Drafted by Pedro Ferbel and approved in 1999 by the then editors of the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink:
The Indigenous Legacy of the Caribbean
The Native Inhabitants of the Caribbean have a long and rich history of cultural development that is often overshadowed by the tragedy of their being the first Amerindian people to suffer the effects of European colonization. As the first to encounter Columbus, the Taino and Carib have been written into Western history as the first victims of Spanish genocide in the Americas.
For reasons of political expediency, the Native people of the Caribbean were declared extinct in the mid-sixteenth century, even though they continued to exist on the margins of Caribbean colonial society. Against great adversity — sharing with and borrowing from other cultures — Indigenous bloodlines, traditions, and life ways persisted for five hundred years to the present. While the degree of Native heritage and the strength of Native identification varies from island to island and community to community, many individuals of Indigenous Caribbean ancestry are today reclaiming their past. Upon examination and contemplation, the story of their extinction is proving to have been a myth. There is a general awakening of the Native contributions to Caribbean culture and, contrary to the record of extinction, the Taino and Carib are entering the twenty-first century very much alive.
Critical re-assessment of historic chronicles along with ethnographic studies of Indigenous survivals in the Caribbean are providing a more complete record that contradicts the supposed extinction of the Taino and Carib. Indian people and customs are found continuously “between the lines” of census records and historical reports and a large amount of Native culture has survived in the forms of language, food ways, architecture, agriculture, medicinal knowledge, folklore, family life, spiritual practice, and popular identity. Blood studies and anthropometric studies have also supported commonly held understandings of the persistence of certain biological characteristics identified with Natives in many parts of the Caribbean.
While it is certainly true that the Native people mixed with Africans and Spaniards, and incorporated different bloodlines and culture into their own, this does not mean they became “extinct.” Anthropologists have begun to discard racist definitions of group boundedness and today see how populations are in a constant state of flux. When survival is the principal goal of community, cultural forms become flexible toward this end. From outside the community come questions of “Who is or is not an Indian?” Inside the community it goes without saying and begs the question “Who has the authority to define?” Furthermore, as suggested in the American Anthropological Association’s recent Statement on Race, the notion of “blood purity” is neither a biological concept nor does biology have a necessary connection to cultural continuity.
In different parts of the Caribbean, Native identification is expressed differently. In the Dominican Republic, for example, Taino heritage is so pervasive in many contemporary cultural forms– including language, food ways, agriculture, architecture, medicinal knowledge, crafts and technologies, folklore and religion, and other forms of popular expression — that it is difficult to maintain the theory of Taino extinction. However, while Taino heritage is strong, the Taino past has been downplayed in favour of an assimilated, colonized Hispanic nationalist identity. Like the identities of many colonized people living in American nations, history and culture have been driven by the actions of State and Church control. Furthermore, contemporary European and Western culture threaten traditional cultural forms as do social and economic processes of foreign emigration and migration to cities to work for foreign sponsored assembly and tourist industries.
The direction that Taino and Carib identity will take in the twenty-first century Caribbean seems to depend on both the survival of indigenous cultural elements in the face of advancing Western capitalist culture, and on the work of motivated individuals to critically examine the composition and politics of their past and present. The same could be said of Taino and Carib identity in the American diaspora.
Ultimately, though, it is an emotional feeling of identification that comes from the heart that leads to the defining and strengthening of culture. The simple possession of an inventory of cultural attributes, rituals, or the expression of resistance against oppressive forms of history and culture are only part of the story. This “identification from the heart” arises from the active vision of elders, the true teaching of parents to their children, the selfless commitment of individuals to their community, and the heartfelt love and respect for the spirit of the land people live on and call their home. And it is in these subtle, yet transcendent ways that the Taino and Carib have struggled and survived.