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Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project

Beyond Extinction




Exhibition & Workshops


August 23-26, 2011 & July 3-10, 2012

 Report on discussion trends and topic

Jose Barreiro


 The belief is widespread that the indigenous peoples and cultures of the Greater Antilles (Taíno being the most culturally prevalent and widely accepted term) became extinct in the violent and exploitive wake of Spanish conquest and colonization. Yet, in the Greater Antilles and other areas of the Caribbean, the indigenous legacy—in language, bloodline, visual arts, foods, housing styles, in a range of spiritualist practices, and throughout popular culture—is palpable and constant.

 During the past three decades, this long-term contradiction has exploded into public consciousness in several Caribbean countries and their North American diasporas. This occurs in the arts, in music and literature, in tourist industry themes, and in popular memory, Taíno is in the ether. Most interestingly, increasing numbers of people among the Caribbean populations are asserting indigenous ethnicity and organizing and revitalizing (retribalizing) communities -- locally, regionally and virtually. Particularly in the Spanish-speaking Greater Antilles, this phenomenon --involving tens of thousands of people -- has spawned strong polemics on the nature of identity, ethnicity, race, biology and culture, and; on the historiography of extinction as dominant concept to define Caribbean indigeneity. The centuries old assumption of extinction that foundationally denies indigenous biological cultural survivals amongst the Caribbean's human populations is challenged by new scholarship, while a revitalization movement reinforces and re-channels a long-standing anxiety about land-based cultural identity among the same populations. Issues of cultural continuity and identity formation are raised as questions that loom large for all populations confronted by the fragmentation and individualization of identity generated by industrial economic society.

 In the Greater Antilles, the implication has been that the indigenous peoples (el sentido de gente autóctona natural) from the islands, who underwent subsequent wars, enslavement, cimarronaje, mestizaje, that these people, and their cultural legacy, was completely erased from our contemporary Caribbean peoples, in fact, that it had ceased to exist, extirpated from the face of the earth.

The 2010 United States Census

counts 19,839 individuals living in Puerto Rico officially claiming American Indian heritage.

 Yet extinction, when applied to a human group, or etnia, is always troublesome. Peoples do not easily cease to exist, not completely. Peoples and cultures evolve, adapt, assume new postures and new traits, sometimes even enter a state of dormancy, but complete disappearance is quite difficult to determine, and even to define. Rather than pursue negative evidence, then, the resolve is to gather and assess the actual manifestations of indigeneity in the Caribbean.

Continued Assertion of Extinction (Cuba) / On the Web Today


The Pre-Columbian population was about 112,000 … indigenous persons were enslaved and given to Europeans for use in mining and agricultural projects (a system called the encomienda). Indigenous people who resisted were murdered. Malnutrition, overwork, suicide, and brutality made the indigenous population virtually extinct within fifty years of the conquest.


The indigenous past was largely abandoned and forgotten, save only a few cultural survivals in language and architecture. The only people left on the island were peninsulares (those born in Spain), creoles (colonists of European decent who were born on the island), and African slaves. The struggle between these three groups determined the character of the colony and the meaning of Cuban-ness (cubanidad )….





 The Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project (CILP) is designed to explore and examine the topic of extinction and the evidence of continued Caribbean indigeneity through an organizing optic of “Consciousness of Taíno.”  Through collaborative scholarship, roundtable workshops and symposia, a pan-Smithsonian, working group is exploring these questions toward the design and production of an exhibition tentatively positioned at the National Museum of the American Indian's New York museum, the George Gustav Heye Center.

 Several Smithsonian museums and centers as well as external partners are collaborating in the Indigenous Legacies project. The preliminary working group includes the National Museum of the American Indian, The Smithsonian Latino Center and the National Museum of Natural History. The collaborative universe initially includes representation from Museo del Hombre Dominicano (Santo Domingo), Universidad de Mayagüez, Centro de Estudios Avanzados, (Puerto Rico), Museo Matachín (Baracoa, Cuba), Universidad de la Habana (Cuba), UNESCO, United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, and will expand in phase 2.


 A first CILP workshop brought together a core group of researchers who had previously worked largely on their own but on similar themes relative to the identification of indigeneity in the Spanish-speaking Greater Antilles. Scholars from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, France and the United States, represented the fields of museology, ethnology, genetics, literature, folklore, archeology and history. The group met for three days of recorded sessions, involving individual presentations and roundtable discussion; a public symposium at the NMAI presented four of the gathered scholars. The group also toured and inspected Taíno archeological pieces housed at the National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center.

 The intention of the workshop was:  1) to gather the general knowledge and topical trends on the subject, and 2) to focus creative thinking on the conceptualization of a major exhibit on "Consciousness of Taíno." Both goals were satisfactorily advanced, preparing the core project to go forward intellectually and creatively.

 Two of the scholars and an accompanying filmmaker working on a PBS documentary featured the themes of the workshop in a special one-hour capital city radio talk show. A one thousand word column also featuring the themes of the gathering appeared in the print and on-line edition of the Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN). Filmmaker Alex Zacarias, who has been working on a PBS-supported documentary on Taíno, joined the workshop for one day and interviewed several participants while documenting the group's visit to the NMAI collections. Zacarias has posted on YouTube an illustrated video of the workshop and of the Nightwolf Radio show on WPFW-FM.  See video clips at and

 Future activities will require additional research and documentation to deepen and coalesce items of strong interest reported in Indigenous Legacies Project Workshop One. The discussion needs to expand regionally to include oral and ritual reflections and linguistic manifestations of the proposed themes in Jamaica, Haiti and Lesser Antilles. In its second phase, the Indigenous Legacies Project intends to expand its scholarship base to a second concentric circle of current researchers on the range of related subjects being explored.