Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean at NMAI NY

Taíno: Herencia e identidad indígena en el Caribe | Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean” at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York opened on July 28, 2018. In Marabou’s opinion, this exhibition is a big step in deconstructing the mythology that obscures the truth about the “founding” of the Americas. For many, it is clear that Christopher Columbus did not discover America. Even though some teachers no longer sugarcoat the unsavory realities of Columbus’ contact with the so-called “New World,” the people who encountered Columbus when he lost his way usually remain unnamed. The Columbus-imposed name, “indian” was applied to the native people of Hispaniola, but became a blanket term for all native people of the Americas, erasing the individuality among indigenous nations. Descendants of native populations who live in the Caribbean refer to themselves today as Taíno. This is not necessarily the name native people would have called themselves at the time of Columbus’ arrival. The name was first recorded in Spanish documentation from 1493 and could have meant “good people.” NMAI explains, “The term Taíno most directly refers to the diverse Arawak-speaking peoples of the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico) and their descendants.” (Arawak identifies a people and a language. Arawak people are indigenous populations from South America and the Caribbean. The Taíno are a subgroup of the larger Arawak population.) Exhibition text goes on to say, “Today Taíno has been embraced by many Caribbean people with native ancestry as a term that unites their historical experiences and cultural identities.” Identifying and naming the people who Columbus first encountered is an act of reclamation. Not only was the Taíno name lost as Columbus’ story was mythologized over the years, historians stated that the Taíno population had gone extinct shortly after European contact. “Taíno: Herencia e identidad indígena en el Caribe” asserts the continuing presence of Taíno culture from pre-contact to the present, and provides an alternate version of the Columbus “discovery” narrative.

In the Alexander Hamilton Customs House rotunda, a portrait of Christopher Columbus is circled in yellow. The arrow points to entrance to the Taíno exhibition.

The exhibition is located in one of NMAI’s galleries on the main floor of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, just off the grand rotunda. The observant visitor will notice (as described in “A Tale of Two Architectures”) a full portrait of Christopher Columbus painted high on the ceiling of the rotunda, just across from the entry to the Taíno exhibition. NMAI does not mention or address the tension created by Columbus’ presence. Marabou considers this a missed opportunity to further emphasize the importance of this exhibition in the greater context of how American history has been understood.

Illustration from America, Part 4 of Grandes Voyages (Great Travels) by Theodor de Bry, 1594. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. On display in “Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean” at the National Museum of the American Indian in NY.

One of the first images encountered when entering the exhibition galleries is a European print that, per the museum label (all labels are in Spanish and English throughout the exhibition), “reimagines the first contact between the Native people of the present-day Bahamas and Christopher Columbus.” The print, pictured above, is a reflection of the often-told happy, violence-free version of Columbus’ story. In the background, large masted ships sit in the harbor while on land, nude natives dance or flee in fear. To the left of the image, three men in European dress erect what looks like an uneven Christian cross. In the foreground, two rifle-toting men wearing conquistador helmets and another man wearing a wide brimmed hat with a feather, all in European dress, are greeted by a slew of nude and semi-nude men. The semi-nude men hold and extend in offering cups, statutes, caskets, and jeweled sashes, all presumably of precious metals. The objects are styled in a European fashion, but seem to be gifts from the native people to the recently landed Europeans. The exhibition’s intent is to disrupt and complicate this oxymoronic idea of a peaceful European conquest of the Americas that has been perpetuated through the centuries by images like this and history texts.

Taíno (Chican Ostionoid) cemi, AD 1200-1500. Florida Adentro, Puerto Rico. Stone. Purchased in 1927 from an unknown source. NMAI 15/4580.

The exhibition is not extensive, but creates a timeline of existence that challenges the assertion that the native people of the Caribbean went extinct shortly after European contact. In the first gallery there are objects on display dating back to 1200 AD that speak to spiritual and social systems. Ancient Taíno objects that continue to be honored and acknowledged as they were in the past are cemis (sing. cemi), spiritual objects made from stone, wood, or cotton that depict the faces of native leaders and reflect their spiritual powers. With many faces and orientations, the cemis are also a means of communication. Depending on how they are positioned and if they are placed next to other cemis, thoughts and information can be communicated.

Comic book illustration from La Boriqueña #1, written and created by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriquez. Illustration by Will Rosado and digital colors by Juan Fernández. The powerful deity Yucahu appears as a mountain-sized cemi.

Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez has brought awareness about cemis to a generation of comic book fans through the world of La Boriqueña, a superhero who draws her powers “from history and mysticism found on the island of Puerto Rico.” In the image above, (per the museum label) “Puerto Rican superhero La Boriqueña is show 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.”

From pre-contact content, the galleries progress with wall text explaining consequences of colonization including the death of 90% of the native population from European diseases and failed attempts of native resistance that lead to the massacre of native leaders and the enslavement of those who survived. Since there were not enough enslaved indigenous people to work the plantations and mines (most of the Caribbean gold mines were exhausted by 1530), enslaved Africans were brought to Santo Domingo in 1503. The exhibition briefly discusses the cultural exchange between African and indigenous Caribbean people and their cooperation in resisting Spanish colonizers. The first part of the exhibition can be interpreted as filling in the blanks of erased Taíno history. Midway through, the exhibition acknowledges Taíno contributions felt on a global scale and creates a connection for visitors who may not have a personal or genealogical connection to Taíno culture.

A selection of Arawak words incorporated into Caribbean Spanish. Some of the Arawak words have been absorbed into English.

A large wall features a selection of Arawak words that were incorporated into Caribbean Spanish. An English speaking visitor may be surprised to see that these Arawak words have since been absorbed into English. The list includes huracán (hurricane), manatí (manatee), hamaca (hamaca), canoa (canoe), barbacoa (barbeque) and sabana (savannah). Marabou saw many visitors taking time to look at the words on the wall. Although very simple in design, colored vinyl letters on a painted wall, this part of the exhibition installation may have one of the strongest impacts.

A main purpose of the exhibition is to confirm that the Taíno culture continues to persist and that people are justified in identifying as Taíno. This is an undertone early on in the exhibition but becomes more pronounced as one progresses through the galleries. Taíno identity is something that is acknowledged as complex, it is about race as well as culture. One wall text entitled “Mestizaje en el Caribe | Mestizaje in the Caribbean” states,

Mestizaje is the Spanish word that describes the process of biological and cultural mixing of European, Native, African, and later, Asian peoples during colonization. The racial label mestizo (meaning “mixed”) comes from this word. Africans and their descendants, including enslaved and free people, are sometimes an ignored part of this legacy. Many in the Taíno movement emphasize that Native identity is maintained and can be reasserted by mixed-heritage people from the Caribbean.”

Under the title “Herencia enraizada en el campo | Heritage rooted in the countryside” text reads,

“While acknowledging their mixed ancestry (including African, Spanish, and other settler peoples), many contemporary Taíno emphasize an Indigenous heritage rooted in the rural cultures of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands. Most in the Taíno movement had family stories of Native (or indio) ancestry and traditions associated with healing, spirituality, plant knowledge and the use of local materials. These culturally blended and mixed-race people are the descendants–and the evidence of survival–of the islands’ Native peoples.”

NMAI addresses that aspects of Taíno identity are made more complex by colonization and subsequent historical erasure, and that there are disagreements within the Taíno community regarding who can and should identify as Taíno. In the last gallery NMAI, or at least the exhibition’s curators, makes a statement about where they stand regarding claims to Taíno identity,

“Expressing an identity is a personal decision that can also make a political statement. Coming together around the term Taíno is a declaration of survival and a testament to the value of Native knowledge and local traditions. Much of the Taíno movement centers on the creation and maintenance of communities that respond to the needs of the present. These communities provide members with a shared sense of belonging and the common purpose of exploring and connecting to their Indigenous roots.”

Following this explanation, the exhibition content invites visitors to consideration Taíno identity as it relates to race, politics, and even DNA. Marabou likes this approach and sees this exhibition as a beginning, an acknowledgement and discussion of Taíno culture, and a springboard for further conversations and organizing. As the Taíno movement and it’s main message, “Todavía estamos aquí (we are still here),” has continued to grow over the past 30 years, “Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean” serves as a foundation and convening point for those just learning about Taíno culture, for those who identify as Taíno, and for activists who have been involved in the Taíno movement for years.

For Marabou, this exhibition is an important step in providing the public with a more accurate understanding of American history. But we need to remember that this exhibition was necessary because Taíno people had been told for centuries that their people and culture no longer exist, that they are wrong for identifying as Taíno. What does that do to a person’s sense of self, to a person’s and a population’s cultural identity? If you do not have ancestors whose humanity has been denied, imagine being told you are wrong and foolish for believing in your culture and that your people went extinct long ago. Imagine having to prove that you and your culture exist, having to argue with established academics that your culture is not just one of the past, but very much alive. “Taíno: Herencia e identidad indígena en el Caribe” is a celebration and act of resistance for those who are familiar with the legacy of erasure and denial of Taíno existence. Marabou wonders if there is a way NMAI could somehow better translate the gravity and history of Taíno erasure and spark empathy in visitors who may be completely unaware. Learning about Taíno culture is, of course, important, but adding an opportunity for empathy would lead to deeper understanding.


“Taíno: Herencia e identidad indígena en el Caribe | Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean” runs until October 2019 at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

As of Jan 15, 2019, the date of publishing this post, NMAI NY is unfortunately closed due to the government shutdown.

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