Taíno Survival

Taíno Survival: Back into History

This project of spiritual reconstruction involves studying historical texts and comparative ethnographic studies of historic and contemporary Native peoples related to the Taíno peoples of the Caribbean. It also involves revelations through dreams and encounters with nature – phenomena called alternative ways of knowing that are difficult for most scholars to analyze. How could an exhibition effectively convey the spiritual dimensions of ethnicity and history, and the spiritual weight of ancestors on the present?

Lastly, initial plans for the exhibit entailed a geographic scope that brought the Spanishspeaking Greater Antilles into conversation with other areas of the Caribbean with important and different indigenous legacies such as Jamaica, Haiti, the Lesser Antilles and areas of the continent like the Garifuna-populated coast of Central America. The size of our gallery, and our desire as exhibition people to tell a comprehensible story, necessitated a tightened geographic and cultural scope.

What are the exhibition’s greatest contributions? It is groundbreaking in its treatment of the contemporary Taíno movement for the following reasons. First, its point of departure is Native survival on the Greater Antilles, which we substantiate with the enduring (though not unchanged) presence of Native genes, culture, knowledge and identity among the descendants of the Taíno peoples of the region. Second, it respects and dialogues with the concepts of indigeneity, heritage and identity that are articulated by the participants in the Taíno movement. It also points at the gaps and privileges that exist in the historical archive of the Spanish Caribbean; while most Caribbean peoples lived in a rural context before 1950, the social history of the countryside, often lacking preserved archives and material culture, becomes an area of (intermittent) study only in the 20th century. The history of the region until then is largely an account of early conquest and settlement, pirate attacks, the movement of Spanish fleets, fortress construction and the activities of the Church.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this exhibition offers a more historically accurate understanding of mestizaje that makes the relationship between and legacy of African and indigenous peoples more explicit, from the maroon communities of the early colonial period to the contemporary healers of the region’s different spiritual traditions.

I feel profoundly fortunate to have been part of a project that is grounded in the intersection of race, history and identity in the Americas. It is embedded in questions of ancestry, multiple identities and ethnic politics that, while representing a specific content – the Spanish Caribbean and its U.S. diaspora – relate to universal quandaries around heritage and framing history. Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean will energize visitors’ conversations around ancestry and history, and it will create new paradigms for understanding Native heritage in the construction of Caribbean identities, and the role of Native people and their knowledge in the survival, history, spirituality and culture of the region’s diverse peoples.

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.