Puerto Rico, Dominica and Cuba embrace their Taino Indian heritage
Puerto Rico, Dominica and Cuba embrace their Taino Indian heritage
At least 61% of the people of Puerto Rico carry Native American DNA. In the Dominican Republic traditional Taino festivals have become popular events for entire communities. In all the Greater Antilles Islands, archaeology and architectural preservation have proven to be effective tools for promoting heritage tourism and cultural pride. During this process, anthropologists have discovered that many cultural traditions long thought to be Spanish or African in origin, were actually Native American.
Over 500 years ago Spanish conquistadors and colonists suddenly appeared in the Caribbean Basin. According the demographer, Stanley Engerman, at the time of European Contact, the indigenous population of the region was somewhere between 750,000 and 1,000,000. Within a matter of decades, Spanish weapons, enslavement and diseases had reduced this number by about 95%.
Most of these peoples are currently believed to have been of the Arawak ethnic family, originally from South America. Of these Arawaks, the Taino People were the predominant inhabitants of what are now Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Some of the Arawak-speaking tribes of Florida could also have been related to the Taino.
Almost immediately after establishing settlements in the New World, the Spaniards began to treat the Taino brutally. The slightest infraction of Spanish rule, or refusal to accept Roman Catholicism, resulted in mass tortures and executions.
Tainos were forced to work in gold mines or sugar cane plantations until they died of exhaustion. They were initially replaced by Native American slaves from the Southeast, but eventually, most slaves were either Africans or persons of mixed African-Native American heritage.
The Native peoples were rapidly heading toward total extinction when Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar, in 1542 wrote a treatise entitled, “Brief account of the destruction of the Indians.” This report, along with many personal audiences with King Carlos V, influenced the Royal Court to issue the New Laws of Indies, which forbade enslavement of Native Americans, and theoretically limited labor demands placed on them by Spanish officials.
Despite being banned by the king, the enslavement of war captives and the forced labor requirements for public works by other Native Americans continued until the early 1800s. By then there were very few Native Americans remaining in the Caribbean Islands. The ban on slavery did not extend to Africans, however. Slavery did not end in Puerto Rico until 1873 and in Cuba until 1886.
Taino cultural traditions continue today.
Throughout much of the 20th century, anthropological orthodoxy assumed that the Taino People were extinct. This belief had no basis in fact, and in recent decades, scientists have found extensive evidence of both Taino DNA and traditions. In 1993 Dominican scholar, Antonio de Moya wrote, “the extinction of the Taino is the big lie of our history . . . Tainos continue to live in Dominica today.”
Much that is unique about the cultural traditions of Puerto Rico, Dominica and Cuba can be traced to their Taino heritage.
Anthropologist Pedro J. Ferbel-Azacarate documented that in rural villagers of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico retain Taino architecture, words, foods, farming practices, medicine, fishing techniques and oral history. There is very little Native American influence in Haiti.
Dr. Juan Carlos Martinez, a biology professor at the University of Puerto Rico conducted genetic studies that found at least 61% of Puerto Rico’s citizens carried Native American maternal DNA (mtDNA.) Further studies by him suggest that Puerto Ricans could be more Native American in heritage than either Caucasian or African.
The discoveries by the scientific community have been paralleled and sometimes, encouraged by a sudden self-awareness among Taino descendants. There are very few “full blood” Tainos, but many people, who continue to practice some Taino traditions.
In the late 20th century, Taino tribal organizations and cultural preservation groups sprang up in several regions of the basin, including Florida.
The lack of traditional Taino tribal organizations has created some credibility problems among those claiming Taino descent.
How does one define a Taino, when for 500 years, any Taino, who spoke Spanish and lived like a Spaniard, was listed as a Spanish Creole by Spanish census-takers?
Taino heritage sites in Puerto Rico
As a commonwealth associated with the United States, Puerto Rico has preserved Native American heritage sites under the auspices of both the National Park Service and Commonwealth’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. The National Park Service maintains a registry of Native American archaeological sites that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Commonwealth’s government protects caves with petroglyphs and former village sites. Private
organizations composed of Taino descendants maintain educational websites and promote awareness of Taino cultural traditions in Puerto Rico.
The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture restored and maintains the Caguana Indian Ceremonial Parkin Utuado, PR. This cluster of 30 ball courts, surrounded by stone stelae, is considered the most important Taino ceremonial site in the Caribbean. In the vicinity of Arecibo are caves containing numerous petroglyphs that are protected by the Commonwealth.
Taino heritage sites in the Dominican Republic
Dominica is the only island nation in the Caribbean where Native Americans have continuously maintained tribal villages.
Remnant populations were given tribal reserves approximately two centuries ago. Taino customs remain strong in rural areas of Dominica. Non-Native Americans in recent years have participated in Taino festivals in acceptance of the Taino Culture as a national heritage. Several Dominican national parks contain former Taino village or ceremonial sites. East National Park contains a cenote (natural well) where many Taino artifacts have been found by underwater archaeologists.
There are three well-known Taino archaeological sites in the Dominican Republic. El Atadijizo was a large village that has a cobblestoned plaza. El Cuevo Jose Maria is a cave containing at least 1200 Native American paintings. El Manantial de Aleta is a cenote that appears to contain many Native American offerings. It is still being investigated.
Taino heritage sites in Cuba
Many of the names of Cuba’s cities and towns, including Havana, are derived from Taino words. Cuba does not retain the extensive Native American genetic inheritance of Puerto Rico, but contains many outstanding archaeological sites.
Cuba’s Native American heritage is very much a part of being “Cuban.” Since this enlightenment, the government of Cuba has restored several Taino villages completely as “living history” museums and tourist attractions. These projects include sites on the island of Guama, in the town of Guardalavaca and near the city of Santiago de Cuba.
Cuba’s official Taino Museum is located in Baracoa. There are at least 50 Native American ruins and archaeological sites in the vicinity of Baracoa.
The best known Taino archaeological site is Los Pubillones. It was a wooden platform village built on timber piles in a lagoon. It may not be pure Taino, but Warao, another Arawak-speaking tribe from the Orinoco River, who still live on timber pile structures. The Timucua Indians of Florida spoke a Warao dialect. The site is being jointly excavated by Cuban and Canadian archaeologists.
The Oneway Trust, a foundation based in the United Kingdom, has been active in identifying the surviving Taino Indians in Cuba and encouraging the Cuban government to accord them a special status. The remaining Taino appear to be concentrated in rural mountainous areas and on islands. Currently, they do not have any official tribal organization.
Taino heritage sites in the Virgin Islands
The American Virgin Islands composes a territory of the United States. Its population retains few or no Taino cultural traditions. The Carib Indians had gained control of most of the islands a few decades before the arrival of Columbus.
However, preservation of Native American archaeological sites is carried out aggressively by the National Park Service and the territorial government.
The 7000 acre Virgin Islands National Park on St. Johns Island contains numerous archaic, Taino and Carib archaeological sites. Hikers may take the Reef Bay Trail to view petroglyphs cut into the walls of a cliff. The Salt River National
Historical Park and Ecological Reserve also contains several Native American archaeological sites.
The rebirth of Taino culture after 500 years of suppression is still in its infancy. In each location where it has appeared, the renaissance has shown a different character. In Puerto Rico, having Taino heritage puts one in the majority of Puertoriqueños. In the Dominican Republic, it is the communitywide celebration of an indigenous minority. In Cuba, it is currently focused on heritage tourism, while in Florida and other areas of the United States, people of Taino heritage are working to correct the errors of past history books.