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Celebrating Taino Identity Beyond Columbus

The Taino and Garifuna narrative, like so many Native narratives, was assumed extinct with the Spanish conquest and colonization. This is not the case

On Saturday, December 14, the program, Taino Identity Beyond Columbus, took place at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York City. An initiative between NMAI and the Smithsonian Center, the Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project (CILP) “coalesces scientists from multiple fields who are exploring, analyzing data ranging [from] fields of genetics, history, archaeology, language and beyond.” By creating programs and symposiums, imposed narratives of Taino and Garifuna people, who hail from the Greater and Lesser Antilles and regions of North, Central and South America, are challenged and demystified.

The Taino and Garifuna narrative, like so many Native narratives, was assumed extinct with the Spanish conquest and colonization. “A story mostly overlooked and commonly neglected, many scholars seem to thrive on the notion that European powers were able to destroy an entire nation of people and their ancient culture,” Jorge Baracutei Estevez, Taino, founder of Union Higuayagua and research assistant at NMAI, explains, “This program and its content are truly the first of its kind. Museum patrons braved a snowstorm to attend this wonderful event. NMAI, keeping with its mission statement, allowed us a voice. We were able to tell our story from our own perspective.”

The event consisted of eight panelists, who discussed the state of the Taino and Garifuna movements with focuses on community, spirituality, language, and even botany. Activities and progress of the CILP were also a topic of discussion.

It was evident throughout the event that the Taino and Garifuna peoples and culture is alive. Not only in the “Wild east” of Cuba or remote areas of Guatemala but fully embedded in mainstream culture. “By stating ‘I am Cuban,’ you are speaking the Taino language,” said Jose Barreiro, Taino, assistant director for Culture and History Research at NMAI. As a panelist he focused on “Caridad de los Indios” an in-situ Taino-descendant community who reside in the mountains of Eastern Cuba, “Thirty percent of Cuban place names are Taino. It is present in daily life, lo cotidiano,” Barreiro said.

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While contemporary Taino and Garifuna movements are thriving, their history is being re-written by these panelists and other activists. “When confronted [with] evidence to the contrary we are met with a self-consistent system of arguments that uses circular logic to blot out the critical facts.” Estevez said.

Ranald Woodaman, assistant director and director of exhibitions at the Smithsonian Center, highlighted the importance of engaging the general public to reconsider the global impact of the historic encounter between Native people and Europeans. Modes of engagement include free multi-year programs in New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, free exhibit opening in New York in 2016-2017, access to the exhibit webpage, free educational material, and publications.

As much as it was an educational program, providing “a glimpse of study and representation of Caribbean indigeneity,” it was a celebration with song and dance. The fortitude and resilience of a people was felt as Irka Mateo, a Taino singer, musician and folklorist, and James Lovell, a Garifuna artist and researcher began playing traditional songs and the community began to dance.

“I thought the event was a giant leap forward in showing that a living, breathing Taino cultural existence was never exterminated, but actually thrived in the Caribbean homelands and diaspora.” Luis Ramos, of Shorakapok Earth Keepers, a New York City Parks Community Group, said.

“I, for one, and I think most in attendance, were especially proud to be Taino,” Estevez said.