Taíno Survival

Taíno Survival: Back into History

One thing to remember about the Caribbean, even in seemingly more culturally homogenous areas like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, is that despite its size it contains lots of diversity. This variety is complicated by creolization, which is the intricate process of cultural changes and exchanges – in all directions – over time, and by micro-regional differences. The colonial economies, labor practices and settlement patterns of the islands were varied and changed over time. Spanish control and presence was both real in the force of its genocide, and also symbolic in its capacity to sustain control and effectively settle and exploit. As an example, in Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic), four Native villages were discovered on the northern coast in 1556 during a period in which the island’s dwindling Native peoples had presumably all been counted by the official censuses.

Surviving 1492

The post-1492 survival of Native people, identity and culture in the region might be understood through overlapping forms of social positioning such as economic integration without too much intermarriage, isolation from the colonial order (going “off the grid”) and intermarriage. On the eastern side of Cuba, scholars are increasingly finding evidence in records and archeology of Native peoples and their neighborhoods integrated into the local colonial economy, in occupations such as ranching or pottery-making. Maroon communities formed by Africans and Native peoples escaping slavery were intentionally isolated from colonial authority; the memory of Native ancestors is still alive and honored in surviving Jamaican maroon communities. Similarly, there is evidence for the movement of Native peoples from the Greater Antilles to the Lesser Antilles and to Arawakan-language speaking areas of South America during the violence, epidemics and rampant enslavement of the early colonial period.

Intermarriage, politely put, refers to the genetic and cultural exchanges between Native, African and European peoples. The outcome of intermarriage – mixedness (mestizaje) is traditionally thought of as the end of the road for cultural Indianness. The Taíno movement, not unlike aspects of the Chicano movement, says just the opposite, that mixed race, descendants of indios have a right to reclaim and reconstruct this heritage, and that it is integral to their sense of spiritual and cultural wholeness.

Finding the Native peoples in the archives of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico requires serious academic inquiry. In the Dominican Republic regions like San Juan de la Maguana contain multi-layered Native histories that have spiritual dimensions like the invocation of the venerated chieftainess Anacaona (hanged by Spanish colonizers in the early colonial period). While some Dominican or Puerto Rican towns or areas are associated with the resettlement of particular Native communities (like the followers of Enriquillo or Natives from Mona Island), most of the family stories of Taíno movement participants situate their indio identity in the countryside. These accounts often describe somewhat isolated family homesteads relying largely on what they farmed or gathered from the surrounding forest for food, housing materials and domestic objects.

It merits restating that the social history of the countryside or back-country was usually only of superficial documentary interest to European travelers. It didn’t emerge as a topic in national Caribbean histories in the 20th century or was usually perceived through particular lenses like Marxism, Afrodiasporic Studies or Women’s Studies, which generally did not consider indigeneity. In the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, it is difficult to find textual documentation of Native communities or family groups. Despite increasing finds of Taíno genealogists which include church and civil records indicating ancestors’ race as india/o, this is still an emerging area of inquiry which requires further mapping of family groups and which correlates with local histories.

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.