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Consciousness of Taino: Explorations of Identity

Jose Barreiro on what it means to be Taino

In the Greater Antilles, Taino is in the mind. Taino is nation and movement, ancestry and identity. Taino, the term, is mentioned in the early chronicles of conquest, recorded to mean "the good people" or the "noble people."

The English referred to the indigenous Caribbeans as the Arawak, and "arahuaco" has some usage in Spanish. But in the quest for a descriptive term that could encompass the understanding of indigeneity in the Caribbean, "Taino" superceded all others. Among indigenous descendants in the large islands of Hispaniola (home of the Dominican Republic), Cuba and Puerto Rico, in the past 40 years, the term Taino has been a unifying force.

A derivative, ni-Taino, describes indeed the circle of noble families that led the chieftainships or caciquedoms. Literature and archeology adopted “Taino” to describe the largest and most widespread unilingual indigenous population of the Caribbean and of the Greater Antilles.

A gathering of scholars and culture-bearers on the subject of Taino and its meanings—in the ancestral culture and in today’s Caribbean societies and their populations in the United States—convened August 23 at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC.

The gathering explored the indigenous legacy of the Caribbean and thus began to assess the indigenous quality (and, conceptually, indigeneity) in the contemporary life of the Caribbean. It asked participants to focus their thoughts on what might be the elements of a research project and museum presentation that can give expression to the reality of this theme and its ramifications in the life and culture of the Greater Antilles.

The conference explored and contextualized the growing attention to indigeneity currently emerging from the three Ibero-connected islands of the Greater Antilles. "Consciousness of Taino" (Conciencia de Taíno) as title and concept offers a layering of inquiry and presentation in the antiquities gathered by archeology; the textuality that begins with Columbus; the geography in the language, the oral tradition of remote communities where the "Indio" identity has persisted through documented history; the evidence of a Taino DNA trail in the current population; the active Taino resurgence movements emerging throughout the region and its diasporas. This movement has asserted itself in important areas, including the management of cultural patrimony and international indigenous representation. The consciousness of Taino in the spiritual culture, popular culture and the arts of the islands has a long history and has come under more intense popular scrutiny in recent years; so has the consciousness of Taino language in the Caribbean Spanish. There is also a questionable but quickly growing consciousness of Taino in tourism development. A growing construction of "Taino" narratives in tourism development is resulting in varieties of representation in "Taino villages," pageantry and performance, and the phenomenon of archeological and pictographic sites presented as museum. These all evidence "Taino" as a growing tourism attraction. This makes for interesting contestation of space and narrative.

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In the case of the Caribbean, and certainly in the Greater Antilles, the term “extinction” has been applied liberally to assert that the indigenous peoples from the islands (el sentido de gente autoctona natural), the peoples who greeted Columbus and underwent subsequent wars, enslavement, cimarronaje, mestizaje, that this people, or this culture, within our contemporary Caribbean peoples, ceased to exist, was extirpated from the face of the earth.

But as scholars who study the subject will discuss, there is actually considerable legacy from the indigenous ancestors in the Caribbean: in the material base and reading of tangible cultural patrimony found in stone, conch, wood; in genetic continuities found in the people; in strains of oral tradition and assertion of identity by remote mountain communities; in the surviving of Taino language embedded in Caribbean Spanish. The continuity persists in certain blended but very natural spiritual practices relative to fertility, natural healing and good fortune, some, as from Cuba, prescribing connectivity to natural forces, such as wind, sun, moon, water, the earth, the stars, in dreams and ceremony.

In Cuba, the well-documented, "in-situ" (in place) indo-descendant community in the Guantanamo mountains is the subject of consistent historical and ethnographic comment and research. This population sustains many agricultural and herbal practices, traditional World-alive (so-called animistic) spiritual lifeways and orations, music and social organizational frameworks of substantial autochthonous quality. Similar practices, perhaps less concentrated, are found throughout other "monte or campo" populations in Cuba, Quisqueya and Boriquen. Significantly, the foundational similarities among the three countries—including many agricultural and herbal practices, language markers and important currents of both popular imagination and social polemic—are found in their common Taino origins, practices linkable to the Taino cosmological complex described by early chronicles.

Additionally, the explosion of interest in the Taino past is generating the regrouping of Taino-identified families in associations under the aegis of various local identifications of Taino. This topic is particularly intense because it weaves personal identity with national culture and history. Discussion of people’s individual and group sense can be sensitive space, and when politicized, it invokes a challenging panorama. Some people claim a Taino identity and work to reconstruct community and nation. Others deny such a thing is possible, that it can not legitimately exist; they point to the long history of assertions of extinction. Yet still, a lot of people, regardless of or beyond personal or group sense of identity, celebrate the legacy, feeling linked, intrigued and motivated by the topic.

Thus “Taino,” in the people and in the consciousness of Caribbean life, calls for a reconsideration of the term “extinction” when describing the fate of the Caribbean indigenous people and cultures that greeted Columbus. As the intense reawakening to indigenous roots increasingly generates interesting and culturally revealing polemics, how is it influencing the popular cultural arts and the public discourse on culture, history and environment? As classic Caribbeanist scholar, Dr. José Juan Arrom, once put it: "The Taíno is in us and around us."

Jose Barreiro directs the Office for Latin America, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. He is a former Senior Editor at Indian Country Today.