Taíno Survival

Taíno Survival: Back into History

No exhibition has actually addressed the topic of the survival of Native peoples in the Caribbean after 1492. The Native peoples of the region, represented by the durable elements of their material culture, are contained in museums within the pre-colonial moment. To frame an exhibit that emphasizes the survival and contemporary vitality of these indigenous peoples and their legacy is an intimidating task. But such is the upcoming Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean, now under preparation for the National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian in New York City.

The objects that are generally considered to be the most emblematic of the Caribbean’s Native heritage are its archeological artifacts. These form a dialogue with the Native symbols and drawings in caverns and on rocks best known by locals across the region. They fill the Caribbean’s national museums and private collections. They contribute to regional visual imaginaries (like image banks for tattoos) and provide work for artisans who create crafts for tourists and masterful fakes for unknowing collectors. They have been deployed as symbols of resistance to colonialism and imperialism, but also to consolidate popular understanding of national identities.

For many audiences who consider these artifacts as part of their heritage, they arouse powerful questions about ancestry and invoke a sense of unresolved history regarding the colonial encounter between European, African, Indigenous and other peoples in the Caribbean.

In another lifetime – 2008 – I first approached the archeological Native American collections at the Smithsonian’s American Indian and Natural History museums with an interest in the history of the collections themselves. How were these artifacts first collected, and how did they end up at the Smithsonian? What were the political contexts, the ideologies behind collecting and the market forces at hand? About the time I was poking around collections, I heard someone in the Smithsonian leadership talk about the Taíno movement in Puerto Rico, and I thought to myself, “How’s that possible? Indians in Puerto Rico are extinct.”

The Taíno Movement

I didn’t imagine that in 2018 I would be opening an exhibit, not only about indigenous legacies in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, but about the Taíno movement. Legacy doesn’t raise hackles – it’s a palatable topic and doesn’t offend the official narrative which holds that Native American survival (indio in this context) in the Great Antilles was impossible after colonization.

On the other hand, the Taíno movement, a declaration of Native survival through mestizaje (genetic and cultural mixing over time), reclamation and revival, was an intimidating topic for me as an exhibit developer and curator to tackle. This movement involves the descendants of Native peoples of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its U.S. diaspora, uniting under the label Taíno. It has emerged since the 1970s. Its participants are organized in diverse groups, informed by different, though often overlapping, social agendas and ideologies. They network and exchange information at in-person events including powwows and spiritual retreats and through online platforms such as Facebook. They are also a no-nonsense community that has been the subject of antagonistic scrutiny by some scholars who contest contemporary Taínos’ claim on indigenous identity.

With time I realized that despite the sensitivity of this topic, which clashes with the sensibilities and historical frameworks of some people inside and outside this movement, information for making sense of Native heritage is something for which the public, especially Latino audiences, are hungry.

Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean never have much of historical presence past 1550, by which point, most narratives consider Native peoples to be so few in number, especially in comparison to the increasing enslaved African workforce, that they cease to exist. The paper archives of the countryside and backwoods do not exist. Where Native presence does persist is in the repertoire and archive of popular memory, family histories, folk stories, regional lore and as living spirits in Caribbean religious traditions.

Ranald Woodaman is the Exhibitions and Public Program Director at the Smithsonian Latino Center. He curated the exhibition Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean with a research team including co-curator and veteran scholar of Cuban Native Studies, Dr. José Barreiro, University of Texas (Austin), PhD-candidate Christina M. González and former NMAI educator and veteran researcher of the Dominican campo, Jorge Estévez.