Feature Story

Reclaiming Identity

Are the TaÍno, the first Native people to make contact with Christopher Columbus in 1492, really extinct?

Native healer spinning cotton

The arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 on Caribbean shores marked a pivotal moment in world history. For Native peoples, it was a moment that sharply divided history into two eras: pre- and post-contact. The contact, of course, was between the Europeans and Natives, and increasingly, enslaved Africans. The encounter, which unfolded over decades, wasn’t peaceful. Native communities resisted Spanish colonization from the very beginning.

Taino speaks with Columbus
Columbus interacting with Native woman on hammock. Theodor Galle, circa 1630

History texts have long told the story of the extermination of the indigenous people of the Caribbean that occurred within a few short generations of their encounter with Spanish conquistadors. They died from smallpox, measles, and other European diseases, but also because their agrarian way of life was disrupted, causing widespread starvation. Still others committed suicide to avoid becoming slaves, or were killed fighting the Spanish, or fled to remote mountain areas to avoid colonization. While estimates vary, as many as three million people—approximately 90% of the Native population—may have died by the early 1500s.

However, it is becoming increasingly evident that ideas about Native heritage, indigenous cultural practices, and indeed Native communities, are alive into the present. The Consortia-supported Caribbean Indigenous Legacy Project is exploring the culture, history, and legacy of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean islands, with particular focus on the Taíno, Kalinago, and Garifuna peoples. The project is a collaboration among the Smithsonian Latino Center, National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of Natural History, and an international, interdisciplinary network of scholars.

Ranald Woodaman, Exhibitions and Public Programs Director at the Smithsonian Latino Center, is the project’s Principal Investigator. “The Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project is an effort to revisit one of the most important chapters in human history, and certainly in the history of the Americas, which is the first encounter between Native peoples, Europeans, and Africans,” says Woodaman.

“Native peoples have a long history in the Caribbean that continues into the present,” says Woodaman. “They were not entirely wiped out within the first 100 years of Spanish colonization, and as cultural ancestors, Native peoples have influenced the art, history, culture, and identity of the entire region.”

One of the underlying precepts of this research is to consider the Native story in the full context of history, taking the subject of the indigenous beyond the limited scope of race to the broader aspects of cultural and biological inheritance.

What is meant by extinction?

“The Taíno extinction notion is hard to pin down,’ says Dr. José Barreiro, Assistant Director of Research at the National Museum of the American Indian. “It depends in part on what is meant by extinction. So, what went extinct? Was it the political structure that defined the people, the cacicazgos or chiefdoms of the Greater Antilles? Certainly those were disrupted, and this disruption of the tribal structure was assumed to have meant the extinction of the people.”

Ramirez family on their farmland (conuco), Caridad de los Indios, Cuba
Ramirez family on their farmland (conuco), Caridad de los Indios, Cuba.

Barreiro has worked with Cuban indigenous descendants since the 1990s. “The last settled land claim,” says Barreiro, “the last loss of an actual Indian jurisdiction occurs around 1850 in Cuba, 300 years after the supposed extinction there. That population had to migrate farther and farther up the mountains, but it survives today in a number of small communities, in particular in the eastern Guantánamo province in a place called Caridad de los Indios. This community has a continuous cacique line—a chief’s line of authority—as well as song cycles, ceremonies that recognize the natural world, and many other elements one finds in a lot of the American Indian populations.”

According to Woodaman, “There are elements in popular rural culture that derive from Native traditions, even among people who don’t necessarily consider themselves to be Native. Across the Caribbean, whether in Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, or Haiti, you can find indigenous influences: herbal traditions, local spiritual or religious traditions, memories associated with the landscape, traditional agricultural crops and farming methods, home-building techniques, crafts like basketry and fishing nets, and Taíno words. There’s a lot of indigenous vocabulary in the local Spanish, French, Creole, and other languages of the region.” Barbeque, hurricane, tobacco, hammock, and canoe are just some of the words derived from the Taíno language.

Building a Taíno-style home known as a bohio
Taíno-style homes known as bohio under construction by Cuban natives in Baracoa, Cuba. Photo by Jose Barreiro

“I’m fond of telling Cubans, ‘When you describe yourself as Cuban, you’re speaking a Taíno word,’” says Barreiro, with a laugh. “But the culture that strongly persists is the home culture, the culture of the families and the culture of living on the land. The survival of those practices has a lot to do with the early mestizaje—racial and cultural mixing—due to intermarriage of Spanish and later African men with Taíno or indigenous women of the Caribbean.”

The concept of Native extinction has come to mean complete biological and cultural elimination. However, modern molecular science is shedding new light on the controversy. In 2002, Dr. Juan C. Martínez Cruzado, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico, disclosed the findings of an island-wide genetic study. By testing the DNA of 800 randomly selected subjects, he found that 61% had mitochondrial DNA of the original indigenous population. The results have supported a resurgence of people reclaiming Taíno heritage. A similar study in Cuba by Spanish geneticists has also provided unexpectedly high rate (33%) of maternal Native American DNA.

Jorge Estevez, a project team member located at the National Museum of the American Indian–New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, is a Taíno from the town of Jaibon in the Dominican Republic. His mother and grandmother often spoke of having Indian grandparents, and these stories inspired Estevez to learn more. For years, he has been researching, interviewing, and collecting cultural materials from his native country. The stories he has recorded are remarkably similar to those in Cuba and Puerto Rico, which he feels demonstrates that the Taíno culture and customs survived in the islands’ isolated regions.

“Survival or extinction of the Taíno depends on an individual’s point of view,” says Estevez. “For some, the continuity of Taíno customs and assertions of Indian identity equals survival, equals truth. For others, purity of blood is all that matters, thus if the Taíno are mixed blood today, then they simply do not exist. Curiously, most Caribbean people are of mixed heritage. Perhaps we will never agree. However, ignoring the plethora of indigeneity present in the Caribbean is pure irresponsibility.”

The Caribbean Indigenous Legacy Project has been conducting research, scholarly workshops, and public programs since 2010, when they received their first Consortia award. Their second award, a Level Two grant, helped develop workshops held in the summers of 2011 and 2012. “We brought a multidisciplinary group of scholars, mostly from the Caribbean, to NMAI to work with us and to review the archaeological and anthropological collections from the Caribbean. Both workshops finished with a symposium,” says Barreiro.

“The Level Two award also included funds for José, myself, and Jorge to travel to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico,” says Woodaman. “We not only visited collections, but we also worked with scholars, museum workers, and cultural workers to present a series of public talks around the topic of indigenous legacies. In addition, it was extremely valuable for us to hear how local people approach this topic of indigenous heritage and heritage revival.”

Planning an exhibition

The project team is also planning an exhibition, which they hope to present in the next two to three years at the National Museum of the American Indian–New York.

“About a third of the prospective audience in Metro New York City is of Caribbean origin or descent,” says Woodaman. “One of the largest Afro-indigenous communities in the Caribbean, the Garifuna, has a major population center in New York City, as well. So, by holding the exhibition there, we will be able to engage with the heritage and history of many New Yorkers.”

The 4,000-square-foot exhibition will feature some of the Smithsonian’s extensive archeological collections from the region. These objects make it possible to tell the story of the 5,000-plus years of Native history in the Caribbean, and also speak to the present.

Taíno women preparing casabe bread from the poisonous yuca
Taíno women preparing casabe bread from the poisonous yuca. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, circa 1514

The exhibition’s opening section on pre-Hispanic history will explore the diversity and complexity that European colonists encountered in the Caribbean—an interconnected region with rich natural resources and well-established trade networks.

The next section will focus on the first 100 years of contact: the diplomatic and military resistance by the Native people; the effects of Spanish colonization on them; and their adaption and survival within the colonial order. This portion of the exhibition will provide context for the decline of the indigenous population and the introduction of slaves from other parts of the Caribbean and ultimately from Africa.

“Native peoples conveyed essential knowledge about geography, ecosystems, and local resources that was readily adopted and contributed to the survival of the European and African newcomers,” says Woodaman. “That’s a significant point to make in this exhibition.”

The exhibition will also feature case studies that provide evidence of the survival of indigenous communities, families, and places—such as in eastern Cuba—or address indigenous legacy through Native cultural elements found throughout the Caribbean.

“And of course, we’ll also talk about the Indian as a symbol for nationalism or in literary movements,” says Woodaman, “and examine how Native culture is deployed in art, especially by contemporary painters from the region.”

The exhibition will culminate with an exploration of how the indigenous heritage is being reclaimed, demonstrating that the Native people of the Caribbean exist today and that they have made a very important imprint on the cultures of the region and related communities in the United States.

“Our objectives are to take advantage of the Smithsonian’s amazing archeological collections and make them relevant to heritage in the present,” says Woodaman, “and to highlight how in the past 50 years, Native heritage has been revived and Native identity has been deployed in really new ways.”