We’re forever trying to make sense of history, and especially our place in it. The Caribbean is fraught with especially painful questions around historical narrative that reflect a fundamental disconnection between the islands’ peoples today and their historical writers of the past five hundred years.
On July 28 in New York City, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center are opening “Taíno: Native Identity and Heritage in the Caribbean,” which explores the legacy of the Native peoples in the Spanish-speaking Greater Antilles—the epicenter of the early European conquest and colonization in the Americas—and offers a context for understanding the growth of the Taíno Native heritage movement across Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and their diaspora in the United States. The Taíno movement emerged in the late 1970s and today includes diverse groups of Native-descent individuals, often with rural roots and indio-identified family members. For a people whom most history books use as the emblematic case of Indigenous extinction, it’s amazing to see how alive the presence of the Caribbean’s First Peoples is in the hearts and souls of their descendants. While many caribeños* have Native ancestry, most do not identify themselves as Native; instead, many Caribbean Latinos’ local identities understand themselves as being fundamentally mixed-race in a social context that has historically favored lighter skin and proximity to Whiteness. Nonetheless, caribeños are excited by Taíno legacies because these are so deeply ingrained in the spirituality, geography, iconography, folklore, and general lifeways of their islands’ familiar rural cultures.
This topic of the Native roots is of keen interest to visitors of Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican descent at the National Museum of the American Indian. When they go into the museum they often ask to see the artifacts that the Taíno—their cultural if not also genetic ancestors—left behind. While you can get your pre-Columbian archaeological fix in this exhibition, our point is to go beyond 1492 and to explore Native legacies as alive, valuable, and relevant to the present. Taíno peoples and other Caribbean Natives taught important lessons about survival and adaptation to the European and African newcomers to the islands. Native societies were decimated throughout the Americas, but the Native peoples of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico did not all just disappear within a few generations after 1492 as a result of disease, abuse, or demographic replacement. Though fragmentary, archaeological, historical, and genetic evidence is emerging which defies the idea Taíno extinction.
The archival records for much of the Caribbean are lacking and have a colonial context that, agendas aside, makes little room for documenting rural life or the ethnic complexities of its peoples. Nonetheless, work by Cuban historians, archeologists, and other researchers in collaboration with Native Cuban communities, is recovering the island’s Native history during its colonial period and into the present. On the other hand, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic need more accessible research around this topic; there, historical texts mention Native communities into the late 1700s and early 1800s. This absence is countered with many family stories and abundant popular lore, in addition to emerging genealogical documents (all of which require scrutiny), that represent the historical evidence for the survival of small Native communities and family groups across the Greater Antilles.
What does the Native knowledge of the Caribbean offer its people today? How do Native peoples figure in in our visitors’ ancestral stories? How do Native legacies coexist with Blackness? For most Latino visitors of Caribbean-descent—and there are a few of them in the New York City region—these questions get to the core of our constructions of history. “Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean” makes the question of Native presence and knowledge pertinent to the present, and will stimulate new ways of thinking about ancestry, identity, and the legacy of Columbus and European colonization.
*Words like caribeños or Latinos are gendered male in the Spanish language, but also function grammatically as an all-gender plural. For ease of reading, gender-inclusive endings like a/o, x, or @ have not been used in this article.