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Hurricane: From the Goddess Guabancex to Fierce Irene

A look at the history of hurricanes and Native Americans
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At this moment, Hurricane Irene makes her way up the eastern seaboard of the United States, causing havoc on lands that were once home to the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.

But what is a hurricane? It is defined as a severe tropical cyclone having winds greater than 64 knots, or 74 miles per hour. To the Taino people, a hurricane, or huraca'n, was a fierce storm visited upon humankind by the god of chaos, Juracán. Although the name Juracán gives us the English word "hurricane," sources agree that Juracán himself didn't do the dirty work—that was left to a violent and angry goddess with two lesser male gods as henchmen.

The Taino knew huraca'n well; living in the modern-day Bahamas, Greater Antilles and northern Lesser Antilles, their island territories were frequently in the path of the fierce and fast-moving storms.

The huraca'n goddess was Guabancex, and her assistants Guatabá and Coatrisquie. Guabancex is described at as "Taino Storm Goddess" and "The Lady of the Winds," and at as "The Hurricane Bringer." Guatabá heralded the storm's arrival with lightning and thunder; Coatrisquie brought flood. A common depiction of huraca'n shows the angry face of Guabancex in the center with arms crazily flailing in an S-shape, remarkably predictive of the modern meteorological symbol for a hurricane or tropical storm.

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Our modern sense of the hurricane is informed by satellite photography that shows the swirling cloud formations; the Taino seem to have figured it out from observations made at ground level.

Hurricanes spawned in the Caribbean must have caused untold havoc for Natives in pre-Columbian times. If the CNN Weather Center crew had been on the scene, we wouldn't see footage of wind whipping through downtown Miami or Tampa, but we'd get reports about the original Floridians: the Calusa, Jeagua and Tequesta tribes in the south; the Timucua in central Florida; and the Apalachee, Miccosukee, Creek and Choctaw in the panhandle. Up the east coast through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, tribes such as the Yamasee, the Guale, the Cusabo, the Catawba and Carolina Siouan, and the Croatan would no doubt have been hard hit. Westward from Florida, along the Gulf Coast, the Muskogee Creek, the Choctaw, the Biloxi and the Chitimacha would have been in harm's way.

Some of these names survive, though many were relocated, while others are gone forever (and we thank the fascinating Maps of United States Indians by State for attempting to preserve them).

In Louisiana, tribes such as the Houma and Pointe-au-Chien were hammered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and Gustav and Ike in 2008. Statements at and the Pointe-au-Chien official site tell just part of the story of the effects of these storms. And for the Houma, as for so many others on the Bayou, recovery from the hurricanes of 2005 and 2008 was difficult. Houses were lost, fishing boats destroyed, livelihoods threatened, and the tribes were vulnerable, to say the least. Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spell, MSNBC posted an article about the uncertain future of the Houma, and the headline says it all:

"Long-suffering tribe fears oil may strike final blow."