The Taíno – counted out of existence?

Cover Picture: Playa El Combate, Borikén 2012.

This Paper was written for the seminar Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Conflicts which was held by Mag. Miriam Anne Frank at the institute of Cultural-& Social Anthropology at the University of Vienna in 2017.

 The Taíno –

Counted out of existence?


Alexandra Mittermüller

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Historical background
  3. Taínos Today

    • Debate: Who gets to be Taíno?
    • Rendering Taíno-Culture visible
  4. Conclusions
  5. Bibliography
  1. Introduction

The Taínos, who are a subgroup of the Arawak, were indigenous to the island of Puerto Rico. Nowadays the prevailing opinion is that they are said to be extinct, but in the last few years more and more Puerto Ricans are claiming to be of American Indian heritage and some even call themselves Taínos. Since approximately 20,000 Puerto Ricans identified exclusively as American Indian on the U.S. census in 2010, which expresses a major increase of 49 percent from the last census in 2000, the issue has been receiving more and more attention among journalists and scholars. Some scholars call this development the Taíno Revival. (Cronkite School of Journalism 2012).

I chose this topic because in 2012 I lived in Puerto Rico, arriving here with the presupposition that the indigenous people of Puerto Rico became extinct during the Spanish invasion, as everything I had read in advance leant towards that. During my time there, I met a lot of Puerto Ricans who claimed that this is a lie made up by mainstream opinion makers, in order to deny rights to the descendants of the Taínos. Others argued that these groups who claim to be Taínos seem dubious and that there are no “real” Taíno people left, and called them impersonators.

So this prompted a few questions for me: Who gets to decide who is a Taíno and who isn’t? Is it possible that a culture which has predominated a region for thousands of years, can merely die out? What are the Neo-Taínos doing to revitalize their culture? What’s the situation like nowadays? My paper consists of a historical overview with a focus on Taínos today, the debate of Taínos existing or not existing and the revitalization of the cultural knowledge and tradition nowadays. I will use the indigenous term Borikén as well as the present day common name Puerto Rico when talking about the island.

  1. Historical background

To better understand the present, I would like to go back in time and discuss the history of the Taínos and the colonization that resulted in the death of so many individuals.

When the Spaniards landed on the beaches of the Caribbean, there was nothing to be discovered as there were already people who had been living there for quite some time. It is said that the Taínos settled on the island at least 2000 years before the Christian era. The Taínos inhabited the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, which include the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hispaniola (=Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Jamaica. It is said that they greeted Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards in a friendly manner during their first encounter when they arrived in the Caribbean in 1493. (Tainomuseum 2017). (Minority Rights Group International 2007).

The Taíno museum website describes the culture as gentle and peaceful. In fact, if you translate the word “Taíno” it means good and noble. The highly organized hierarchy was paternal and they did not practice cannibalism, in contrast to the Caribs, who were cannibals and bellicose and were centred in the Lesser Antilles. (Rouse 1951, 249).

The indigenous Taíno name for Puerto Rico is Borikén, which basically means “sacred place where the people come from”. It refers to both place and people. That’s why Puerto Ricans nowadays often call themselves Boricuas. (Tainomuseum 2017).

However, the treatment of the indigenous population by the Spanish was, to put it mildly, anything but noble. When the Spanish invaded Borikén, they quickly established gold mining operations and enslaved Taínos. As a consequence, the Spanish then named the island Puerto Rico which translates as rich port. The enslavement of the native people led to a revolt in 1511. Minority Rights Group International says that many Taínos fled from the island or to other remote areas on the island. An indigenous workforce was needed to work the mines, to develop the sugar industry and to build fortifications like the Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. (Minority Rights Group International 2007).

Ponce de León, who was the first governor of Puerto Rico, was considered a cruel person. Under his rule, many Taínos died or were killed. For instance, it is documented that just for their amusement, Spanish soldiers would threw indigenous infants up in the air and then they would fall down onto their swords. (Castanha 2011, xii).

Furthermore, the Spanish brought many deadly diseases from Europe, which the native population had no antibodies for (like smallpox and measles).

Moreover, a great number of native people committed suicide due to their hopeless situation: it was a means of escaping slavery and mistreatment by the Spanish invaders. Hunger and starvation were also essential factors that led to their decline, as the native people were disturbed in their usual way of sourcing food, and so they couldn’t continue with their style of agriculture. Others were butchered while resisting and fighting the Spanish. (Smithsonian Consortia 2017).

In addition to that, in the colonial Caribbean it was quite common for indigenous women to be raped by white men. As Columbus wrote in his diary, “the women are so pretty that one must wonder at it.” (Shepherd 1999, 14).

The Conquistadores considered the native people as personal property, which is  an indication of them not completely dying out. By 1519, more than 40 per cent of Spaniards were married to indigenous women and had children. Naturally there was also a mix between African men and indigenous women. This new population was called mestizos. (Shepherd 1999, 59). (Poole 2011).

Interestingly enough, a recent DNA sample study estimated that 62 per cent of the population of Borikén have indeed an indigenous female ancestor. Therefore the Mestizo-Indian has survived. Consequently, the early mestizaje is the major factor for the survival of cultural practices. (Smithsonian Consortia 2017). (Castanha 2011, 68). (Minority Rights Group International 2007).

As the indigenous population rapidly declined, either through escape or death, there was a shortage of workforce on the island. This encouraged the enslavement of African people starting in 1517. When the gold mines of Puerto Rico were exhausted by 1570, the Spanish used it as a port for their merchant ships and gunboats on their way to and from richer colonies. Since the Spanish-American-war in 1898, Puerto Rico has belonged to the United States of America as an incorporated territory. (Minority Rights Group International 2007).

Archeological excavation made it possible to learn a lot about the Taíno culture as well as documentations of clergy men like Fray Ramón Pané, who were appointed to indoctrinate Christianity into the indigenous population. When he lived among them, he learned their language and recorded their religious belief-system. This is important as Taínos primarily didn’t write things down, as I will point out in later chapters. (Cattan 2014, 37-42).

Alongside the Spanish and African roots, the Taíno culture is nowadays being seen as part of the Puerto Rican heritage, but it was only since the 1940s that the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture officially has acknowledged it. (Cronkite School of Journalism 2012).

One can declare for the avoidance of doubt that Caribbean history appears to be incomplete as it has dominantly been narrated by colonial minds and thereby indigenous voices either haven’t been noticed or have been overlooked. (Castanha 2011, 1).

How could they have survived the ethnocide and genocide, which was carried out against them? Present day Taínos argue that they were not entirely killed off and that they did not completely disappear as some savants allege. They argue that many of them escaped into the mountains where they hid in caves or that they fled to other islands, while others intermarried with their conquistadores but still passed on Taíno traditions. Moreover, some argue that censuses that were carried out by the Spanish simply did not show the real number of the native population as they have been minimizing numbers to be able to import more people from Africa for enforced labour. (Castanha 2010, 30).

  1. Taínos Today

Since the 1970s, Neo-Taínos haven been coming together and striving to celebrate their roots and to revive traditions of their ancestors, in order to show the endurance of native roots despite the dominant opinion of them not existing. (Smithsonian 2017).

Intriguingly, the first organized groups to a big extent developed outside of the Caribbean – mostly in New York City or the area of New Jersey as there was more acceptance than on the small islands. (Sangre de America 2017).

Tony Castanha is a political scientist and lecturer of Indigenous and American Studies at the Hawaii Pacific University and self identifies as Taíno. He defines the resurgence of Taínos as the following: Generally speaking, the interest has risen in indigenous peoples of the Caribbean as more and more people are writing about it. He says that there was a long period where there was  little or no attention paid to them, but now both political and economic marginalization are being challenged by scholars. Furthermore, writing about this issues and thereby giving voice to people who identify as native leads to a production of resurgence. (Castanha 2011, 5-6).

He claims that it’s interesting that what he calls the “myth of extinction” has been carried further through time by people who are mostly not native to the region and therefore don’t have an inside view. Castanha also points out that many of the scholars who described the Taínos as extinct such as Carl Sauer, Bartolomé de Las Casas or Sven Lovén haven’t really defined what they mean by the term ‘extinct’. Interestingly, the word ‘extinction’ is primarily used in biology to describe animals, not people. (Castanha 2010, 36).

Furthermore, he says that actually many Indians know who they are and have continued to live their culture and what they have learned from ancestors. Many have the knowledge of their background and some are in the process of recovering their heritage. (Castanha 2010, 30).

In Castanha’s book “The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico), he gathered ethnographic material about families who,  despite living and pursuing traditions in secret, have nevertheless kept on with their “Taíno way of life”, for example in questions of agriculture and spirituality. He interviewed different kinds of people like scholars, activists, artists, farmers, elders, shamans and healers. (University of Hawaii News 2011).

Additionally, it should be mentioned that history was not written by Indians. That is a very important point because one cannot forget that history was indeed written by colonial minds. It was seen through colonial lenses, which is probably not the most trustworthy kind of resource. (Castanha 2010, 30).

Aside from that, it has been proven that oral tradition is the main basis for passing down information and stories from one generation to another in native ambits, which explains that there are not many written documents of Taínos, as this was just not their way of transferring their cultural knowledge. Usually passing down cultural assets happens through sacred ceremonies, which are called “areytos”. They consist of ceremonial recitations, ceremonial dances, and ceremonial songs. (Castanha 2010, 33).

When in 2003 the geneticist Juan Martínez Cruzado, who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, implemented a genetic study about Puerto Rican ancestry, it became an important milestone in the conversation about Taíno ancestry. He took samples from 800 randomly selected subjects on the island. The results showed that 61.1 percent carry the mitochondrial DNA of indigenous origin, which shows a persistence in the maternal line, as it is only inherited from the female line. Many were surprised by these results, even the biologist Martínez Cruzado himself. (Cronkite School of Journalism 2012). (Poole 2011).

At present day Taínos get recognition by international indigenous rights groups and federal agencies, but nevertheless the debate about who really gets to be a Taíno still carries on. (Guerra 2004, 349-350).

3.1. Debate: Who gets to be Taíno?

“You have people saying that we don’t exist and I think that that is an injustice.

I’m living my reality – I’m not telling anybody how to live and I don’t think that people should tell me how to live.”

-Roberto Mucaro Borrero (Sangre de America 2017).

This quote from Roberto Mucaro Borrero, who is Taíno himself and a board member of the International Indian Treaty Council and President of the United Confederation of Taíno People gets to the heart of the matter:

Although there is no official definition of the term “indigenous”, the United Nations describes the term by assigning various criteria to it. The first point of this body of features is the one of self-identification. One has to identify at the individual level, but has also to be accepted by the community as their member. Unfortunately, the point of self-identification is not given much recognition and importance. (UN 2017).

As already mentioned before, there is still a debate going on about the legitimacy of Taíno ethnicity among new generations. Academics argue about the degree and validity of Puerto Rican ancestry traced back to the Taínos. Some say they were completely wiped out by the murder spree committed by the Spanish. A heated debate has been going on for years:

In the book “Taíno Revival”, Sociologist Gabriel Haslip-Viera, who teaches at the City College of New York, explains the Taíno-Revival as a consequence of the difficult relationship to colonial dependency, first with the Spanish and nowadays with the United States of America. He argues that it’s a reaction to this marginalization. Comparisons are made with other minority movements such as Black Muslims. Moreover, he argues that the claim to be of native heritage only supports politics of racial divisiveness. (Guerra 2004, 349-350). (Haslip-Viera 2015, 1-3). Others like the historian Lynne Guitar or cultural anthropologists like Peter Ferbel-Azcarate and Maximilian Forte, are writing in support of these groups who identify as Taíno. (Haslip-Viera 2015, 2).

However there are also underlying political implications that should be part of the debate. Questions about the right to water, fishing, hunting and preserving sacred sites. Roberto Mucaro Borrero has always tried to fight the prejudice of land grabbing based on Indian identity. He says: “I want to make it clear that we’re not here to take back Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic or to establish a casino. If you just look at the statements we’ve made over the last ten years, there’s not one mention of casinos, kicking anybody out of the country or being divisive in any way. We just want a seat at the table.” (Poole 2011). (Sangre de America 2017).

Therefore, he formulates that the only thing that the Taíno movement wants, is to be a part of the discussion about them, which is held most of the time without including them. By way of example, only one of the authors of the book “Taíno Revival” actually interviewed Taínos. (Guerra 2004, 350).

However, this begs the question: Why are people only recently starting to self-identify publicly as Taínos? One of the main reasons, as previously mentioned, is that there was and still is a trend of being ridiculed and shamed when identifying as an indigenous person, especially on the island of Puerto Rico. Consequently, that is part of the reason why many continued their practices in secret and didn’t identify publicly, because of the fear of being abused and laughed at. (Castanha 2010, 34). There is no acceptance in neither the intellectual nor cultural community in Borikén, says Roger Guayakan Hernandez, who is the director of the Borikén chapter of the United Confederation of Taíno People. (Cronkite School of Journalism 2012).

Even though some people who carry out native traditions don’t want to call themselves Indian or Taíno, they are nevertheless conscious of how the Taíno way of life has influenced and shaped their distinct way of thinking. (Taínolegacies 2017).

Moreover, indigenous history, language and culture were not a part of the discussion about current ethnicity until the early 21st century, despite the fact that it was commonly agreed that Taíno Indians were the forefathers of the Puerto Rican people. (Cronkite School of Journalism 2012).

One should also consider the biological aspect. What does it imply to be a “real Taíno”.  Although it is part of the criticism of outsiders, there are also Taíno movements who require a specific physical appearance in order to become a member, for instance the New Jersey’s Taíno Inter-Tribal Council. (Guerra 2004, 349-350).

Nonetheless having specific physical features or a certain biological make up does not hold the same level of importance for every self-identified Taíno. Jorge Estevez, Taíno and  cultural anthropologist, for example, notes that the concept of being of pure blood is just absurd, backwards and simply out of date because there is just no “pure” Taíno left, just like there are no pure Spanish people. What emphasizes his point is the fact that likewise, the pre-Columbian-Taínos didn’t have a clear ethnicity as they also mixed with other tribes in the Antilles. Estevez says there has always been interbreeding and that it’s not a one sided story. However, when it comes to be seen as a “real” native, you always have to expect more backlash in society, in contrast to identifying as Spanish, but the focus should be on the culture, not on the biology: how cultural knowledge persisted and how it was transmitted. The focus on cultural heritage is  criticized by Haslip-Viera as according to him, it is not at all clear if that, which has been has been passed on is really rooted in Taíno culture. (Poole 2011). (Sangre de America 2017).

In conclusion, there is no unity within the movement itself today regarding what it means to be Taíno, which in my opinion is problematic, if you want to communicate outside of your community, outside of your box, and want to be perceived as united.

3.2. Rendering Taíno Culture visible

If you visit the island of Puerto Rico, the culture of the ancient Taíno is visible especially to the tourists’ eyes and sometimes only for those eyes. Sacred cave sites, for example the “cueva ventana”, the window cave, in Arecibo have become popular among tourists. As mentioned earlier, cultural practices have been orally transmitted through time, therefore you can still see the Taíno influence in today’s art, language and food and generally speaking the cherishing of natural resources is still part of the Taíno world view today. (Cronkite School of Journalism 2012).

Arawak roots can also be found in the language, for example in indigenous Taíno names for cities like Utuado and Arecibo.

Moreover, an Indian accent can be detected in the Spanish, French and Creole language in the Caribbean region. Some examples for words in the Taíno language that are frequently used, but not known to be of Indian Caribbean heritage are: hurricane, tobacco, hammock, canoe or barbeque.

Today’s Taínos often do not live on Borikén, but if they do, they live most of the time in remote, rural, coastal areas and mountainous regions of the island. (Castanha 2011, xi).

As subsistence farming was particularly important to the Taíno, today’s Taínos still use old practices like planting by the moon, mixing plants and planting in mounds for farming. (Castanha 2010, 72). (Castanha 2011, 136-138).

In a general sense, the indigenous movement wants to promote a different way of lifestyle on Borikén. Self-sufficiency is namely a major topic in Puerto Rico, because 90 per cent of its food supplies is produced outside of the island. It has to be imported as there is almost no agriculture on the island itself. Taínos view this as a dependency especially on the United States, therefore one major goal is to be able to live fully self-sufficiently. (Castanha 2011, 128).

Among many projects which promote the rendering of Taíno culture, there is one by the Smithsonian Institute which is called “Consciousness of Taíno: Indigeneity in the Caribbean.” It seeks to look beyond the notion of “extinction”, in order to be able to actually understand the practice and continuity of the native way of living in this particular region. Historians and Archaeologists come together to research and gather Taíno material to make it visible to the public eye. Basically, they gather ethnographic material, hold workshops and want to thereby show how Taíno culture survived. All of the material which they gather will be displayed / exhibited at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. in 2018. This project also seeks to be a source of information for people who want to learn more about the native Caribbean beyond what is already known. (Smithsonian 2017).

Another group of people who want to revive Taíno culture, was founded by the anthropologist Carlalynne Melendez Martínez: She has introduced a non-profit group which is called Guakia Taina-Ke, which means “Our Taíno Land”. Its goal is it to promote native studies.

The group teaches cultural knowledge, for example getting to know the Arawak-language and learning how to farm. Furthermore, preserving cultural sites is also part of the agenda.

Definite distinction is drawn to not performing traditional practices just for the sake of tourists, like for example showing off a ceremonial dance. This is not part of their agenda and they do not wish to act out sacred ceremonies just for mere entertainment. (Guakia Taina-Ke 2017).

The United Confederation of Taíno People which consists of Taínos of Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Barbados, United States, St. Thomas and Cuba issued a statement in January 2016 to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues, whereby they formulated strategies for revitalizing the Taíno language, such as: having a dictionary of the Taíno language and introducing a Taíno word every day on social platforms such as Facebook. (United Confederation of Taíno People 2016).

In summary, it can be said that there is a lot going on to revitalize cultural practices, show survival, endurance and pride of heritage.

  1. Conclusions

After implementing my research, it seems to me, that most people are unsure if the identity of a person who identifies as a native person, has to do with physical appearance, biological factors and heritage or simply with the right of self-identification, which is a basic human right.

Consequently the question for me is: Why do they have to explain themselves so immensely? Why is it more common to ridicule rather than simply listen to those people who just want to live a life on their own terms, and want to be recognized and included in discussions about them? As always, the underlying political implications play a major key role in it. If they get recognized by all parties, they would have to get certain rights. Naturally it’s better for governments if they remain laughed at and are not taken seriously, because then questions of land rights and others can just be ignored.

Furthermore, minimizing someone based on biology is a dangerous thing to do, because if one thinks of the early history of this century, this has led to unbelievable mass murder and destruction of the lives of millions of people. Notions such as “being of pure descent” or being “full blooded” are therefore not appropriate and should be avoided.



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