are, that the fish that swim in the ocean, and the coral and the waters that run and give us life are just as alive as we are, and it is when we remove ourselves from that circle of life, when we make a decision that somehow or the other we are more capable, wiser, more powerful, and better—when we remove ourselves from the circle of life—that we endanger the planet and all of our lives.
So I think all the Kalinago people know that today, and it is still an integral part of how we live. We live close to nature. We farm, in our yards, the things we need to survive; bananas, coconuts, pineapples, cucumbers, and so when Michael visits and Steven visited, I think most of the food they ate came out of my garden. We have a river just down the road that we can bathe in, and get water from, that’s drinkable. So we have a simple life, and Michael has somehow or the other decided that this simple life might be something that can influence the world. I don’t’ know if that’s true—he says it so much better than I can—but we do have a life that is wholesome, that respects nature, that embraces our humanity with all humanity, that does not separate us from the circle of life, and maybe there is something to be learned from that.
When the storms hit Dominica in September, I woke up in the morning and I looked out and everything was just pure devastation. The house that I had grown up in had collapsed on my uncle. Ninety-five percent of the structures in the Kalinago territory were devastated, broken, disappeared. When I looked at that I thought my God, there must be many deaths, people must have died. How could there be so much devastation and not have death? But surprisingly nobody died. Not a single death in the Kalinago Territory from hurricane Maria.
There were many deaths in other parts of the country. But a couple of things we have always known, that may just be part of our being, and knowledge that has come from thousands of years of existing with nature. One of the things is that we should not build in the floodplains, where the rivers run. But some of our brothers and sisters in the country didn’t know that and appreciate that, so they had built right alongside some of these little streams that looked totally harmless. When the rains came and the waters rushed, many of the homes were just washed away—with their lives along with it.
And that’s just a simple lesson; that we have to have some respect for nature and waterways and floodways. People lived because after the storms, we have a method of growing things that help us survive storms—and we have done this for a thousand years, so we grow a lot of root crops: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, all sorts of food crops in the ground. In more recent times, with development has come tree crops; oranges and bananas and plantains, and when a storm comes it just wipes them out. But guess what? You can’t wipe out the cassava that’s in the ground. So right after the storm I can go into my garden, grab some cassava, and the ocean is right there, so I can get some fish that is nice and clean and not poisoned with nuclear waste, and we can eat, we can survive. So we have ways of life that have kept us alive to this point, that maybe the rest of the world can learn from.
I was in New York with Michael, standing in his living room looking across the city, and I thought to myself: if this place had to survive for one year without electricity, what would be the consequence of that? And I can’t imagine it. I don’t know if you can imagine it, but I cannot. The storm passed in September and it is now May. We have had no electricity, and not a single soul has died from heat or lack of air conditioning or whatever people die from when there is no power in developed countries. So maybe there is something to learn from living a fairly simple life that is not so dependent on all of these amazing discoveries that brilliant minds have made.
However, there is need for the things that people in this room have contributed to, and I have to say that when I came in and looked at the walls, and Dr. McDonald was explaining to me how this place has come to be and how these powerful people have lined the walls, I have to say that I am humbled to be here. And I hope that my representation is worthy of the people back home who depend on me to say something to you that may inspire you to look at us in a different way, in a way that places us as an essential element in the circle of life, because you have made significant contributions to the world, this building and all of the people who have occupied it, and are a part of it have created an amazing world, and there is so much value in that, and lots for us to learn as Kalinago people.
So maybe the lesson in that is to think that whatever is beyond the horizon, whatever we aspire to, whatever we dream of, we are to always consider it as part of nature and how we contribute to that essential circle of life that has us in this place in time. So we need better architecture. Some of our architecture is OK. It has helped us to survive. But we have brilliant architects in the world who are coming up with all sorts of inventions and new methods that are important to the development of humanity, and it could be of help to us and to many other communities in the world who have a similar circumstance. So we are open to that. We are open to the technologies in communications and energy. We have a country today where the prime minister has said we are going to be the first resilient country in the world. I am not sure what that means. We are resilient as it is right now. But the energy grid in our country is very non-resilient, lots of telephone poles up in the air. With the next winds that come along, they are gone. So maybe we should be looking at solar energy and how we can decentralize the grid, and put individual units in people’s homes so that when the power system goes down and the hurricanes knock down the grid, they can just pick up their solar systems out of storage and stick it up the next day and have power. So these technologies that are being developed in the world are of great important to us, and we want to know about them. We want to learn about them.
So for me this again just points back to this beautiful circle of life, where every human being makes contributions that just causes the life of the person next to them and the person in Africa and China to be a little better, a little more fulfilling, and spiritually nourishing, and at all times – at all times – respects the earth. Because without the earth what do we have? I don’t know, I guess we have space. And there are people who are looking out there, and maybe that’s the next colonization, I don’t know. But we do have the earth right now and its such an amazingly beautiful place, and it requires all of our energies to keep it beautiful, to keep it as a life sustaining source for all of us, for all of humanity.
So, as a tribe, we have struggled, and we have survived, and we are in a place where we want to contribute to the continuing march of humanity, but we also need the help of developed countries and brilliant people who have come up with all sorts of solutions to problems that exist. And we are willing to share. We are willing to have a conversation to figure out how we can collaborate to make all of our lives better.
So I want to just invite all of you that are here, at some point in time if you haven’t been to the Caribbean, to put it on that bucket list. We are in the Kalinago Territory in Dominica, and you are welcome to my home at any time. Open arms. You can just walk in and stay for as long as you want.
Thank you for having me here this afternoon. It means a lot. The whole journey of the Kalinago people has brought me here. We don’t know where this journey takes us to sometimes. It is just the web of life, and we follow it the best we can. So I am here today because angels like Michael and Steven have lifted me up and carried me to this place. And I am eternally grateful for that opportunity. And people like you have come to listen to very simple words that come from my heart. I hope it has been meaningful. Now I just want to engage with you and answer some questions and maybe ask you some questions. So I am going to pause here and hope that we can have some interaction.
All photographs by Steven Bingler.