A few pockets of Taíno culture remain in eastern Cuba, an area shaped by rugged mountains and years of isolation. “Anybody who talks about the extinction of the Taíno has not really looked at the record,” said Alejandro Hartmann Matos, the city historian of Baracoa, Cuba’s oldest city, and an authority on the island’s earliest inhabitants. Hartmann, a Cuban of German ancestry, had invited me to meet Indian descendants from the island’s Oriente region, as well as to mark the 500th anniversary of Baracoa, founded in 1511. Joining us was José Barreiro, assistant director of research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. With Hartmann, Barreiro has been tracking descendants of the Indians since 1989. Based on their research, the pair estimate that at least 5,000 Indians survive in Cuba, while hundreds of thousands likely have indigenous roots.
Late one night, after a day of quincentennial celebrations with live music, dancing, poetry recitations and occasional tots of rum, Barreiro and I sat bleary-eyed around a kitchen table as the indefatigable Hartmann raced through a list of historical references to Indians of the Oriente, beginning in 1492, when Columbus sailed into Baracoa harbor, planted a wooden cross on the shore and praised the place for its “good water, good land, good surroundings, and much wood.”
“Indians have appeared in the record ever since,” said Hartmann. Indigenous people established the city of Jiguaní in 1701 and formed the all-native Hatuey Regiment in the Cuban war against Spain in 1895. José Martí, founding father of Cuba’s independence movement, frequently mentioned Indians in his war diary. Mark Harrington, an American archaeologist conducting fieldwork in 1915 and 1919, found natives still hanging on in eastern Cuba. He was followed—in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s—by anthropologists who scoured the region recording the skeletal structure, blood type and other physical attributes of Cuban villagers with indigenous ancestry. “So if you look to the past,” said Hartmann, “you see this long record of Indians living here. Anyone who says otherwise is speaking from ignorance.”
“Just look around!” said Hartmann, spreading his arms wide. In a week of exploring Baracoa and its environs, we had encountered many Cubans with the high cheekbones, coppery skin and other features that suggest Amerindian ancestry. And while it was clear that indigenous families have intermarried with Africans and Europeans, we met villagers in Baracoa and the nearby settlements of Playa Duaba and Guirito who proudly identified themselves as Indian. They kept the old traditions, planting their dense gardens, praying to the moon and sun for strength, gathering wild plants for healing and marking the passage of time without clocks or watches.
“When I see the vivijagua ant come out of his nest and crawl across the rafters in the morning, I know it’s time to go to the fields,” 75-year old Francisco “Panchito” Ramírez Rojas told us. “When the chipojo lizard comes down from the palm tree to get a drink of water, I know it’s noon. I also know it’s noon when my shadow disappears and I’m standing on my own head,” he said, getting up from our lunch table to illustrate his point.
A lean man bronzed by years in the sun, Panchito radiated a natural authority, which had earned him the title of cacique in the community of La Ranchería, not far from the U.S. naval station and prison at Guantánamo Bay.
Ramirez took the opportunity to search for useful plants in the woods along the Toa River. Striding up to a cedar, he patted the rough trunk as if it were an old amigo. “This tree is a relative,” he said. “It has feelings like we do, so it should be treated with respect. If you make tea from the bark of this tree, it has a lot of power. It’s good for colds and respiratory problems. But if you don’t ask permission before you cut the bark, it may not work. So I always say a little prayer so the tree knows I’m serious and I want to share its power. ‘Give me your strength for healing.’ That’s what I ask.”
Hearing Ramirez, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck bristling: His method of conversing with plants was almost identical to one described by 15th-century Spanish chroniclers. Although those accounts have been widely published, it is doubtful that Ramirez ever read them: He is illiterate. He learned his craft from a great-uncle and other elders who were natural healers in his mountain community.