Taíno Survival

Taíno Survival: Back into History

While in eastern Cuba researchers have been increasingly successful in uncovering and presenting the evidence of Native survival within Spanish colonial society into the present, I wonder how much of this history can really be recovered through archival and archeological research. So much of it unfolded outside the realm of documentation. I can only imagine what the Greater Antilles offered socially for the mixed race, Native and African peoples “left behind” on the islands by the bulk of Spanish settlers who moved onto minerally richer lands in Mexico, Peru and elsewhere on the mainland.

For about 200 years the Spanish authorities ignored the hinterlands of the islands (and their people), which had freedom from racialized control and labor/resource exploitations. The added bonus was that new forms of protein, like pigs and cows, offered better odds of survival in the remote interior into which escaping peoples like Natives, enslaved Africans and European outcasts retreated. Unfortunately, this is a critical period in history (perhaps outside of history) for which we have few tantalizing glimpses, such as physician Dr. Hans Sloan’s 1725 account of British Jamaica that describes the gardens and plant knowledge of the Natives farmers and hunters who had been integrated into colonial society. It should be noted that Native peoples from neighboring regions of the Caribbean were also enslaved and resettled in the Greater Antilles – such as the indigenous Jamaicans that formed new communities with African maroons, they too are ancestors and are part of the Taíno story.

Framing the Exhibit

As the Taíno movement grows in numbers, complexity and public presence, it seemed like a disservice to do another Caribbean archeology exhibit without addressing the contemporary movement. Our public is deeply interested in this topic. It gets to the very origin story of the region and the whole of the Americas. Many outside the movement observe it with mixed emotions; the traditional history of the region makes the movement seem impossible, and yet every family seems to have a india/o in the family just a few generations back.

Furthermore, the heritage of the whole Caribbean is contested at several levels; some fear that embracing a contemporary sense of Taíno diminishes the contributions of African ancestors to national culture or personal identity. It is truly a contested heritage, and yet many Latinos of mixed racial/ethnic ancestry (i.e. most of us) are interested in their ancestral cultures as part of an effort to reconcile the violence of colonization. Contextualizing the Taíno movement in a way that respected the experiences and understanding of its diverse participants, and that created a space for all visitors to reconsider the meanings of ancestry and the relevance of indigenous knowledge in the present, became the central focus of this exhibit.

What are the exhibition’s limitations? For one, due to the small size of our gallery, we contextualize the Taíno movement as emerging primarily from bottom up, representing a claim to indigenous identity rooted in a campesino, or rural, Native-mestizo experience and consciousness. Little space is left in the exhibition to explore the use of Native legacy in nation building projects by Caribbean intellectuals and institutions, and the influence of symbolic Indians (e.g. emblems of colonial injustice and anti-colonial resistance, or symbols of the nation) on the world view and political agenda of participants in the Taíno movement.

Another limitation of the exhibition is how we possibly under-emphasize the power of spirituality as a key force spurring the growth of the Taíno movement. For many of its participants, the Taíno movement offers a spiritually rewarding opportunity to reconnect with and honor neglected ancestors, forces from the natural world and supernatural beings/ancestral deities. For Caribbean peoples working with Native spirits (inside, but equally outside the movement), Native ancestors and spirit guides provide advice and warnings, and can be indispensable for healing or solving problems. A growing strand within the Taíno movement is also trying to reconstruct the religion of the Arawakspeaking peoples of the Greater Antilles prior to Christianization.

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.