The Taino of the Caribbean: the People Who are Not Supposed to Exist
By Hwaa Irfan
One of the amazing things about life is that just when one believes they know who they are and have all the missing pieces of the puzzle in place, something transpires so that one can be told “Not quite…” In the case of the Caribbean this is probably more true of a people who were literally stolen from their homes and transplanted there. As time seems to progress, those pieces come and go, but more often than not, they disappear completely as a result of the total physical, cultural, and psychological rape of a people i.e. colonialism. The difference here though is that the people of the Caribbean are not the original people of those islands, and recorded history has been quite efficient in claiming that the indigenous peoples of those islands were completely wiped out as a result of the Doctrine of Discovery giving right of ownership over whichever country they please (a notion which is still very prevalent today).
The Qur’an tells us that Allah (SWT) made the earth expansive enough for us to travel about it, but man is not as bountiful and merciful when it comes to balkanizing the earth, and giving each piece a name to claim and fight for. Amidst the barriers we continually erect, are people who have lived there first. If those people are ‘fortunate’ enough, after colonization they will still have some physical presence even if not much of anything else.
In the case of the Caribbean, those first people took even the islanders by surprise in Puerto Rico, when seemingly from nowhere in 2005, they appeared to defend and protect from desecration an indigenous ceremonial site. Represented by their indigenous organizations: Mundo (Fifth World Learning Center), Consejo General de Taínos Boricanos, and United Confederation of Taíno People after a 17 day hunger strike in Utuado they were arrested. Not even the The Puerto Rican Institute of Culture recognized them taking the colonialistic stance by referring to them as cannibals.
Do you not remember the Indian Wars? Then why do you still think of this colonial symbol as being yours? It is time that all Native people of Amikekia, stand up: for the symbol of the four Directions. This is what rises in the morning, under one Amikekia Nation. The Nation of the Sun father must soon be free! A point of North American Anglo prejudice AMERICA does not mean the United States “OF” North America. We are one people, one race, that family of the rising Sun, shining upon our Sacred Caguana (The Trutle Island). In the morning before the wings sing their honor song, I rise in the west. Hear me sing my morning bird song, holding up my arms like the sacred tree, giving thanks for the birth of the new day, as was shown tome by my honored Grandfathers.
Borikén (Puerto Rico)
Borikén or Boriquén is what Puerto Rico was called before 1508 (Christopher Columbus 1493) under the Doctrine of Discovery. Borikén means “La gran tierra del Valiente y Noble Señor” (“The great land of the Valiant and Noble Lord”). The name Puerto Rico was given by the Spanish conquistadores, to the village they built in what is now San Juan. Under the mentality of the Doctrine of Discovery, Borikén (Puerto Rico) was handed over by the Spanish in 1898 to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris after the Spanish American War.
The mountainous areas of Borikén (Puerto Rico), represents the homeland of the Taino, which was divided into 3 small yucayeques (villages) in La Cordillera Central (The Central Mountain Range) under Spanish colonial rule by Governor Don Diego Colon. These yucayeques (villages) are today known as Orocovis, Morovis, Barranquitas and Aibonito.
The Taino of Borikén (Puerto Rico), are of the Jatibonicu tribe. Jatibonicu means “Great People of the Sacred High Waters”, which is a good indication of them as a seafaring people. They feel quite strongly about their name being spelt with an ‘o’ (Jatibonico), as this would change the meaning of their name – ‘cu’ means sacred in English. So the full meaning of Jatibonicu is:
Ja’ Ja’ Sound used in “admiration” in Jai! or Guay!
Ti High Tall, High or Elevation
Bo Great Big, Great or Greatness
Ni Waters Water or Noble
Cu Sacred Place Sacred or Sacred Place
There are words today spoken by many without knowledge of their true origin like ‘barbique’, from the Taino word ‘barbacoa’ meaning fire pit, and Amikekia’ – ‘America’.
Fearing the death of knowledge of their culture after 500 years of non-existence by the outside world as their Elders die, the Taino have taken responsibility
To ensure that their culture does not fade with the death of their Elders, they have taken steps to collate and document family geneology and the traditions of their mountain culture. They ask for help in this matter from anyone living in the Caribbean to work with them on their Elders Project. They also issue the following statement in this regard:
“Our Taino Indigenous People’s Sacred Objects are being sold at auctions, yet we cannot stop them, because of a loophole in the law of not being officially recognized. We are now starting up a fight to stop these people from selling our Sacred things. We need the help of our all Native American Nations to stop this from happening. Can anyone help us Tainos the First Americans of the invasion of Oct 12, 1492. Your fight is our fight, our fight is your fight! Now we Taino’s need your brotherly support. Our Southern Colibri (Hummingbird) is calling to his brother the Guaraguao (Great Redhawk) and the Spotted Eagle) its brothers to the north. Our Mayohuacan Drum of the South beats for the union of the Sacred Buffalo Drum. The Longhouse of the Wolf Clan hear our cries, the cries of the 8 Million Taino ancestors – the victims of Columbus!”
Tainos Beyond Borikén (Puerto Rico)
The Taino Nation were spread cross Haiti/the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the Lesser Antilles. In the reliable account Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies (1542) of Jesuit priest Bartoleme de Las Casas, de Las Casas refers to Hispaniola (Haiti) as the “happy isle”, and island that was “densely populated with native peoples called Indians.” De Las Casas described the people as being:
“the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancours, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world. And because they are so weak and complaisant, they are less able to endure heavy labor and soon die of no matter what malady.”
It may have surpassed the Spaniards, as it surpasses some today that materialism breeds discontent, and feeds the lower desires that are the source of so much trouble in the world today. It also clearly surpassed them that a people who live in keeping with the Laws of Nature are probably more in touch with God than those who subscribe to being Godly, and their communities being egalitarian in structure, love not power predominated. De Las Casas continues:
“They are also poor people, for they not only possess little but have no desire to possess worldly goods. For this reason they are not arrogant, embittered, or greedy. Their repasts are such that the food of the holy fathers in the desert can scarcely be more parsimonious, scanty, and poor. As to their dress, they are generally naked, with only their pudenda covered somewhat. And when they cover their shoulders it is with a square cloth no more than two varas in size. They have no beds, but sleep on a kind of matting or else in a kind of suspended net called bamacas. They are very clean in their persons, with alert, intelligent minds, docile and open to doctrine, very apt to receive our holy Catholic faith, to be endowed with virtuous customs, and to behave in a godly fashion.”
In mainland Bimini (Florida) one will find the Tainos by other names. The Tekesta Indians of South East Florida post 8000 B.C were more seafaring rather than agriculturalists. Taino culture and heritage is shared by the Calusa, Timucua, Tekesta, Ais, and Jaega.
It has always been said that the name ‘America’ was derived from the name of the Italiam explorer Amerigo Vespucci, but given the Taino name for their mainland home ‘Amikekia’ (The People’s Island Land of the Great Lord), which one seems the most likely phonetically!
“We as a United Native American people have never had a flag that represents our people, “La Raza”: The Race of Amikekia. The point that must be made here is that we shed our blood for something that was not ours! Many Native American Warriors fell in battle for this colonial symbol. We must respect the memory of those brave Warriors, not the colonial flag of United States OF North America. We must remember the memories of our Sacred Chiefs, like War Chief Guarionex and Chief Joeseph with the tear in his eye.”
The relationship between certain sections of the African Caribbean peoples and the Taino may very well be reflected in such cultural metaphors as “Yaya” meaning God in Taino as compared to Jah (sometimes JahJah) amongst the Rastafari, and the red, green and gold of the Taino flag, the same colours which symbolize the identity of the Rastafari of Jamaica. Both communities had the same rejection of the systems that had marred their peoples, and Bob Marley comes up frequently as a symbol of resistance amongst some Tainos.
“AJI AYA BOMBE!” (Better dead than a slave)
To treat a traveller as a honoured guest is a tradition in most cultures. The Tainos were no different in that regard when Christopher Columbus landed on Borikén (Puerto Rico) on October 12th 1492. Little did they know how much of their fate lied in the hands of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ when they greeted him with glass beads. To supplant one people with another set of people, both of whom have no love towards you has probably some level of karma attached to it that affects the lack of inner peace in the colonizing nations today.
It is a pain that seems not to depart from the Tainos as they relive every bit of their past as if encoded in their race memory generation after generation. This is aided and abetted by their reality that for 500 years they did not exist. They thank Christopher Columbus for this whom they refer to as Cristóbal Colón, and that as a result they keep being told that they do not exist, thus have no place in this world! On a Taino website one finds:
“Yes, the memories do cut like a knife into my heart. But the memory of this animal must be spoken about, for our people have gone too long without telling the world the truth, about this man called Cristóbal Colón, the man that did not discover anything. To the north they speak of him in history books, as a great man. They do not tell how he and his people fed the chopped up body’s of our children to their killer dogs. Nor do they talk about the men that, jokingly placed our young Yucayeke(Village) boys in a line and cut them in half with the Toledo swards. See how many of our Taino children that they could cut in half with one single blow! Yes the 500 plus years of pain never goes away. I, as a Taino man must tell the world what it does not want to hear. The truth spoken by one of the real First Americans who survived of the great holocaust of 6 to 8 million tears.”
This race memory of their past is supported by the reliable recorder of history De Las Casas:
“Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during tla! past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons.”
To the total depopulation of the Indies, De Las Casas includes Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola/Hiaiti:
“ They have the healthiest lands in the world, where lived more than five hundred thousand souls; they are now deserted, inhabited by not a single living creature. All the people were slain or died after being taken into captivity and brought to the Island of Hispaniola to be sold as slaves. When the Spaniards saw that some of these had escaped, they sent a ship to find them, and it voyaged for three years among the islands searching for those who had escaped being slaughtered, for a good Christian had helped them escape, taking pity on them and had won them over to Christ; of these there were eleven persons and these I saw.
More than thirty other islands in the vicinity of San Juan are for the most part and for the same reason depopulated, and the land laid waste.”
“We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million.”
The Spaniards did not content themselves with what the Indians gave them of their own free will, according to their ability, which was always too little to satisfy enormous appetites, for a Christian eats and consumes in one day an amount of food that would suffice to feed three houses inhabited by ten Indians for one month. And they committed other acts of force and violence and oppression which made the Indians realize that these men had not come from Heaven. And some of the Indians concealed their foods while others concealed their wives and children and still others fled to the mountains to avoid the terrible transactions of the Christians.
“And the Christians attacked them with buffets and beatings, until finally they laid hands on the nobles of the villages. Then they behaved with such temerity and shamelessness that the most powerful ruler of the islands had to see his own wife raped by a Christian officer. From that time onward the Indians began to seek ways to throw the Christians out of their lands.”
The memory of Taino Queen Anacaona is still remembered today through the arts in Haiti/Hispaniola for Queen Anacaona as a symbol of resistance in a country that had not yet fallen to Spanish control until 1503. Born in Yaguana/Léogâne, the centre of the devastating 2010 earthquake, the youngest sister of Béhéchio, chief of the kingdom of Xaragua/Haiti, Anacaona married Taino chief Caonabo, of the kingdom of Maguana. Chief Caonabo was kidnapped by Christopher Columbus and deported to Spain. Anacaona escaped death by returning to Xaragua/Haiti. When Spanish Governor Nicholas Ovando arrived with 2,500 troops, he requested an audience with Queen Anacaona. Ovando and his men was presented with a lavish reception during which Queen Anacaona’s people were seized, tied to poles and killed. Eighty Taino leaders were slaughtered, and Queen Anacaona was saved then recaptured and finally hung in Santo Domingo in 1503.
“They took up arms, but their weapons were very weak and of little service in offense and still less in defense. (Because of this, the wars of the Indians against each other are little more than games played by children.) And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house.” – De Las Casas.
Then there is the romanticist American story of Pocahontas, which is very different from the truth. The Taino can recount how the story of Pocahontas transpired from a story written by Garcilasco De Vega, read by John Smith, and published in Portuguese in 1557, and translated to English in 1605. The story surrounds the encounter of Spaniard Juan Ortiz with the Taino chieftess Caciquea Ulele from the Taino yucayeques/village of Ucita. Her father Cacique Hirrihugua aimed to execute Ortiz for cutting off the nose of his mother, and then killing her, but his daughter Caciquea Ulele pleaded with her father, who then took Ortiz to the neighbouring yucayeques/village of Guacara. Pocahontas is derived from the Powhatan people of Amikekia (America) who speak a completely different language, and have a completely different culture.
“We Taino Indigenous Nation of the Caribbean & Florida know the truth of Juan Ortiz. It was not until 500 years later on in November 18th, 1993 that we have made this statement via our supporting evidence of traditional language and customs of the Taino-Timucua people of Bimini (Florida). Please do note that many historians of Florida support these historical facts.”
What this deportation does not include are the Tainos who escaped to the mountains to flee slavery in 1570. The censuses of 1777 and 1787 recorded the existence of some 2,000 Amerindians in the areas of Indiera Alta, Indiera Baja and Indiera Fría.
The above touches on the fate of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean including the Taino, but as we know something or someone always survives to tell the tale! It does not tell of further ethnic cleansing whereby Tainos were forced by the U.S. Federal Government to leave Puerto Rico in 1898, and to undergo “processing” (brainwashing) by attending Indian schools in the U.S.
For those who live in this world without a past, the present seems quite acceptable, and the future is always on their minds, but for most indigenous peoples, all life is connected with the past as the foundation of the present, which in turn is the foundation of the future. To heal from the present, the past must be healed.
As a member state, though a colonial state, Puerto Rico did not have a Puerto-Rican born governor until 1946 – Jesús T. Piñero. In 1948, Piñero was ‘obliged’ to sign the”Ley de la Mordaza” (Gag Law) or Law 53. As such, the Puerto Rican flag was not allowed to be displayed, the national/patriotic sungs were not allowed to be sung, and any thoughts of liberation were not allowed to be expressed. The Taino of the Caribbean and Florida therefore have had very difficult lives.
To survive, what is left of their independent spirit has been poured into being agricultural labour (indentured labourers) instead being agriculturists as is their tradition. A people who do not exist cannot practice their traditions on a land that is theirs by guardianship with full recognition, because of the issue of sovereignty, which entered their world through the doors of colonialism. Dispossessed, and in the colonial mind annihilated and therefore non-existent, Justice McLean in the case of Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515 (1832), concerning the Cherokee Nation argued:
“If a tribe of Indians shall become so degraded or reduced in numbers as to lose the power of self-government, the protection of the local law, of necessity, must be extended over them.”
A Letter To The Puerto Rican People
To Our Island Brothers And Good Friends of Boriken
The Letter Of November 24, 1970, A Vision For The Year 2000
Hello Good People of Puerto Rico,
We the surviving descendants of the original indigenous people of the island of Boriken, who compose the membership of the Taino tribe of Jatibonicu send you our warm greetings, tidings and best wishes to your families. We are aware that many of the island Puerto Rican people do carry our common Taino blood within their own veins. It is hoped that with a positive approach and with mutual cooperation and respect between our ethnic cultures that we will form a closer bond between our island people here in Boriken. We say that with a positive approach and the help of our fellow Puerto Rican Islanders, we can begin to insure that we the Tainos will politically be able to reestablish a better relationship between our people and the present day ELA democratically elected Island Government of Puerto Rico.
We are now asking for the help and support of all the Puerto Rican people whom are of good heart and generousity. Please help us in our struggle to preserve our past tribal traditions and customs of our Taino aboriginal way of life within our island homeland. It seems that our traditional ancestral heritage and way of life was simply overlooked by the Spanish historians and their past colonial Government of 1500’s. We as a people must learn to coexist with our Puerto Rican brothers whom are of many ethnic origins such as the European and African cultures that abound within our national Boriken homeland.
In our past, the island people popularly believed the political propaganda that we as a people became totally extinct. This may have been due to the fact of the political disintegration of our past Taino government and cultural society. We are happy to inform the Puerto Rican people that our Jatibonicu tribe of the central highlands of Boriken and its Government did survive. Today we have a 500 year old mestizo Taino heritage that is better now known or popularly known by the name of the Jibaro mountain people. We are again asking that the Puerto Rican people, speak with their local politicians, Camara Representative, Senators and also with the Governor of Puerto Rico to move to officially recognize the Jatibonicu Taino tribe of Boriken in the year 2000 as the authentic people of Boriken.
Cacique Principal Pedro Guanikeyu Torres
Taino Tribal Council of Jatibonicu of Boriken
Council of Nitaynos (Chiefs) and Arocoels (Elders)
Authentication took the form of mitochondrial DNA (maternal line) testing in the 1980s when skeletal remains discovered from a construction site in Arecibo, Puerto Rico were given to then Juan Carlos Martínez Cruzado, a Molecular Biologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM), now a Professor of Genetics at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. Funded by the National Science Foundation the findings included:
- All 4 skeletal remains had identical mitochondrial DNA – definitely Amerindian, showing a bottleneck effect
- A large percentage of the Puerto Rican population tested positive for Amerindian ancestry (18 samples from Indieras contained 55% mtDNA, 4 samples from Miraflores 80% mtDNA, and 33 other samples had 76% mtDNA, with higher concentrations amongst university students and personnel than those considered pure Taino).
Further more extensive studies were carried out in 1991 involving 300 samples revealing:
- 62% as Amerindian,
- 30% as African blacks
- 8% Caucasian
May the Great Mystery Bless, Guide, Protect and Sustain you all, now and always!
Quel Gran Mysterio Bendiga, Gua, Proteye & Sustenga a todo, ahora y siempre!
Taino-Ti! (Good Spirits Be With You! / Buenos Espiritus Estar Con Ustedes!)
Castanha, T. “Puerto Rico: Adventures in Indigenous Caribbean Resistance, Survival, And Continuity In Borikén (Puerto Rico).”Wicazo Sa Review; 25(2): 29 – 64
De Las Casas, B. “Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies. (1542).” http://www.lasculturas.com/lib/mktxlascasasindies.htm
D’Errico, P. “Sovereignty: “A Brief History in the Context of U.S. “Indian Law”.” The Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics: American Political Landscape Series (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 2000, at pp. 691-693). Jeffrey D. Schultz & Co., Colorado Springs, CO (USA)
“Recent Research Contributions of Genetics to the Studies of Population History and Anthropology in Puerto Rico.” http://www.udel.edu/LASP/index.html
“The Taino.” http://www.taino-tribe.org/jatiboni.html
“The Taino Survival.” http://www.lasculturas.com/articles/14-culture-a-identity/22-the-taino-survival
“U.S-Indian Schools.” http://www.taino-tribe.org/us-Indian-schools.htm