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Date: Wednesday, May 03, 2000 12:33 AM

Date: Tue, 2 May 2000 17:26:49 -0400
From: Ms. Beverly Carey Torres <titc@DANDY.NET>
Subject: =?Windows-1252?Q?Cuba__A_Note_on_Tainos:_Whither_Progress=3F_By_Jos=E9_Ba?= =?Windows-1252?Q?rreiro?=

Indian Vision/Spanish Mission

By José Barreiro, Northeast Indian Quarterly,
Fall 1990

The Tainos had many cosmological stories and fundamental cultural principles. High among these was the organization of people to produce food and the value of feeding everyone in each community. Whatever else can be said of their ancient way of life, it contrasted starkly with the Spanish idea of economics in 1500. As Las Casas and others have attested, the migrations to America occurred because no such principle was at work in Europe during the same and later times. Even the earliest encounters between Iberians and Tainos provide evidence of the fundamental American Indigenous thinking about this human value, which is found throughout the continent and continues to be one of the contrapuntal arguments between the American Indian civilization and European civilization as fueled by Judeo-Roman-Christian precepts.

A telling event occurred when the Spanish were pressing against Guaironex's Indians in Santo Domingo. Guarionex was one of the main five caciques of La Española. His territory in the Valley of La Vega was highly esteemed for its agricultural productivity. In 1494-95, after Columbus imposed a tribute of gold to be paid by every Taino man, woman or child, Guarionex went to the first colonizer with a counter offer. Ctiaironex's main chiefs gathered over one thousand men with coas (planting sticks) in hand. They offered, if Columbus would drop the gold tribute, to plant all the food the Spanish would ever want to eat. They said to Columbus: we will feed you here on the island and also all of your people back in Castile. You don't even need to work. But of course, the colonizers wanted gold or, in lieu of it, slaves and precious woods. This documented event where chiefs offer men with planting sticks to appease Spanish hunger focuses the value of land as equalizer, with the provision of basic sustenance as fundamental right of everyone. (Tyler 1988)

By all descriptions, Taino life and culture at contact was uniquely adapted to its environment. Population estimates vary greatly but put the number of inhabitants in Española (Santo Domingo/Haiti) at approximately half a million to seven million. Estimates for Cuba vary from 120,000 to 200,000, with newer estimates pushing that number up. Whether one takes the low or the high estimates, early descriptions of Taino life at contact tell of large concentrations, strings of a hundred or more villages of five hundred to one thousand people. These concentrations of people in coastal areas and river deltas were apparently well-fed by a nature-harvesting and agricultural production system whose primary value was that all of the people had the right to eat. Everyone in the society had a food or other goods producing task, even the highly esteemed caciques and behiques (medicine people), who were often seen to plant, hunt, and fish along with their people. In the Taino culture, as with most natural world cultures of the Americas, the concept was still fresh in the human memory that the primary bounties of the earth, particularly those that humans eat, are to be produced in cooperation and shared.

Comparison of the life-style described by the early chroniclers and today's standard of living in Haiti and Dominican Republic for the majority of the population, as well as the ecological degradation caused by extensive deforestation, indicates that the island and its human citizens were better fed, healthier and better governed by the Taino's so-called primitive methods than the modern populations of that same island. (Tyler 1988)

Like all American indigenous peoples, the Taino had an involved economic life. They could trade throughout the Caribbean and had systems of governance and beliefs that maintained harmony between human and natural environments. The Tainos enjoyed a peaceful way of life that modern anthropologists now call ecosystemic. In the wake of recent scientific revelations about the cost of high impact technologies upon the natural world, a culture such as the Taino, that could feed several million people without permanently wearing down its surroundings, might command higher respect. As can be seen throughout the Americas, American indigenous peoples and their systems of life have been denigrated and mis-perceived. Most persistent of European ethnocentrisms toward Indians is the concept of the primitive, always buttressed with the rule of least advanced to most advanced imposed by the prism of Western Civilization-the more primitive a people, the lower the place they are assigned in the scale of civilization. The anti-nature attitude inherent in this idea came over with the Iberians of the time, some of whom even died rather than perform manual labor, particularly tilling of the soil. The production and harvesting of food from sea, land and forests were esteemed human activities among Tainos. As with other indigenous cultures, the sophistication and sustainability of agricultural and natural harvesting systems was an important value and possibly the most grievous loss caused by the conquest of the Americas. The contrast is direct with the Spanish (and generally Western) value that to work with land or nature directly, as a farmer and/or harvester, is a lowly activity, thus relegated to lesser humans and lower classes. This attitude is ingrained in popular thinking in most Western countries through jokes about the country bumpkin and the city slicker which invoke superior attitudes about dumb farmers. In that tradition, the least desirable thing is to work with your hands.

In the Spanish annals, Española is described as the most advanced of the greater Antilles. Tainos in Espanola were known for their good communications and productive agriculture. Espanola was the center of Taino culture, which appears to have traveled from there to Cuba and the outer islands. Gardens, ballcourts, and huge areitos (roundances) with speaking forums and poets characterized that lush island, which was confederated into five main cacicasgos or kinship nations.

There was little of no quarreling observed among the Tainos by the Spaniards. The old caciques and their councils of elders, were said to be well-behaved, had a deliberate way of speaking and great authority. Las Casas wrote, the Indians have much better judgement and maintain much better public order and government than many other nations which are overwhelmingly proud of themselves and which hold Indians in contempt. The peoples were organized to the gardens (conucos) or to the sea and the hunt. They had ball games played in bateyes, or courtyards, in front of the cacique's house. They held both ceremonial and social dances, called areitos, during which their creation stories and other cosmologies were recited. Among the few Taino-Arawak customs that have survived the longest, the predominant ideas are that ancestors should be properly greeted by the living humans at prescribed times and that natural forces and the spirits behind each group of food and medicinal plants and useful animals should be appreciated in ceremony. (Las Casas 1971)

Contrary to popular imagination, the Tainos were a disciplined people. Particularly during their spiritual and healing ceremonies, natural impulses were limited. In those important instances, strong abstinence over sexual activity and eating were demanded, even under penalty of death. The local cacique and his medicine man, the Taino behique, had the task of calling the ceremonial times. Among these were the famous areitos reported by Pane. These were round dances and recitation ceremonies, where thanksgivings were made for various natural and plant spirits, and the ancient stories were told. They included the most ancient of Creation time stories, of Deminan and his three skydweller brothers, the four Taino cosmological beings (four sacred directions) who walked on clouds and blue sky over the spirit world of the Caribbean. Orphaned by their virgin mother at birth, the sacred beings, called Caracaracolesin Taino, wandered the sky islands, here and there receiving creative powers from ornery old shamans who carried it from even farther back. This way, out of gourds (jicaras), they created the oceans and fish; out of a turtle, the islands; from spirit babies, toads; and from toads, the rains and waters; from clay and stars, men; from jobo trees, their prayer statues; and, from the river manatee, exquisite source of sustenance, women. 2 (Arrom 1989)

At the areito, carved wooden statuettes, called cemis, representing the various forces, were polished and addressed, fed and smoked for. A tribal meditation and vision took place, often with the use of the sacred herb, cohoba, a hallucinogenic snuff compounded from the seeds of anadenanthera peregrina. In the areito, elements of the plant and animal life were remembered. There were areitos and cemis for the season of Huracan, singings for the four beings, for the origin of the sun and moon, the ocean and fishes, the snake and jutia, for the guayaba, the ceiba, the corn, the name and the yucca. Yucca, a tuber and their main food, was the special gift, and singularly represented by the Yucahu, the Taino's identification for the Supreme or Original Being.