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Surviving Columbus in Puerto Rico: the myth of extinction

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The story this week of a new major DNA study showing considerable American Indian ancestry in the population of Puerto Rico is intriguing and revealing. Of course, there has been for over two decades considerable agitation by Taino people of Puerto Rican nationality, on the island and in the diaspora. But now Dr. Juan Martinez Cruzado has shown that as high as 61 percent of Puerto Ricans carry American Indian mitochondrial DNA from their maternal lines.

The level of Native genetic ancestry is impressive and once more evidence that the legacy of American indigenous peoples, across the Western Hemisphere, has been all too easily diminished or denied. The claim that all Native Caribbeans succumbed to war, slavery and disease, that they in fact became "extinct" as peoples and cultures by the 1600s, has been asserted as truth by governments and academics for over a hundred years. However, in Puerto Rico, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, actual, surviving Native communities and numerous families and people of Native ancestry have increasingly revealed themselves. The Nacion Taina de las Antillas and various networks and individual personalities have emerged to give representation and leadership to this growing movement in Caribbean life.

This revitalization is happening among the Taino-guajiro of Cuba, the Taino-jibaro of Borinquen (Puerto Rico) and the Taino-Indio families of Dominican Republic. Dr. Martinez Cruzado recounts as part of his study that in Puerto Rico, "there are many people who use medicinal plants and farming methods that come directly from the Tainos. This is especially true of the areas once known as Indieras, or "Indian Zones." Again, this agricultural way of life is equally evident in Cuba and Dominican Republic, and to a lesser degree, also in Haiti and Jamaica. Direct work with the earth remains a major repository of Native culture and belief.

In Cuba in the same area where resides the most recognized Native community in the greater Antilles, the enclave of la Rancheria at Caridad de los Indios, in Guantanamo, a guajiro farmer recently found a living mammal thought lost to extinction, the insect-eating "almiqui." News of the little possum-like creature's return from extinction went around the world. So it is with the resilient people of Native ancestry in the eastern region of the island. Because they have not been visible to academics (who have hardly looked), nor quantifiable by governments (who have sought their invisibility), it does not mean that their existence can be denied. The same is true in other parts of the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico, we find a Taino movement and now these history-busting new DNA studies by Dr. Martinez Cruzado; in Cuba, in 2003, dozens of North Americans witnessed the repatriation of Taino remains from the Smithsonian Institution to the "community of relatives," in the Guantanamo mountains; at Dominica, St. Vincent and Trinidad, Carib communities still farm and fish and sustain many of the same customs found in the bigger islands, while; on the coastal rim of the Caribbean Sea, Garifuna, Carib and Arawak, Miskito, Wuayu (Guajiro), Kuna and many other Caribbean indigenous relatives interact and are beginning once again to hold regular conferences and tribal gatherings across the whole region.

Christopher Columbus, who will be celebrated and denigrated next week, did not finish the job of genocide with which he is charged, not quite and perhaps not by far. This is not to say that the great mariner did not try to completely enslave the Caribbean's indigenous peoples. No doubt Columbus was one of the best "dead-reckoning" sailors who ever lived; equally without doubt is that he was a cold and calculating colonizer, who singularly forced the idea of encomienda, slavery and servitude, when a more respectful trade and commerce would have been possible, as was even desired by Queen Isabela of Spain herself.

In the core and heart of the Native Americas Hemisphere, the Caribbean basin, the assumed extinction of Native peoples is being revisited. Old customs around the use of herbal medicines (ceremonial relationship with nature), around the planting of many crops by the phases of the moon, are widespread among farmers and are clearly of indigenous Taino origins. There is also much evidence of respect and prayer with and to the identity of sacred places. Among some folk, orations, certain massages (called "sobado"), ceremonies that burn tobacco and intone the Four Directions and the various gifts of the Mother Earth are still conducted; there are many indigenous elements among the countryside people, the campesino or guajiro communities in particular. There are also many families where the inheritance and legacy of Taino ancestors is still present.

The denial of existence, however, has been brutal. No one was meant to survive the conquest, with its terroristic impositions, diseases and the overwhelming quest to own everything that rightly belonged to the Indian peoples. If survival of customs has been documentable, the idea of genetic and or familial extinction was posited as complete. It was a dictum of the Spanish Empire that to declare the Indian race extinguished was the quickest way to clear title to lands that might be contested in time. Still, many Indian descendent families hold land and retain social and spiritual culture that sustain and transform directly from very early contact times. With the advent of DNA studies, lo and behold, these same general populations who maintain these indigenous customs are seen to be actually - genetically - of direct Indian ancestry, specifically matrilineally, that is, through their mothers. Again, the tree can be cut, the branches loped off, the trunk pulverized, but the roots remain, and over time, the shoots of new generations emerge to claim their indigenous place.

A presentation by the distinguished scholar, Dr. Helen Tanner, recently at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), gives concreteness to the idea of Caribbean indigenous survival. Dr. Tanner, a witness to the repatriation in Cuba earlier this year, spoke exactingly on the survival and continuity of indigenous people and their place in the Caribbean universe. Numerous teachers and professors heard her lecture. Thus the actual and corrected information moves into curricula and to a new generation of students.

Indeed, American Indian peoples and open-minded academics are rolling Columbus back. In fact, the re-indigenization of the Americas is in process. It was inevitable. Truth is power, and on this widespread and necessary effort to educate the Americas, truth is on our side.