Reclaiming Indigenous heritage in Haiti: Our Taino Culture is alive and well:

Dr. Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique -Anthropologist

Formal research on the Taïno heritage in Haiti today is dismally limited; although there is so much to say!

 Contrary to mainstream currents of work highlighting our European and African roots, only a handful of scholars have investigated this question. They include, during the 19th century, the Haitian author Baron Emile Nau who published the Histoire des Caciques d’Haiti” in 1894, Ms. Maya Deren in the 1940’s who introduced questions on the Taïno heritage in Vodou after the seminal archeological works Edouard Mangones and Louis Maximilien on Taïno artifacts and Jeannot Hilaire, in the domain of linguistics. Not one Haitian archeologist works on this heritage today.

This neglect is tragic since the Haitian people is a composite one, a gumbo, blending many heritages, combined in the struggle against oppression throughout centuries. Many elements of African, European or Indigenous ascent only survived because they were meaningful to all the ethnic groups present on the land.

Assuredly, the politics of “dividing to conquer” has played an important role in restricting our knowledge of the past. While the ruling classes of the Dominican Republic have done all they could to conceal their African ancestry, those of Haiti have historically held an ambiguous position on all elements of indigenous or African past, according to the political orientations of the regimes.

Presently, current trends of Caribbean archeology are bent upon the use of leading edge technology to reveal genetic evidence of indigenous survivals. The founders of modern anthropology, particularly Dr. Boas, would certainly cringe at this often crude linking  of race and culture.

  1. II.  A fundamental relationship continues to exist with our indigenous past, as strong, substantially, as its potential projections. Indeed, all temples of traditional religion, Vodou are our existing real Haitian museums. It is the duty and the honor of traditional Haitian to gather all traces of our momentous past and render them homage. So, although national and especially international looters have scandalously pillaged the Haitian subsoil since decades and even centuries, many artifacts and traditions remain, secretively conserved in the Vodou altars which are the true repositories of our history.

Splendid stonework, ceramics, beads and shell work. Astonishing are some objects from the North-West particularly, large stone spheres and caterpillar-formed objects. More common are the ritually used axe heads and amulets, the former used for healing sessions and the latter as “protectors”.

Also, most usual and ritual utensils in the Vodou temples are made of natural materials such as earthenware and calabash instead of plastic which is becoming increasingly used in Haiti.

 

  1. III. The use of the calabash (gourde), a highly symbolic ritual object in pre and post colonial times, returns us to the first myths and legends of the Taïno people, reported by the Fray Pané and commented by such illustrious researchers as Jose Arrom. These accounts reveal, upon analysis, clear links with current Vodou beliefs.
    1. a. Firstly, the Supreme Being, YAYA, who is found in Vodou mythology with the same name, but also as YÈWE, the Mother of All, She who is above the Waters.
    2. b. The story of banishment, which Yaya/Yèwe inflicts to his/her son
    3. c.  The Creation, by the Supreme Being’s son
    4. d.   The Axis Mundi, the four corners of the universe and the Waters
    5. e. The order of conduct towards the Deceased.

 In Vodou, the ason, a gourde covered with beads and serpent vertebrae, is the most sacred symbol of priesthood. More commonly, the “tchatcha” and/or “kwa kwa” is a simple maraca, also used in popular music as well as night ceremonies, but most importantly that of the secret societies.

 

  1. IV. Yearly, at the start of the spring, the “RARA”, colorful groups disguised engage in festive arts until Lent. They are remarkably similar to many other such groups in Latin America and many scholars have made reference to linked origins.

 As was noted by B. Bridges in her study of New Orleans 'Black Indian' Mardi Gras: “There was much to draw Indians and Blacks together spiritually: the Indians' conception of themselves as nations and the Africans' kingdoms; tribal hierarchies led by chiefs; A bond to nature, the land, and their ancestors; drum-based musical ceremonies; And oppression by white colonialists who feared them. These factors fostered a kindred spirit between the two ethnic groups that resulted not only in creolized offspring, but in A creolized festival aesthetic”.

  1. V. In fact, our forbearers taught us that the knowledge of the land was handed from the Indigeneous People to the newly introduced Africans through Louquo. Loko, the present-day vodoun divinity is represented as a leaf healer, a “magician” and houngan, the master of knowledge and transmission, of initiation.

In Vodou, The spirit LOKO is the Wind, as well as the Axis Mundi embodied in every temple’s potomitan (centerpole). All houngan and manbo finalize their initiation by receiving the ason – sacred maraca – from Loko. Let us recall that LOUQUO was the founding ancestor of the Arawak people. According to oral tradition, when the Africans met with the First People in maroon refuge, they gave them the ‘ason’, signifying Knowledge. Of the Earth, the Territory, the Leaves, Principles… which the Africans, newly arrived and weakened, had short knowledge of and desperate need of.

 Luquo may be a term derived of Yukú, or Yukaju, the Creator of all things between skies and earth, represented as the cassava spirit, son of Atabei, the Great Mother, and brother of Guacar/Juracan (the destructor). Yukaju’s major accomplishment would have been humanity, through the first person, Luquo.

 

  1. VI. Concerning language: The word “Ayiti” is both of Taïno and Fon origin. The former is of particular importance since Haitians commonly refer to “Ayiti Bohio”, that is Ayiti, the mountainous land, and Bohio, our home. Tobacco (tabak), huracan, casaba, indigo, kwa-kwa, bayakou, mabouya, manioc (Tupinambi), maize, mabi, batata, mapou, roucou, and many other terms are part of the Kreyòl language. “Tokay” is the term used to refer to those who have the same name – a Taïno term.

 (It is interesting to note here elements of transmission; the elders report that during the wars of independence, the liberation soldiers could get by for days and even weeks with just a piece of cassava in the pocket, chewing it along the way. No need of other food. This tradition continued throughout the American Occupation from 1915 to 1934.)

The Tanga, Taino loincloth, continued to be worn through the 20th century, especially in Vodou ritual, until it was forbidden by the US troups. Similarly, women continued to carry their children on their backs until forbidden to by these forces.

The main river on our island is the Atibonit, an indigenous term, just as Jacmel is Yaquimo.

A major precolombian site, the Bassin Zim is literally the Cemi’s basin. The legend of Tezen, a fish spirit, is of indigineous heritage.

 

  1. VII. Vodou initiation takes place while lying down on the leaves taught by our ancestors, the Monbin Fran, Spondias Mondin, or Jobo, a plant native to the West Indies and which is naturally antiviral, antimicrobial and antifungal. These herbs preserved the indigenous people from the epidemics.

The instruction given during initiation, around the Loko centerpole, is intuitive and based on exploration of the self. On this basis, initiation teaches us that to go beyond, we must meet with the Crossroads, the Sacred Woods and the Cemetery. To die and go beyond. Existing amongst the ancestors and the living.

For Vodouists, much of the Taïno legacy remains alive in ritual. We salute the “four corners of the earth” before all ceremonies, throw maize, peanuts and other grain for prosperity, honor the waters… all, parts of this heritage. Also, as in Amazonian tradition, chicken are “passed” over the body of the ill, to detect and heal remedies. Blowing tobacco (cigar) smoke over the ailing is also prescribed.

The Ceiba, Mapou tree, acts as the center of the earth, connecting skies, earth and waters. Another, natural, Poto-mitan.

The Vèvè, Vodou iconographies traced on the floor with cornflower to invoke the spirits, appear to have indigenous bases, similar to the Navajo sand paintings.

Furthermore, the major places of rock drawings in Haiti, in the caves and riverbeds, are places of reverence. The markings there continue to be highly important, where the “vyen-vyen” or legendary remaining Taïno return regularly.

 Major Vodou divinities, in addition to Loko, link to our indigenous heritage:

 · First and foremost, Yèwe, the Creator Mother in Vodou: Yaya, and Yayael? Certainly, this is the supreme being in Vodou, the one whose name is associated to the lwa-spirits but is above and beyond.

  • Gran Chimen, the “Great Way”, is a spirit rooted at the basis of the whole Vodoun cosmology which is very rich, with four hundred and one spirits organized in twenty-one nations. “Great Zemi”? Perhaps. For honor is rendered to this divinity before all ceremonies.
  • Granbwa, which all must address during initiation, the “Great Woods”. Only after returning with the sacred leaves will the ceremonies finish.
  •  Zaka, the Lord of Agriculture and labor, whose representation is anthropomorphic and signifying land plots amidst the leaves, the neolithic era.

 

  1. VIII.  The Bwa Kayiman is where Haitian Vodoun conglomerated, leading to the unprecedented revolutionary wars of the first successful slave revolution, in a place that was an indigenous hiding spot in the North.  Caïman is a Taïno term, signifying the crocodile, the “Crocodile Woods”.  In this place, representatives of different origin met to declare “liberty or death”. Accounts tell that “the place was dedicated by a flower bouquet, which was actually flat cactus”, and which the people of there and abouts recognized the symbol”.

 “KOW!”

With this onomatopoeia, accompanied of conch blowing and whistling, begin the Haitian Bizango (secret society) ceremonies, initiating their highly clandestine weekly nocturnal rituals.

The past Emperor Ferdinand of a renowned Society in the region of St Marc (center of Haiti) narrated thus the origins of secret societies in Haiti, dating back to the Hispanic confrontations with the First People: 

“At this time, the island of Haiti was headed by four “Kasi Makal” (Caciques). They were the kings of Traditional Indian Societies, at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Caciques, upon understanding what was happening to their society, assembled and resolved to fight the Spaniards, developing strategies and tactics. Just as all seemed to be taking shape, attacks and blows successful, a series of defeats ensued. The Kasi Makala realized that there was a leak in their internal information. This caused them great prejudice as resistance warfare cannot handle having breaches and as such they met all together again in great secret and decided to find the leak. That is how they found out that it was one of the daughters of a “Kasi Makala” that had been indiscrete, and her sentence was execution. This is where there the name “San fanmi” “without family” was born: “Bizango-Sanfanmi”. This is to state their matters as in Warfare: -we do not belong to family, mother, brother, sister no family at all, we take care of one issue which is “Community under Aggression”. That is why Bizango war stands as a community affair, rejecting common or simple family matter in favor of community defense.”

So  actually, paradoxically, that which is so often considered the most ancient of vodoun, the Fon-Dahomey basis, appears to be a more recent component. The encounter of Taïno with the Senegambian enslaved occurred earlier, dating back to the 1500’s and explains the construction of the strong Haitian culture, the Creole language and, above all, the Haitian revolution.

Ceramic evidence from the North confirms the mixing of indigenous and African earthenware. Linguistic evidence reveals how present-day Creole evolved from a first Spanish influenced Creole. Historical material – poorly known to the Haitian non Spanish speaker - reveals this too.

But the most intriguing and compelling testimony lays in present day devotions as well as the analysis of the Haitian defensive system’s construction.

Indeed, all is built around: our grottos.

Haiti being of karstic terrain, 70% is cave friendly. From the North to South, East and West. Those enslaved, whether indigenous or deported from Africa, fled to the mountains. Although relatively unknown to the Taïno, who had much more cultural resemblance in horizontal than in vertical terms (Jamaica with the south of Haiti, Dominican Republic – Vega Real – with the North), they were mastered and became the basis of the Haitian nation.

The knowledge of the woods, of the territory, was landed through centuries of arduous maroon struggle, that are now held in respect, for example, by the placing of broken shackles on vodou temples in these areas.

These are the areas that would become the future territory of the “Indigenous Army” able to lead the country towards independence. 

And this newly formed “territory” continues to be honored in Vodou pilgrimages up to today.

So we say: Ayibobo.The spirit Ayizan being wife of Loko/Louquo, she creates our spaces. Spaces we created and that we continue to honor.                                                                         

Honor and respect.