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Taino Indians Still Thrive in Cuba

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Author Topic: Taino Indians Still Thrive in Cuba  (Read 23480 times)
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« Reply #60 on: February 29, 2008, 05:48:08 pm »

The State (Columbia, S.C.)
Tue, Aug. 17, 2004   

                            Historians work to set record straight on Cuba's Taino Indians

Chicago Tribune

YARA, Cuba - (KRT) - In a sweltering coastal settlement, Alejandro Hartmann pulled out a spiral
notebook and jotted notes as a local peasant described his family's ties to a long forgotten indi-
genous group that is witnessing a modest resurgence.

"What is the name of your mother and father?" Hartmann asked Julio Fuentes, a wisp of a man
parked on a wooden bench. "Where do they live? How old are they?"

Hartmann fired off a dozen more questions as part of his effort to complete the first census of
the descendants of the Taino Indians, an indigenous group that once thrived in this remote re-
gion of eastern Cuba and later were thought to be extinct.

"Julio is a mixture of Spanish and Indian like many people," explained Hartmann, a historian and
Taino expert. "I want to eliminate the myth once and for all that the Indians were extinguished
in Cuba."

For years, anthropologists widely believed this island's once-powerful Taino Indians were exter-
minated shortly after Christopher Columbus sailed into a pristine bay and walked the steep,
thickly forested terrain more than 500 years ago.

The explorer spent only a week in the area in 1492 but described the Taino as gentle, hard-
working people growing crops and navigating the crystalline waters in huge dug-out canoes.

But, in a familiar story throughout the Americas, war and disease decimated the Taino, whose
sense of identity was further razed over the centuries by racism and by generations of inter-
mixing with whites, blacks and others who settled here.

Today, it's difficult to differentiate Taino descendents from the average Cuban peasant, or
guajiro, as they are called.

Yet, Hartmann and a group of experts continue to press ahead, rewriting the tale of the Taino's
demise in an effort to set the historical record straight and foster recognition among the island's
11 million residents of the group's contribution to Cuban life.

With a new museum, academic conferences and other projects, they also are trying to nurture
a nascent sense of identity among the hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Taino descendents
who are scattered along Cuba's impoverished eastern tip.

"We are recovering knowledge that was forgotten, knowledge that my parents and grandpa-
rents had," said Fuentes, 51. "A lot of people had knowledge but lived and died without know-
ing its Indian origin."

Experts say Taino influences are everywhere.

The palm-thatched huts common in the region are similar to those built centuries ago by the
indigenous group. Some farmers till the soil using a long, sharpened pole known to the Taino
as a coa.

Fuentes said he uses a coa to remove old plantain trees and dig latrines, while harvesting
beans, sweet potatoes and other crops according to the four lunar phases - a belief system
of indigenous origin.

Some coastal residents fish with small nets in the Taino style and crabs are trapped using
a crude, box-shaped device that has changed little over the centuries, experts say.

Although the Taino language, Arawak, has all but died in Cuba, hundreds of indigenous words
are peppered throughout the local Spanish. Many of the names of the island's most well-
known places - from Havana to Camaguey to Baracoa - come from the Arawak language.

"The Taino culture permeates the culture of Cuba in a fundamental way," explained Jose
Barreiro, a Cuban-American scholar of Taino history. "It's the base culture of the country
along with Spanish and African influences."

Experts say the Taino migrated north from South America's Amazon basin centuries ago,
populating much of what is now Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

The Taino arrived in Cuba about 300 years before Columbus and eventually numbered in
the hundreds of thousands.

Organized in villages under the authority of caciques or chiefs, the Taino cultivated beans,
yucca, corn and other crops, along with something they called cohiba, or tobacco.

They hunted turtles, snakes, iguanas and a giant rodent called a jutia, while also adhering
to a complex set of spiritual beliefs whose primary deity, Yucahuguama, represented agri-
culture and the ocean.

Roberto Ordunez, an anthropologist and director of the Taino museum in Baracoa, a pictu-
resque colonial town of 50,000, said Columbus described a large, thriving agricultural community.

"I climbed up a mountain and found the flat lands planted with many things," Ordunez said
Columbus observed in his journal in 1492. "It was a pleasure to see it and in the middle of it
was a large population."

Although the Taino left no large monuments, they built canals for channeling water, caves
for storing food during drought and a network of stone footpaths for travel and to escape
their enemies, a raiding tribe known as the Carib.

But the Taino had no chance against the Spanish, who brought malaria, smallpox and other
deadly diseases, along with modern weapons.

Still, some put up a fight.

An indigenous leader named Hatuey traveled from the island of Hispaniola to Baracoa to
warn the Tainos about the conquistadores. He was captured, refused to convert to
Christianity and was burned at the stake.

Hatuey remains a revered figure in Cuba, where his story is among the first lessons taught
to schoolchildren.

"Hatuey is considered the first rebel in America because he was the first to understand the
abuses of the colonialists and rebel against them," explained Noel Cautin, a guide at the
Taino museum.

A second indigenous leader, Guama, launched hit-and-run attacks against the conquista
dores for a decade before he was killed, perhaps by his own brother, in 1532.

By then, the Taino numbered only a few thousand, a figure that continued to plummet.
Historians in the 19th century declared there were no indigenous left on the island.

"Those who remained were in remote areas and the historians were primarily in the cities,
" Barriero said. "The Taino also had adopted Spanish technology and language."

Barriero and others say that not a single Taino community remains intact, though the group's
culture is best preserved in La Caridad de los Indios and a handful of other remote villages
in the mountains southwest of Baracoa.

In a sign of growing international recognition, the Smithsonian Institution last year returned
bone fragments from seven Taino Indians to the La Caridad community for a sacred reburial.

The human remains along with thousands of indigenous artifacts were taken almost a century
ago by American archaeologist Mark Harrington and later fell into the possession of the Smith-
sonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

Another source of pride is Baracoa's modest Taino museum, which opened last year in a hill-
side cave and displays pendants, necklaces and other pre-Columbian artifacts made of shells
and other materials.

Fuentes has visited the museum twice.

"I felt pride because I hadn't seen these things before and because I'm part of this culture,"
he said.
« Last Edit: February 29, 2008, 05:50:32 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

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« Reply #61 on: February 29, 2008, 05:52:29 pm »

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« Reply #62 on: February 29, 2008, 05:57:17 pm »

                                                  An Indian revival in Cuba?

                      Once thought to be lost, Tainos now striving to keep their past alive

By Tracey Eaton
The Dallas Morning News,
12 July 2003

BARACOA, Cuba – At the top of a winding dirt path, past palm trees and overhanging branches,
is the entrance to a cave. And inside is one of Cuba's newest and most unusual museum exhibits: ancient remains of a fabled Taino Indian.

For years, scholars thought a museum was about the only place one could find traces of the long-
lost tribe.

Now though, a different view has emerged: the Tainos survived the Spanish conquest –and 1,000
to 3,000 of their descendants can be found in eastern Cuba. The Indians, with help from support-
ers in the United States, Puerto Rico and other nations, are on a quest to revive what's left of their indigenous culture and customs.

Just how successful they'll be remains to be seen. Resources for such work are scarce. Many Taino descendants are too busy trying to survive tough economic times to worry about their culture. And many traditions have already been forgotten, said Roberto Orduñez, president of the Archaeological Society of Baracoa.

Still, he and others push ahead.

"It's important to remember the past because, without it, we are nothing," Mr. Orduñez said.

A sign of the Indians' modest international support came earlier this year when the Smithsonian Institution sent bone fragments of seven Taino Indians to Cuba to be reburied.

Smithsonian workers –and members of three Indian tribes– attended the reburial ceremony in Cari-
dad de los Indios, a village in the mountains of eastern Cuba.

A 1989 U.S. law requires federally funded museums to inventory and, if requested, repatriate human remains to Indian groups. And while the law doesn't cover Cuba, Taino leaders in the United States spent seven years trying to arrange the reburial, finally succeeding in January.

American archaeologist Mark Harrington had dug up the remains –and thousands of artifacts– in 1915.
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« Reply #63 on: February 29, 2008, 06:01:04 pm »

Before Columbus

The Taino first journeyed to Cuba from what is now South America about 300 years before
Christopher Columbus came ashore in 1492.

Columbus wrote that the Indians, then thought to number at least 120,000, impressed him
with their "naked innocence. ... They are very gentle without knowing what evil is, without
killing, without stealing."

Columbus later decided the Indians should be enslaved, writing in his journals, "They will make
excellent servants." His vision never came to be.

During the Spanish conquest, hordes of the Taino –no one knows precisely how many– died
of smallpox, malaria, abuse or starvation. Others were killed in battle.

One Indian leader, Hatuey, tried to organize a rebellion against the Spanish in the 1530s.
He was captured and burned alive, and is remembered as a hero in Cuban classrooms today.

By 1508, only an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Tainos remained, according to the magazine
Native Peoples. By 1544, a Catholic bishop reported that 60 were left.

Today, descendants of the Indians can be found throughout the island's eastern tip.

José Ramón Pérez, 57, lives with his family in a tiny settlement called Los Enanos, or The
Dwarves, a 30-minute walk from the highway that stretches from Baracoa to Guantánamo.
He grows yucca, plantains, corn, beans and other crops the Indian way – all mixed in toge-
ther in the same garden, a method that he says keeps the soil rich.

Mr. Pérez also cultivates at least a dozen medicinal plants.

"This one's good for colds," he said, bending down to touch a leafy plant growing outside his home. "This other plant is good for aches and pain, and this one will improve your eyesight.
My grandfather taught me all about these plants. Now I'm teaching my children."

His eldest son, Luider Pérez, 37, said he enjoys learning the Taino customs.

"You realize just how much you can do with plants and natural medicine," he said. "Every-
thing's here right in this yard, practically an entire pharmacy. I have plants that will cure your
kidneys, your stomach and ones that will calm your nerves."

His father, a rugged man with an easy smile and bronze, sun-baked skin, picked up a gourd.
"I'll tell you what this is for," he said, balancing the gourd on his head. "Find a pond, go into
the water up to your neck and put the gourd on your head. Then wait until a bird lands on it.
Stay still and then snatch the bird with your hands. Real fast. And it's dinnertime!"
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« Reply #64 on: February 29, 2008, 06:04:50 pm »

Mixed with other races

Whether that is an Indian tradition isn't clear.

The Tainos over the years have intermingled with blacks, whites and people of mixed race.
Few Indians of 100 percent Taino blood are thought to remain. But experts say indigenous
roots likely abound on the island, especially if one considers studies undertaken in Puerto

There, scientists asked 56 people with Taino features to volunteer for a DNA test, and a full
70 percent had Indian DNA.

No such studies have been carried out in Cuba, but scholars say the results would probably
be similar.

Even so, many Taino descendants are hard to tell apart from the guajiros, or country folk, who
inhabit Cuba's farmland. And some pay little attention to heritage, which hurts efforts to pre-
serve the culture, Mr. Orduñez said.

"We're losing much of that history," he said.

Ultimately, some say, what might help save Taino culture is tourism, Cuba's leading industry.
That's because tourism promoters are eager for new attractions.

The museum exhibit in Baracoa, Cuba's first capital, is an example of that. It is in a natural
cave on a hillside overlooking town. It features Taino bones, pottery and other finds.

"This is part of Cuba's history," museum guide Leicer Gallardo said. "It's very special."
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« Reply #65 on: February 29, 2008, 06:08:47 pm »

Meeting descendants

He and other guides also take visitors to villages where Taino descendants remain.

One such concentration of descendants is in the coastal town of Manglito, northwest of

"My father was an Indian," said longtime resident Walquimides Hernández Sevilla, 74. "Most
of the people here have at least some Taino blood. But some don't admit it or it doesn't
matter to them."

His neighbor, for instance, said she almost never thinks of her Indian past.

"I have too many problems for that," said Marta Lores Arias, 42. "My husband died five months
ago. My house needs a roof. And somebody stole my two pigs."

The situation is bad, she said. She and her two young children barely get by on her plantain
and other crops and the few ducks, goats and chickens that scamper around in her yard.

Baracoa archeologists are doing a census to try to determine just how many people have
Taino blood.

"We are working with Indian descendants to try to help them rescue their past," Mr. Orduñez
said. "But we don't want to force it on them or change their lives. They've got to want to do it."

Taino activists in the United States, Puerto Rico and other nations are further along. They hold
regular conferences on Taino culture –including one yearly meeting in Cuba– and routinely pub-
lish the results of new studies on the Indians.

Such networking has allowed researchers to collect a wealth of information on the Tainos. They
know the Indians were of average height and had dark, flowing hair. They knew how to sail, fish
and make canoes. They grew potatoes, guava, garlic and other crops. They also crafted their
own hammocks, ate yucca bread and played the maraca, a musical instrument.

The Indians were peaceful but had a fierce rival before the Spanish arrived: the Carib tribe.

The Caribs raided Taino villages, captured women and girls for use as slaves and practiced canni-
balism. The Taino were – and are – much more noble, experts say.

"They are simple, modest people, but have great pride in their ancestry," said José Barreiro, a
Cuban-American researcher at Cornell University and author of a book about the Taino Indians.
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