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Native Currents Rolling back extinction: Comment on ‘Curanderos at El Cachote’

I was happy to read Jose Barreiro’s article, “Curanderos at ‘El Cachote’: Eloy Rodriguez and the cloud forest” in the Aug. 9, 2006, edition of Indian Country Today [Vol. 26, Iss. 9]. The article focused on indigenous medicinal plant practices in the Dominican Republic and the curanderos (healers) who practice this ancient knowledge.

The article had a strong impact in the Dominican Republic, where Taino-descendants welcomed it as a contribution to the founding of a national Taino cultural organization. Another blow has been delivered to the myth of Taino extinction in the Caribbean. Certainly, it will not be the last.

The Dominican Republic, also known by its Native name of Quisqueya, has the dubious distinction of being the first Caribbean island colonized by the Spanish. It was also on this island that the myth of Taino Indian extinction began. The Taino people of the Caribbean, being the first Native people to be called Indian, were also the first Natives to lose that cultural/racial label by Spanish pens and promptly declared extinct. But for those who understand Native customs and traditions, there is an obvious contradiction between academic statements about the Taino, our traditions and customs, and what can be visually witnessed in the mountain villages of the Dominican Republic and other islands of the Caribbean.

Extensive throughout the island, the use of Native plants for medicinal purposes is common knowledge; for example, the leaves of certain trees and plants such as Tua-tua, Guanabana, Copey, Anamu and Mama Juana (a mixture of various plants) are just a few of the more than 50 plants endemic to the islands used for healing. What is not well-known, however, is that most of these plants and leaves can only be planted or gathered during certain lunar cycles or at specific times of the day. Special offerings must be made for each particular plant. This knowledge is possessed only by the curanderos, who learn these practices at an early age. Usually passed down from father to son, or mother to daughter, special rules must be observed by the practitioners.

A curandero usually learns the plant’s secrets from a family member who must pass on the knowledge to another family member before dying. Once a curandero has acquired the secrets of the plants, he will guard his knowledge until it is his turn to reveal their secrets. On the other hand, if a person learns from a nonfamily member then he/she has the task of having to teach three other people in his or her lifetime, thus ensuring that the knowledge is not lost. However, three is the limit.

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According to my mother, Luz Estevez, who is indigenous, the more one shares their knowledge with others, the weaker one’s own medicine becomes. This, according to her, is why many curanderos guard their secrets from outsiders and will only reveal them at the end of their lives. She explains further, “knowing is like a deck of cards: the more you deal it out the less you have.” This also applies to dreams and visions (botijas) – if one has a good dream, you must not share it so that it may grow; but if you have a nightmare or bad dream, it must be shared with as many people as possible, causing it to lose its power.

As “Curanderos at El Cachote” noted, sometimes people mistake curanderos for brujos (witches), but curanderos will tell you there is a great difference. Curanderos take great pride in how they heal and, unlike brujos, rarely accept monetary compensation for any service they may provide. Great pride comes from having a direct connection to the world around you and the ability to communicate with plants and in some cases animals. These curanderos feel that it is destructive for an individual to cause harm to others. As my mother eloquently puts it, “An Indian knows how to kill with one plant and can cure with two,” implying that Indian people know all the possible uses and properties of the plants, but use them wisely.

After reading the “Curanderos” article, I forwarded a copy to some Taino friends in the Dominican Republic who were in the process of organizing the second annual International Day of Indigenous Peoples, celebrating the original peoples of the Western Hemisphere, held on Aug. 9, 2006. They were extremely happy that the article appeared in ICT. Dedicated to researching, investigating and documenting all forms of Taino Indian cultural survival and inspired by the article, which was promptly translated to Spanish, the group’s event gathered 75 participants. That night, they formally founded a national cultural organization. They call themselves Guabancex, which in Taino spiritual beliefs means spirit of water and wind. Guabancex is also the mother of Huracan (Hurricane). Many of the members are scholars and teachers, and many are of Taino extraction.

I hope there will be more articles on this subject in ICT in the future. As a Native Taino from the Dominican Republic, I find it extremely interesting that most of our Native people share similar beliefs across the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps by understanding the way we all interact with the world around us, the way we similarly respect Atabey (mother earth) and the forces of nature, we can bridge the gap between the indigenous people of North and South America.

<i>Jorge Estevez, Taino, is a culture specialist and writer on Caribbean topics. He resides in New York, where he works at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indian.