Indigenous Cuba

Indigenous Cuba: Hidden in Plain Sight

Panchito has pressed the fact of his community’s existence for over 30 years, a consistent effort to break through the wall of invisibility built by the adamant and widespread assertion of extinction for Cuban Native peoples. Among other regional historians, Hartmann refers to the fact of many Indian families surviving through colonial times as “something well-known in the eastern region.” He added: “This idea of a total Indian extinction was prescribed and cemented by cosmopolitan scholars.” The researchers who established the extinction dictum, he said, wrote from limited archival research and kept repeating each other. “Few visited and none of them studied in these mountains.”

Panchito touched on the subject during our visit, recounting the long and compelling history of his particular kinship gens, the Rojas-Ramírez families. The ancestry goes back to the last wave of indigenous settlement in Cuba – Taíno – who greeted the Spanish conquest and who, contrary to the popular narrative of their extinction, actually survived, as small groups and through intermarriage, through the centuries. It happened in Cuba that the Spanish colonial encomienda, based on the imposed labor of Indians, gave way to the founding of several pueblos of free Indian families. Among these, San Luis de los Caneyes (El Caney), near Santiago de Cuba, became the origin and survival place for the Rojas-Ramírez families for three centuries. These newly liberated or recently isolated Indian families were granted the names Rojas and Ramirez, en masse, in baptisms under a Spanish governor and a Bishop with those last names.

The Spanish Royal grant of Indian jurisdiction over their community lands in El Caney was squelched by the colonial audiencia in 1850, but several Indian kinship or extended family groups remained together as they resettled in more remote lands over the mountains. “In my childhood here,” Reina explains, “la Rancheria was all Indian families; just in this community we had 30 houses or more. Now we are only 12 houses here. Many moved to the coast and other places looking for better conditions.”

As of 2016, dozens of Rojas-Ramírez multifamily homesteads are scattered throughout the eastern mountains and a formal family count of the kinship group, still incomplete, stands at around 4,000. The Indian families as a whole retain considerable traditional ecological knowledge, along with legendary stories and ceremonies of fertility and protection that invoke the Moon, the Sun and the Mother Earth. In their healing traditions, they work with sacred trees, and they make wide use of medicinal herbal plants. They are proud agriculturalists – campesinos – who enjoy and suffer the ups and downs of raising crops on the land.

Along with Hartmann and a research team of community members, we traveled these thin mountain trails and visited with a good range of the Rojas-Ramírez folks. Beyond the bustle of the city and the frenetic salsa-driven cubanía of urban culture, a core of the national soul, the essence of its origin, resides in the Cuban countryside, in the mountains and remote coastal areas, among the people who work the land with the old Indian coa, or digging stick, plow with oxen-driven rigs and still ride horses as their main source of transportation. The high mountain lifestyle incorporates many Spanish and African cultural elements, yet the sense of Native belonging is obvious. This Cuba profunda, as Hartmann deems it, still yields a wonderful oral tradition, of the people and by the people.

After half a century of socialist revolution, a new Cuban generation seeks to deepen its identity, to see and experience an everwidening vision of society. In Cuba, as in most of the Americas, exploring the deeper layers of a country’s cultural origins reveals foundational forces, within which resonates indigeneity, the nexus of the people and the land.

It surprises many people, even many Cuban people, that an indigenous community of substantial documented history and contemporary presence exists. It particularly elates many people that the elders of the Indian families continue to express spiritual and practical messages of respect for the Mother Earth and the productive qualities of mountain-farming techniques.

José Barreiro, Smithsonian Scholar Emeritus, retired from the NMAI in 2016. He is a contributor and early curator for the upcoming exhibition, Taíno: Native Ancestry and Identity in the Caribbean.