The Indigenous people who met Columbus when he sailed across the ocean blue to “discover” the Bahamas were quickly overwhelmed and destroyed by their exposure to Europeans. Or were they? A new exhibition explores the living legacy of the Taíno.
The American Indian Museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York is hosting an exhibition that challenges long-held assumptions about Native people across the Greater Antilles—the group of Caribbean islands comprised of the Caymans, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
“Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean” explores the living legacy as well as the distant past of people who culturally or genetically identify as Taíno, says co-curator Ranald Woodaman.
“There’s this assumption that Native people in the Caribbean who encountered Columbus” were wiped out completely, he says. “But we have ample and growing historical and archaeological evidence to the contrary. Their populations were decimated, but they were not rendered extinct.”
Across the Caribbean, there is growing interest in the historical, cultural, and genetic legacies of Native peoples. In increasing numbers, individuals, families, and organizations are affirming their Native ancestry and identifying themselves as Taíno.
Since 2007, Woodaman has been with the Smithsonian Latino Center, which co-produced the Taíno exhibit with the National Museum of the American Indian.
Woodaman’s co-curator is Jose Barreiro, who retired last year. “He had done a lot of work gathering oral histories documenting Indigenous communities in eastern Cuba,” efforts that figured in the original concept dating to 2010, then known as the Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project, Woodaman says.
NMAI’s Jorge Estevez, who identifies as Taíno, is another key member of the team behind the exhibit, as is Jake Homiak of the National Museum, of Natural History, an expert on Rastafarian communities. They and others sought to develop an exhibition that would debunk certain myths about Caribbean Native peoples.
Woodaman said that the original vision for the exhibit that emerged from the Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project was too sprawling and had to be scaled back, partly due to the size of the gallery space earmarked for it.
“We had to narrow our lens,” he said. In the end, the exhibit focuses on “the legacy of Spanish-speaking peoples in the Caribbean and their disaporas,” or how large numbers of these populations spread to other locations around in the United States. Until now, “no one has addressed the contemporary Taíno movement, a movement of Caribbean people of Native descent who are reasserting their Indigenous identity” in part by seeking to better understand the cultural and historical roots of it, Woodaman says.
In any cultural group linked by geography, language, history and other factors, the present and the past co-exist, sometimes uneasily. Being viewed as a vibrant, living culture matters a great deal to members of a given group, some of whom are discovering pieces of their genetic histories via the surge in interest in at-home DNA testing. Also, the idea of resurrecting traditional practices, knowledge and customs applicable to modern members of the group and others holds great appeal.
Not only does the exhibit examine these factors, it challenges many others. “This is a very complicated topic,” Woodaman says, adding that “we are creating a new framework to understand Caribbean history.”
Sponsored by the Ralph Lauren Corporation and INICIA of the Dominican Republic, “Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean” is on view at Heye Center through October 2019.
Posted: 19 October 2018