CARIDAD DE LOS INDIOS, Cuba - No one ever told Panchito Ramirez that his people were extinct. Though the history books tell us otherwise, here in the remote mountains of Cuba, the knowledgeable herbalist and healer lives with some 350 Taino descendants who make up his village and nearby rancheria.
When several Taino people from the United States and Puerto Rico visited Ramirez's village recently with a delegation of researchers, writers, and scholars, it was a poignant reunion for all.
"When we climbed over that last ridge in the mountains and I heard the drums and the songs of the people welcoming us, I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was like coming home," said Daniel Wakonax Rivera, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who has spent the last eight years compiling a dictionary of the Taino language.
For Ramirez, who is cacique or chief of his village, it was an affirmation that those who had been stolen into slavery had survived and sent their children back to rejoin their relatives.
"It is so good to see all of you," Ramirez said. "Now we know we are not the last of our kind. We no longer feel alone."
Much like their ancestors did before Columbus arrived, Taino people here continue to live simply in traditional bohios, or thatched roof huts, relying on Indigenous knowledge of hundreds of herbal medicines that grow throughout the lush mountains and valleys of the region. Since the advent of the revolution's reforms, the population has had access to doctors and a clinic, as well as schools. Pancho counts nieces and nephews in medical and technical careers, as well as agriculture.
They grow almost all of their food in the old-style of permaculture, using raised-bed gardens called "conucos" that are inter-cropped with a variety of vegetables and fruits that Ramirez calls his "grocery store." Traditional healing methods are part of everyday life and planting is timed by phases of the moon.
The songs, dances, ceremonies and language of the Taino are alive in these mountain people, taught to them by their parents and grandparents whose beliefs are centered around protecting the earth and what she gives to the people. Their ceremonies honor and pay tribute to the Creator and to Mother Earth, the sun, moon, stars, water, winds and the four directions. Sound familiar?
Although historians and literature often misinform us that the Taino and Arawak Indians were completely wiped out by genocide and disease, Ramirez and members of his mountain village are living proof that the myth of extinction is patently false.
There are perhaps thousands of Taino descendants living in seven or more small communities in Cuba, and in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Florida, New York, California, Hawaii and even Spain, where many of their ancestors were taken as slaves.
It is only in the last few decades that the culture has been revitalized and Taino people have created a resurgence of their traditions. Saddled with the myth of extinction and written out of the history books, Taino descendants have nonetheless struggled to recapture their language and traditions.
"Sometimes people laugh when I tell them I am Taino," said David Cintron, a University of Florida graduate student writing his thesis on the Taino revitalization movement. "'Are there any left?' they ask. Perhaps there are no more pure-bloods, but there plenty of Tainos. It's just that no one has been taught the true history of our people.
"It's surprising just how many Taino traditions, customs and practices have been continued. We simply take for granted that these are Puerto Rican or Cuban practices and never realize that they are really Taino," he added.
"Taino survival is evidence of persistent indigenous resistance to invasion, conquest, colonization and assimilation. It is evidence that assimilation cuts both ways - that our colonizers also learned much from us."
Rediscovering and celebrating the "Indigenous Legacies of the Caribbean" was the theme of the fifth annual conference that brought 42 researchers, writers and scholars on an eight-day tour of Cuba. The three-day conference was held in Baracoa Bay, the oldest colonial city in the Americas.
The delegation, organized by Indigenous World Tours, traveled through Santiago de Cuba, Caridad de los Indios, Guantanamo and many small communities en route to Baracoa Bay on Cuba's tropical Eastern shore where it is said Columbus first landed as he made his way up the Caribbean islands.
The ancient wooden cross from his ship still stands in the Cathedral Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion where it was moved years after Columbus left it standing in the harbor entrance in 1492, according to historian Alejandro Hartmann Matos.
Throughout the conference, historians, anthropologists, doctors, Indigenous herbalists and educators shared their knowledge and historical documentation of Taino cultural practices inherent in Cuba's music, organic farming practices and unique health care system which relies heavily on herbal medicines.
"Five hundred years ago the Spaniards invaded our lands, enslaving, torturing and decimating our people. Our ancestors fought for survival and we hid in the mountains where they could not find us," said Inarunikia Pastrana, a nurse and radio producer from New York City.
"Thanks to the tenacity of our ancestors, the resurgence and restoration of the Taino people is a reality. Our language is heard once more, our songs are sung once more. Against all odds, we have defeated extinction and continue to rescue our ancestral heritage and culture."
Before leaving Baracoa, Ramirez and the delegation also held ceremonies on a mountain overlooking Baracoa Bay to honor the memory of Menominee activist Ingrid Washinawatok and Native Hawaiian artist Lahe'ena'e Gay, who were kidnapped and killed within Columbia two years ago. Washinawatok's work with Indigenous peoples included the Taino of Cuba.
Ali El-Issa and John Livingstone remembered their wives as committed Native women who gave their lives in the struggle for peace, justice and sovereignty as Taino ceremonial songs were sung to mourn their deaths and celebrate their lives.
On the final day of the tour, a national industry sent representatives from the Minister of the Interior to invite Ramirez to inaugural ceremonies of Cuba's International Tobacco Festival slated for mid-February in Havana. Cuba recognizes that the Taino cultivated tobacco and gave it to the world as a gift, they said, and therefore felt it appropriate for cacique Ramirez to open the festival with tobacco ceremonies.
As the delegation prepared to leave Cuba, Reina Ramirez, who is apprentice to her father in healing ceremonies, sent a message to Native women in the North: "From the women here, in Caridad, to our sister-mothers in the North and other lands, we send greetings. Keep your traditions; we wish you healthy children."