Hemispheric Journal: Kiskeya

Jose Barreiro

San Juan de la Maguana: Taino Capital of the Dominican Republic


There are places that hold layered memory, places recognized long ago to hold spiritual density. Our common ancestors knew such places, gathered and "opened" communication -- connection -- with the alignments, with the patterns of wind and water, with the visual signals of seasons and moments. There is always revelation in this, if difficult to describe.

 San Juan de la Maguana, in the Dominican Republic, is one of those places where density of space blends with continued human attachment to the indigenous memory. I was there with Ranald Woodaman, from the Smithsonian Latino Center, on behalf of the NMAI's Caribbean Indigenous Legacies research project. We traveled to various places in DR to open up a discussion of our anticipated exhibition, "Consciousness of Taino: Caribbean Indigeneity."


This Indigenous Legacies project of NMAI and the SI Latino Center, with collaboration from the National Museum of Natural History and many others, seeks to understand and appreciate the variety of Caribbean indigeneity as found today in a broad range of topics.


In Santo Domingo, at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano, we dialogued with established figures of Dominican scholarship, including Manuel García Arévalo, Frank Maya Pons and Bernardo Vega, as well as members of the group, Guabancex, a Taino "epistemological community." Scholars and various participants commented on the ideas and themes of the proposed exhibition and related productions. In Santo Domingo, we also visited museum collections, stopped by to chat with Minister of Culture Jose Antonio Rodriguez and teamed up with Eduardo Diaz, SI-Latino Center director, to host a dinner for the American Ambassador, The Honorable Raul Yzaguirre. Later in the week, we would travel to La Romana and Altos de Chavon to visit an accomplished Taino-based educational curriculum development project.


In a country of presumed extinction of Indigenous identity and culture, San Juan de la Maguana, in the old cacicazgo of the Taino queen, Anacaona, stands out for its concentration of people who profess and relish in the indigenous heritage of Quisquella and the Caribbean -- broadly identified as Taino.


Nearing San Juan on the highway at each of more than 20 kilometers going into town, markers depict a sculpted Taino cemi; entering town, the Plaza of Caonabo, with its statue of the tough early cacique breaking his chains, signals the mentality later expressed by local leaders. Caonabo was Anacaona's husband and the chief who wiped out the first Spanish garrison left by Columbus in the Americas.


At the forum in the Municipal Center, in her formal greetings, Mayor Hanoi Sánchez made it clear that her constituents in San Juan de la Maguana take seriously their indigenous heritage. The mayor has been a leading power behind a strong identification of civic institutions with indigenous Taino legacy. She asserted with much pride that San Juan de la Maguana is the "capital of aboriginal culture" in the country.


The Native-identification of the mayor and testimonies by a number of other speakers gave intellectual and cultural bent to a conversation that invited local and national researchers in these themes to share their work and to lead us to all possible approaches to the subject.


Always, some express a belief in the total extinction of their indigenous roots while many point out pieces of indigeneity in the puzzle of identity and culture of the area. As always, too, in these types of meetings in the Greater Antilles, people of apparent indo-caribbean ancestry approach, who want to explore more of their indigenous culture and legacy. One middle-aged woman asked for "orientation" in conducting oral interviews with her aging mother, "who knows many of our Indian things."


Others spoke of Indian roots that undergird Afro-Dominican socio-spiritual movements, music, religious practice, memory in place.


A local group including Dr. Sobieski de Leon guided us to the Plaza of Anacaona, known locally as "Corral de Indios." This is a sacred space in the old cacicazgo. It is a large circular ceremonial field, with a stone, the Stone of Anacaona, at the center. It was fascinating to me that the "stone" of Anacaona is identified to be in place more than five hundred years since the massacres that took place in this exact site. A local "prayer woman," (oradora) blending Catholic saints and "world-alive" practice normally cares ceremonially for the stone. However, she was not there for the day.


On behalf of the group, Dr. Sobieski wondered if we would conduct a "greetings" ceremony for the Anacaona Stone, and I acceded. We cleaned up, burned sage and announced our greetings to the sacred space of Anacaona's old areito ceremony, located notably, near the exact center of the island. The place and the elements of wind and sun were with us, strong imaging in the clouds, undeniably a sacred landscape to be acknowledged and appreciated.


Not far up the mountain, roads turned to dirt and stone, we later arrived at the altars of the region's Liborio tradition. This, too, is a context of sacred landscape, a sacred water place still guarded by young men of descendant families.


Liborio -- a legendary figure, clairvoyant, curandero, natural mystic leader of the early 20th Century. Christ-like for some, source of inspiration and spiritual strength for many, Liborio's history and memory of his intense and extensive movement persist. Liborio's blessing of the water at this site is continually remembered in the ritual and bathing in the sacred water mountain, which strongly persists.


Here, too, we offered our respects to the cave altar, the "path of crosses," and the sacred water. In conversations with the young people guarding the site and with ethno-documentalist, Ariel Mota and scholars Fatima Portorreal and Glenis Tavares, all gave testimony  of many family ceremonies to water still performed in the area.


As we visit sites and peoples in our approaches to indigeneity, often there is call for ceremonial formality. We opt to respect local tradition and share in "world alive" ceremony, purely traditional or blended with other beliefs, that reflect a basis of respect.


Just these brief visits around San Juan de la Maguana and elsewhere in Dominican Republic offered evidence of rich orality and currents of identity and belief of considerable indigeneity. The challenge of our research and exhibition project is how to continue to gather and interpret this layered reality, how to decipher, correspond, compare across islands and localities the evidence of indigeneity in the Caribbean world.





Jose Barreiro addressing the audience at the El Proyecto Smithsonian de Legado Indígena del Caribe. January 17, 2013
Estatua de Caonabo, Gran Cacike de Maguana
Ranald Woodaman del Latino Center y Jose Barreiro del Museo de los Indios, dos entidades del Smithsonian Institution
El publico
Jose Enrique (Ike) Mendez
Fatima Portoreal- Miembre de Guabancex, Viento y Agua
Glenis Tavarez , Miembre de Guabancex y Grupo Higuayagua.
Ike Mendez (Centro) Identidad San Juanera