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Taíno leader Francisco "Panchito" Ramírez Rojas offers a prayer to the sea near Baracoa on Cuba's eastern coast. (Maggie Steber)

What Became of the Taíno?

The Indians who greeted Columbus were long believed to have died out. But a journalist's search for their descendants turned up surprising results

Relegated to a footnote of history for 500 years, the Taíno came roaring back as front-page news in 2003, when Juan C. Martínez Cruzado, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico, announced the results of an island-wide genetic study. Taking samples from 800 randomly selected subjects, Martínez reported that 61.1 percent of those surveyed had mitochondrial DNA of indigenous origin, indicating a persistence in the maternal line that surprised him and his fellow scientists. The same study revealed African markers in 26.4 percent of the population and 12.5 percent for those of European descent. The results encouraged a Taíno resurgence, with native groups urging Puerto Rican schools to take note of the indigenous contribution to Caribbean history, opposing construction on tribal sites and seeking federal recognition for the Taíno, with attendant benefits.

Though the question of Indian identity is often fraught with political implications, it is especially pronounced in Puerto Rico, which still struggles with its status as a territory of the United States. The island enjoys neither the benefits of statehood nor the independence of a nation, with deep divisions between proponents for each. Ardent nationalists view the recent surge in Taíno activism as a threat to political unity. Activists say their adversaries are promoting Eurocentric history and a colonial class system. Even Taíno leaders occasionally view one another with hostility.

“Here in Puerto Rico, power plays are rampant,” said Carlalynne Melendez Martínez, an anthropologist who has launched the nonprofit group Guakia Taina-Ke, Our Taíno Land, to promote native studies. Her goal is to boost Taíno culture by reviving the Arawak language, preserving cultural sites and establishing preserves for indigenous people. “We’re teaching the language to children and teaching people how to farm. We don’t do songs and dances for the tourists,” she said, referring to a competing group.

In Puerto Rico’s central mountains, I came upon a woman who called herself Kukuya, Taíno for firefly, who was getting ready for a gathering of Indians in Jayuya, a town associated with both revolution and indigenous festivals. She had grown up in New York City but had lived in Puerto Rico for 35 years, having been guided to this remote community, she said, by a vision. Green-eyed and rosy-cheeked, she said her forebears were Spanish, African, Mexican and Maya as well as Taíno.

“My great-grandmother was pure-blooded Taíno, my mother of mixed blood,” she said. “When I told people I was Taíno, they said, ‘What, are you crazy? There aren’t any left!’ But I don’t believe you have to look a certain way. I have all of my ancestors within me.”

Like Kukuya, thousands of Puerto Ricans have been discovering their inner Taíno in recent years. In the 2010 census, for example, 19,839 Puerto Ricans checked the identity box marked “American Indian or Alaskan Native,” an increase of almost 49 percent over the 2000 count, when 13,336 checked it. Neither canvass provided a Taíno option.The native population represents less than 1 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million people, but indigenous leaders consider the latest head count a milestone—further proof that some Indians live on long after they were thought to be annihilated.

“What I’m really excited about is that there’s a lot of youth coming into this and challenging the status quo,” said Roberto Mukaro Borrero, president of the United Confederation of Taíno People. Borrero, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican parentage, has tried to soothe fears about a Taíno land grab based on Indian identity.

“I want to make it clear that we’re not here to take back Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic,” he said. “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.”

Still, some scholars remain skeptical. “You have to be aware of people running around saying they’re Taíno, because they are after a federal subsidy,” said Bernardo Vega, a former director of the Museum of the Dominican Man and the Dominican Republic’s former ambassador to the United States. Yvonne M. Narganes Storde, an archaeologist at the University of Puerto Rico agreed. She gives the activists credit for preserving important sites on the island, but she sounded wary of their emphasis on establishing a separate Taíno identity. “All the cultures are blended here,” she said. “I probably have Taíno genes. We all do. We have incorporated all these cultures—African, Spanish and Indian. We have to live with it.”

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