By Phil Hall | February 12, 2012

Contemporary Caribbean cinema is a relatively rare commodity in U.S. distribution channels, which makes the arrival of this documentary from Trinidad and Tobago rather special. Journalist Tracy Assing, serving both as a first-time director and on-camera narrator, presents a compelling overview of the history of that nation’s indigenous population, who barely survived the Spanish colonial occupation and were nearly erased from the history books as the country evolved from a British colony into an independent republic.

Today, the Santa Rosa Carib Community is the nation’s only officially recognized indigenous community, and Assing’s great aunt holds the tribal chieftain authority as Carib Queen. But her reign may be coming to an end – she speaks about preparing to join “the Great Spirit” – and the community is challenged to consider the election of a new leader.

Assing details how the indigenous population – referred to as AmerIndians – kept their customs alive via oral history, and how they merged their cultural celebrations with the Western concepts of theology and economics. The resulting film is a fascinating look at an aspect of Western hemisphere history that almost never emerges in any U.S.-based media. Assing’s on-screen persona is sharp but sensitive – the film is, mercifully, lacking in the level of snark and snarl that often ruins American nonfiction features.

“The AmerIndians” is one of the most interesting and original new documentaries in release, and it should be seen by anyone with an interest in the challenges facing indigenous populations.

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