'In Cuba the cry was for water'

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JIGUANI, Cuba -- In Cuba, from the flat savannas of Camaguey and east to
the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, the cry was for water. The worst
drought in more than 50 years had killed hundreds of thousands of cattle
and threatened to obliterate the country's "bread basket."

"Here the dryness has had us actually thirsty," said 90-year-old Anselmo
Fajardo Quesada, elder of the neighborhood of Palmarito, in a hilly area of
the town of Jiguani. "Thirst among the people and thirst among our little
plants and animals as well. The earth cracked so that you could put your
whole arm in it. It brought tears to your eyes."

We had stopped to visit with don Anselmo, who, as the elder of an extended
group of Indian families in the region, had asked to greet us on behalf of
his community. I was in Jiguani, in eastern Cuba, on a visit with Cuban
historian Alejandro Hartmann. Hartmann's ongoing genealogical and cultural
retention study among families of Indian descent in the region has been
turning up the most interesting places and folks.

Jiguani, founded by the donation of land from an Indian pueblo in 1701, is
only the latest place where Indian elders are happy to tell who they are.
Don Anselmo, who asked his grandchildren to stand by him, still joins the
local families in planting his own buniato (sweet potato) and corn crops.
"Our people are Indian," he said without hesitation. "We are Cuban, and we
are Indian."

I had already traveled with Hartmann through old Camaguey. There, in a town
called Najasa, we met with the heads of a family of some 50 extended
relatives who still work on area farms. We enjoyed a lively discussion with
elder Gumersindo Rojas about the old customs and beliefs still in use by
Cuban "guajiro people," particularly in regard to the ancient moon-cycle
cropping and forestry systems. Later, I was happy to join Hartmann and
Cuban Cacique Panchito Ramirez as we traveled to greet and document
families of Cuban Indian descent over the four Eastern provinces of
Camag?ey, Las Tunas, Granma and Santiago de Cuba.

Hartmann's research of more than 30 years, and especially the past two
years of comprehensive study, reveals a more widespread Cuban Indian
identity in various mountain populations than previously reported.
Particularly in the island's seven Eastern states, Hartmann is revisiting
many places identified in the mountains and plains by the expeditions of
Dr. Rivero de la Calle in the 1960s and forward.

As Hartmann ardently detailed, the physical characteristics of Taino
descendants -- short stature, strong physical stamina, copper skin color,
long black hair, etc. -- are present in dozens of these places. As well,
many cultural elements such as the manufacture of traditional cassava
torts; the cropping of the old-style "conuco," or companion planting,
usually guided by the phases of the moon; and the presence of types of
altars and cyclical ceremonies with natural-world elements are associated
with these mountain guajiro folks in the survey.

A mere two decades ago, this was a population dismissed out of hand by
census-takers and even historians as presumably "extinct" by the mid-16th
century. "But the evidence to the contrary has mounted over recent years,"
said Hartmann, historian and museum director, who contends "that the
extensive Indian population of the region regrouped, in legal and outlaw
(cimarron) areas, and threw long roots in a large number of families that
survive to today."

Since the 1940s, and the work of explorer Dr. Antonio Nunez Jimenez and
anthropologist Dr. Manuel Rivero de la Calle, the existence of clusters of
Native families has been accepted in scientific circles. These included the
much-studied clans of the Rojas and Ramirez families of Caridad de los
Indios, Guantanamo. These related and often inter-married families extend
throughout several municipalities and are estimated at around 1,000 people.

In recent years -- with the assistance of the Cuban Foundation for Nature
and Humanity and the partnership of the Onaway Trust (England) and the
Indigenous Legacies project by Plenty Canada -- a series of seven
conferences held in Baracoa, Cuba from 1997 to 2003 brought together Cuban
Indians from the region with Native and academic representatives from
Canada and Central and North America.

More recently, Hartmann has gathered a team of well-trained historians and
other academics who are canvassing nearly 20 municipalities for oral
tradition and documentary records tracing the continuous Indian-descended
population, their land tenure and dispossession histories along with local
traditions such as the jigues, or "little people," and other natural world
spiritual beliefs.

In tracking and interviewing the population of Indian descent, Hartmann
found that the Eastern region's Indian genealogical and documentary base is
sustained and widespread, as early work by Rivero de la Calle for Cuba's
Academy of Sciences had indicated. The myth of extinction is quickly giving
way to the light of scientific research and documentation.

Jiguani, a sleepy town with a beautiful old plaza and dense with Cuban
history, is just one important enclave that yielded a surprise. Hartmann
introduced me to some 10 members of an association of��Indian families of
Jiguani who assembled in the municipal library for our lively and
enthusiastic three-hour discussion.

Two elders and the town historian, don Hugo Armas, also of Indian
extraction, explained that their association of some 40 Indian families in
the Jiguani area was formalized 16 years ago, in 1989. As to their
objective, a second elder said: "It is true for many years we have
confronted many problems, which has taken our attention. But we are born of
the Indian blood. Now we organize to rescue our roots and value our
knowledge."

The group described the Indian history of Jiguani, the only town in Cuba
whose official shield depicts an Indian warrior in rebellious posture. A
documented enclave of Indian population through the colonial period,
Jiguani was always a highly rebellious place, much given to the wars of
independence against Spain and expressly pro-revolution at this time in
history.

Similar encounters in the Jiguani area, as well as in Camaguey, Najasa and,
later, in Santiago, tended to confirm the growing strength of the research.
A surprising range of indigenous cultural expression is turning up as
people open up to the topic.