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  The Onaway Trust
< the Taino project

The story of the Taino Indians of Cuba

The Great Dying

Santa Maria 1492
Santa Maria, 1492

Following the fateful arrival of Columbus in Cuba in 1492 and its subsequent occupation between 1494 and 1513 by Spanish conquistadors, both the island and its Taino - Arawak Indian peoples' idyllic world were irrevocably shattered. Yet, Columbus' first landings in Cuba and the West Indies carried no dark portent for the Indians, only the high magic of miraculous advent. His very presence: "The fair skin, the look of command, the glistening armour, the manly beard, the death-dealing carbine, all rendered Columbus supernatural divinity and power in their eyes." (Christopher Columbus by Emilio Castelar. 1892)

Of all Columbus' 'discoveries', Cuba stirred in him the deepest, most affecting emotions. He wrote in rapturous terms of "its streams strewn with the showered petals of the myriad flowers that festooned their banks, the beautiful mountain ranges that stretched not far but rose to lofty heights. The cool and aromatic groves, the yams that tasted like sweet chestnuts, the brightly plumaged birds and the inexhaustible aloes." Such enchantments led him to pronounce Cuba the "most beautiful land that eyes ever beheld."
(Christopher Columbus by Emilio Castelar. 1892)

Map of Cuba

Equally alluring to Columbus were the Taino-Arawak Indians he met during his island hoppings of the West Indies. His journals record their "Naked innocence and quick response to the influences of kindness rather than acts of force... Their hair, thick as a horse's mane, falls in long locks upon their shoulders. They are shapely of body and handsome of face. So ignorant of arms are they that they grasp swords by the blade! They are very gentle, without knowing what evil is, without killing, without stealing."

Even so, Columbus' rainbow rhapsody of Eden-like islands and their peaceful, welcoming inhabitants could not last. It was eventually pierced by his reminder to himself that the goal was not to write lyrical poems but to find gold. Gold would be glittering evidence back home in Spain of his discoveries and earn him both immortal fame and earthly riches.

Spurred on by greed as much as hope, Columbus left Cuba and sailed eastwards. He duly landed on Haiti where, to his disappointment, he found no great caches of gold, only small trinkets worn by the Indians. These, without conscience, he took from his innocents, along with a whole New World for Spain. In return he gave them worthless glass beads!

Enthused by his meretriciousness, Columbus mentally performed a volte-face. Writing to their Spanish majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, he boasted that he could supply them with "slaves, as many of these idolatrous Indians as your highnesses can command to be shipped, along with as much gold as you need. Gold is most excellent. Gold is treasure and he who possesses it does all he wishes to do in this world."

Columbus failed to deliver on his boast and earned not personal fortune but only fame; even the latter is considered today as more synonymous with infamy! But his avaricious exaltation of the pursuit of gold was the irresistible, resounding clarion call to his fellow Spaniards to invade the Americas. They did so with zeal and alacrity and set in motion a holocaust of horror and death for the Native peoples, a holocaust that is epitomised in the story of Hatuey and the conquest and colonisation of Cuba. In 1511 the Spaniard, Diego Velasquez, sailed from Hispaniola to Cuba. On landing he was resisted by Taino Indians under a chieftain, Hatuey, already a witness to Diego's atrocities elsewhere. For some time, they valiantly defended the island, skillfully making sudden attacks on the Spaniards and then retreating to the hills. Eventually, however, Spanish military power overwhelmed them. Defeated, they were subjected to barbarous tortures.

Hatuey was sentenced by the Spanish Crown to a public death and was burned alive at the stake. The Spanish priest, Bartolomé de la Casa, recorded the words of the chieftain to his people: "These tyrants tell us they adore a God of peace and equality, yet they usurp our land and enslave us. They speak of an immortal soul and of eternal rewards and punishments. They rob us, seduce our women and violate our daughters. Unable to match us in valour, these cowards cover themselves in iron that our spears cannot pierce."

Bartolomé de la Casa also described the fate of the Tainos. "A village of around 2500 was wiped out. They (the Spaniards) set upon the Indians, slashing, disembowelling and slaughtering them until their blood ran like a river. And of those Tainos they kept alive they sent to the mines, harnessing them to loads they could scarcely drag and with fiendish sport and mockery hacking off their hands and feet and mutilating them in ways that will not bear description."

Today, Hatuey is still regarded as the first martyr in the struggle for Cuban independence. For the Tainos of Eastern Cuba he remains an integral part of their oral tradition and each year a pilgrimage is still made by them to the site of his horrific death.

By 1527, Spanish control of the Greater Antilles* was complete and some ten million Taino-Arawak Indians had perished. The few survivors, in their infinite grief, spoke of The Great Dying of their peoples. They did not know then that the dying would go on and on as the Spaniards and rival Europeans, still lusting after conquest and gold, swept like a demon plague through Middle and South America. As the year 1600 dawned the holocaust had engulfed a further 95 million Indians. (*Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico).

Today, there are 40 million Indians in the Americas. In many ways they still struggle against suppression, racism, and subtler forms of genocide and assimilation. But now they are strong of will and purpose and are experiencing powerful ethnic resurgence. Rigoberta Menchu* in a foreword to Phillip Wearne's marvellous book, Return of the Indian, 1996. writes: "We are moving into the light of a new era. After so many years of waiting for a new dawn we believe that our voices will make themselves heard, that you will listen to us and support our legitimate aspirations." (*Rigoberta Menchu: Mayan Indian and Nobel Prize winner of 1992).

  Cacique Pedro Guanikeyu Torres, Principal Chief of the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Boriken (Puerto Rico)
 
Cacique Pedro
Guanikeyu Torres, Principal Chief of the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of
Boriken (Puerto Rico)

We are still here

For five hundred years, historians asserted that the Caribbean Taino-Arawak Indians were wholly extinct, victims of Spanish conquest. Today, it is known that thousands of Taino descendants are alive and well, not only in Cuba but in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Florida, New York, California, Hawaii and even Spain.

Since 1997 Taino Indians have been reunited annually with their relatives of the diaspora at a conference held in Baracoa, Cuba's First City. For Panchito Ramirez, healer, herbalist and Taino cacique (chief) of Caridad de los Indios, a Cuban mountain village, the reunion is ongoing answer to his many prayers. "It is as if our ancestors are now sending their children back to us, for we now know we are not the last of our kind and are not alone."

The conferences have opened up to the world the reality of Taino continued existence, their invaluable contributions to the fabric of Cuban society, and in 2001 brought together the largest contingent yet of Native representatives, scholars, medical professionals and journalists. On the last day of the conference, Cuban government officials gave the gathering the welcome and ringing assurance that "Cuba fully supports and will not allow any harm to come to its Indian Peoples."

Taino Indian Bohio - thatched dwelling  
Taino Indian Bohio - thatched dwelling
 

Caridad de los Indios is so remote from mainstream Cuban modernity that Ramirez and his 350 Indian villagers live today as simply as did their ancestors, keeping deep resonance with their ancient customs and spiritual lifeways. "Our Taino homes," says Ramirez, "are traditional bohios, huts with thatched roofs, set amidst Conuco's, our permaculture* raised-bed gardens. The Conuco's are our ample 'grocery store' and provide us with most of our fruits and vegetables." (*The contraction of 'permanent agriculture')

The Taino intuitive at-oneness with all of Nature is still being manifestly expressed, healthwise, by the richly enduring benefit they reap from the harvesting of plants from their lush valleys and forested mountains. Their unbroken practice of extracting efficacious herbal medicines now attracts global interest and is a constant theme for conference discussion.

Indeed, Taino 'green medicine' as it is known is greatly valued by the Cuban government which promotes its wide use as an alternative to pharmaceutical medicine. Cuban children in elementary schools are trained in herbal remedies which they can prepare at home as poultices, tinctures, salves and teas. And local gardens, even in cities, are almost all organic and stocked with natural medicine plants.

As an extension to the 2001 conference, Panchito Ramirez and his daughter Reina* offered delegates a tour of a 'healing forest' on an island in Cuba's Toa River. Vigilantly conserved and protected, the sacred forest is a cornucopia of hundreds of medicinal plants. Delegates agreed that it was a highlight of an already unforgettable conference and reunion. Before their leave-taking, Reina asked the delegates to carry a message home to Native women in the North to remind them "that we are all related. Tell them that the women here in Caridad send greetings to our sister-mothers in the North Americas and other lands. Tell them to keep their traditions. We wish for them healthy children." (*Panchito's helper in healing ceremonies.)

Daniel Wakonax Rivera, a Taino Indian from Brooklyn, New York, wistfully recalled how six days into his visit he found what he was longing for. "When we climbed over that last ridge in the mountains and I heard the drums and the songs of our people welcoming us I was overwhelmed with emotion." With tears in his eyes, he added: "It was like coming home." Echoing Daniel, Inarunikia Pastrana, a Taino Indian nurse, said, "Our ancestors fought for survival and thanks to their tenacity the resurgence and restoration of the Taino people are a reality. Our language is heard again, our songs are sung again. Against all odds we have defeated extinction and continue to rescue our ancestral heritage and culture."

 

   

How to help

The Onaway Trust, 275 Main Street, Shadwell, Leeds, LS17 8LH, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 113 265 9611 Email: david@onaway.org

The Onaway Trust is a registered charity - number 268448.