Taíno: Valuing and Visibilizing Caribbean Indigeneity

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In “Taíno: Valuing and Visibilizing Caribbean Indigeneity,” José Barreiro writes about the exhibition TAÍNO: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean and the survival of Taíno culture in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Virgin Islands in Smithsonian Voices. [In the photo above, Indigenous community leaders Panchito and Reyna Ramírez “share knowledge and craft for making cutaras (sandals) from royal palm leaves (jagua)” with Barreiro.]

TAÍNO: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean seeks to challenge and inform the new generations of Caribbean peoples, in the northern diaspora as well as in the island countries, about the indigenous legacies of their ancestors – biological, cultural, artistic and archeological, ideological – from the ancient to the contemporary. It seeks to generate material of educational value to the new generations.

Intense discussion on indigenous identity is going on among Caribbean generations, both in popular and academic discourse. By presenting a broad and compelling portrait of Caribbean indigeneity, and related themes, a Native perception of Caribbean society emerges.

In the past four decades, an intense revitalization movement has emerged in the Caribbean. It both follows and leads the surge of interest in all themes Taíno—in the arts, in popular and civic discourse and iconography, in education, in tourism. Most compellingly, the Indio-descendant community is in a process of mutual recognition, as travel and communication has facilitated direct connections, while conscious retribalization is a phenomenon in the new Caribbean generation across the island societies.

TAÍNO: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean strives to provide a deeper analysis of what is being done to explore, explain and challenge the contemporary Taíno and indigeneity movement in the Caribbean world. It frames the concept of indigeneity in the Caribbean within the dynamic discourse of nation/diaspora. It layers history and new ethnographies, literature and music, civic discourse, popular iconography, community ceremonial tradition, archeology into an exploration of Native heritage and identity in the Caribbean.

Taíno emerges in many long forgotten corners. Layered by decades of disdain, then by the dust of centuries, by imposed mentalities and dominating definitions, Taíno sustained, even as the new others constructed a seemingly inexorable pathway to extinction, to that place where apparently the generations mysteriously cease to reproduce, to be viable in the world, legally or spiritually.

Presumed an extinct identity, and a minor heritage, Taíno emerges in the long-forgotten corners. Cleaning the surface of a Vatican fresco painted in 1493, depicting the Resurrection of the Christ, restoration experts find an image of dancing Taíno—a truly metaphoric discovery. Everywhere Taíno is in the clearing of the dust of centuries. Taíno is the search for roots; Taíno is in the quest to belong. Taíno is a declaration of existence in the vein and in the land.

In a remote Cuban mountain, Cacique Panchito speaks out. In Native song and prayer, with traditional healing knowledge, with the old conuco agriculture, as a champion of Cuban sovereignty, he signals his community’s existence. It surprises the Cuban nation yet coalesces all those who knew, in their walking days, in their veins and from active research, the continuous existence of our Taíno ancestors.

In a basement apartment in Bronx, Boricua grandmothers, and poets and singers, heed the call of Taíno. Families come forth. It lives in us, they say. We have the right, they say, to be who we are. In Puerto Rico—Borikén—educators and farmers (jíbaro) and descendants of jíbaro emerge into a consciousness of Taíno. Landscape and language, medicines and foods, arts and crafts, traditional knowledge, spiritual ceremony is appreciated and studied, incorporated. In Dominican Republic—the Quisqueya of cacique and war leader, Enriquillo—groups of thinkers, both academic and grassroots, enliven the indigenous identity and heritage as a real and tangible root, as a proper signal for the country, as a beneficial way of organizing community. Families in the identity, scholars of indigeneity surface and coalesce in Jamaica, in Haiti, Virgin Islands—small but numerous stirrings in the old Taíno country.

Taíno is early. The first to see the overseas strangers, the “clothed people who would come to their lands [to] overcome and kill them, and starve them” as told in the Taíno prophecy of Caicihú, recounted for the friar, Ramon Pane, c. 1494.

“They should make good servants,” the fateful Admiral wrote in his ship’s log, for the Native people he was encountering were kind and giving, and spoke a sweet language. The good feelings offered and deep, human values he witnessed, Columbus conjectured, meant that Taíno—los indios—could be easily conquered and made to do whatever [Spanish conquistadors] wanted.”

And by the prophecy, the Taíno world was torn asunder by the Spanish sword (include the arquebus and crossbow), the Roman-Christian Cross and the imported diseases of European urban poverty. In the early encomiendas, particularly those Indians forced to pan for gold, died in droves, worked to the bone with no food, expected to die and be easily replaced. Young mothers were worked to death while their newborns starved.

Everywhere, Taíno rebelled, fled to the mountains, carried on hit and run warfare, killed and died in pursuit of their freedom, of their right to exist. Some were captured in combat or by stealth and executed (Caonabo; Anacaona; Hatuey), while others achieved nation to nation, chief to chief negotiations and won a self-determined settlement (Enriquillo), which many would recognize as the first treaty in the Americas. Others still, notably in eastern Cuba, founded new pueblos de indios and fought for these lands as granted (or relinquished) by the Spanish Crown. Over three centuries, an Indian core population that intermarried with Spanish and Africans (mostly men) sustained kinship communities on small farms, and despite local migrations, preserved their human memory and social value.

This history of survival, briefly told here, is celebrated in the Smithsonian NMAI-NY exhibition, Taíno: Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean.

Source (see article in Spanish and English): https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/smithsonian-latino-center/2018/08/28/taino-valuing-and-visibilizing-caribbean-indigeneity/

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