Taíno: The living legacy of a colonial past

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.

Black and white photo of couple with four children

The Barrientos family was formed by a Spanish ex-soldier and an Indigenous woman from Baracoa, Cuba, more than 400 years after Spanish colonization.
Photo by Mark Raymond Harrington, 1919. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. (N01404)

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.

Etching of enslaved people

Enslavement, resistance, and spirituality connected the cultures and lives of African and Native peoples across the Caribbean. This print depicts enslaved laborers working a sugar plantation on Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in the early 1500s.
Illustration from “Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen na Oost en West-Indiën … zedert het jaar 1492 tot 1499” (Careful collection of the most memorable sea and land trips to the East and West Indies … dates from 1492 to 1499), published by Pieter van der Aa, 1707. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

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.

Panel of five people seated on stage

Ranald Woodaman moderates a panel discussion at the symposium “Taíno: A Symposium in Dialogue with the Movement.” From left, are Woodaman (Smithsonian Latino Center); Jorge Estevez (National Museum of the American Indian/Grupo Higuayagua); Elba Anaca Lugo (Consejo General de Taínos Borincanos); Valeriana Shashira Rodríguez (Consejo de Ancianos de Borikén); and Sherina Feliciano-Santos (University of South Carolina).( Photo courtesy Ranaldo Woodaman)

“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.”

Page from comic book featuring female heroine

Puerto Rican superhero La Borinqueña is shown during a mystical encounter with the powerful deity Yucahu, who appears as a mountain-sized version of a cemi, a type of ritual object. In the comic, she encounters other Native deities originally described in the 1498 chronicle An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians.
Comic book illustration from La Borinqueña #1, written and created by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez. Illustration by Will Rosado and digital colors by Juan Fernández. © 2016 Somos Arte, LLC

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
About the Author:

Amy Rogers Nazarov writes about D.C. culture & history and manages social media for non-profits and small businesses from her home on Capitol Hill. Her byline has appeared in Cooking Light, The Writer, Psychology Today, The Washington Post and many other print and Web publications. Before going freelance, she spent a decade reporting on high tech for a wide array of newspapers and magazines.