An upcoming Smithsonian exhibition on Taíno legacy


In “Bringing Taíno Peoples Back Into History,” Ranald Woodaman writes about an upcoming Smithsonian exhibition that explores the legacy of Native peoples in the Greater Antilles and their contemporary heritage movement. He writes, “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. [. . .] “Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean” 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.” Here are excerpts from the Smithsonian magazine:

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

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.”

[. . .] In the upcoming exhibition, we’ve been careful to highlight the diversity of today’s Taíno movement, and to use Taíno (or simply Native) peoples in plural for discussing the pre-colonial past.

[. . .] These artifacts 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. [. . .]

The Taino Movement

I didn’t image that in 2018 I would be opening an exhibition, 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.

[. . .] This movement, which emerged in the 1970s, involves the descendants of Native peoples of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its U.S. diaspora, uniting under the label Taíno. [. . .]

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.

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 the region contains much 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. [. . .]

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. [. . .]

Finding evidence of 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 conquerors in 1503).

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 primarily on what they farmed or gathered from the n 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.

While in eastern Cuba, researchers have been increasingly successful in uncovering and presenting the evidence of Native survival within Spanish colonial society, 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 migrated to mineral richer lands in Mexico, Peru and elsewhere on the mainland by the 1530s. In the following 200 years the Spanish authorities ignored the hinterlands of the islands and their people, who escaped racialized control and labor exploitation. New forms of protein, like pigs and cows, offered better odds of survival in the remote interior where escaping peoples like Natives, enslaved Africans and European outcasts retreated.

Unfortunately, this is a critical period in history for which we have tantalizingly few details; one exception is physician Dr. Hans Sloan’s 1725 account of British Jamaica that describes the gardens and plant knowledge of the Native farmers and hunters who had been integrated into colonial society. [. . .]

Framing the Exhibition

As the Taíno movement grows in numbers, complexity and public presence, it seemed like a disservice to do another Caribbean archeology exhibition without addressing the contemporary movement. [. . .]

[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.]

For full article, see

[Photo above: A family near Baracoa, Cuba, 1919; by Mark Raymond Harrington.]

4 thoughts on “An upcoming Smithsonian exhibition on Taíno legacy

  1. I used to get Repeating Islands and enjoyed it immensely. Then it suddenly stopped. And no matter how often I click to be added to the mailing list, it has not returned.

    1. Dear Diane:
      Thank you for letting us know. It may have happened when we changed the format. I will trouble-shoot and try to figure it out. If you continue to have problems adding your address in a few days, please feel free to send me an email message at

      1. Can I be added to the list! My dad told stories that he was Taino and his mom came from
        The Canary Islands she was from Spain! I would love to know as much as I can
        Thank you

  2. Nice work. I find it, almost odd that the ancestors of the people declared “extinct” are looking to have their identity validated by the contemporary systems that made them that way. I don’t think it’s fair to make people attempt to prove the legitimacy of their identity through traditional European means such as documentation, after all Afro-Latinx communities survived for so long by not adhering to the norms of the dominant societies.

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