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The Indigenous People of the Caribbean

Sponsored by the Florida Museum of Natural History and emerging from a conference organized by the Virgin Islands Humanities Council, this volume brings together the researchers from three subdisciplines under one cover: archaeology, ethnohistory, and ethnology. It includes the work of an extraordinary range of specialists and provides a well-rounded introduction to the history of indigenous peoples in the Caribbean. But the reader should be warned -- this text does not provide any substantial information, as the title might otherwise suggest, about indigenous peoples in the Caribbean today. The text is divided into six parts: a background review of archaeology and historiography, the period of colonial encounter, the pre-Colombian migration of village farmers, the Taino (or Arawak) on the eve of the Spanish conquest, the Island Carib of the Lesser Antilles, and finally, three short essays on contemporary Caribbean indigeneity. This is an interesting and wide-ranging text, but the diverse collection of essays suffers from two serious flaws.

Firstly, I am somewhat disappointed that the editor failed to discuss or debate the controversial and outdated hypothesis of Irving Rouse, regarding the conquest of Island-dwelling Arawaks by "cannibalistic" Caribs migrating north from South America. The ethnic distinction between Taino and Caribs is problematic at best, and the Carib/Cannibal myth has been thoroughly debunked in recent literature, especially by writers such as Whitehead and Hulme. This should have been addressed in a serious volume of this scope.

Secondly, the existence of indigenous people in the Caribbean into the new millennium continues to challenge popular writing and standard scholarship. Entrenched is the idea that the Taino became extinct within the first generation of European contact and that between 1620 and 1660, this wave of conquest reduced indigenous control in the archepelago to parts of the islands of Dominica and St Vincent. But Caribs and Arawaks did survive outside of these areas of indigenous political control -- yet it rarely acknowledged. How often does one see reference to the fact that there is only one "official" preserve for the indigenous Island Caribs, and that is on Dominica? (The St Vincentian "Black" Carib or Garifuna population had been relocated by the British to Honduras in the 1790s -- at roughly the same time as the British also expelled thousands of Jamaican Maroons to Nova Scotia.)

It might therefore come as a surprise to some to learn of the many "new" Taino organizations which have appeared, as if out of nowhere, in recent years in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, or when one "discovers" that Island Carib life is being celebrated on a regular basis in Trinidad and Tobago, at the annual Santa Rosa Festival (see article in this issue). Yet in 1989, Cultural Survival reported a population of over 1000 descendants of the Taino, referred to as Cubenos by Bartolome de Las Casas in the 1500s, living in the far east of that island in the vicinity of Baracoa. For various reasons, the existence of an Indian population in Cuba has been vehemently denied by both government sources and academics for most of this century, and the belief persists that they were exterminated by 1550. In the view of many Cubans, such people cease to be Indians if they intermix with African or Europeans, or if they exhibit any western affectations.

The editor of the volume, Samuel Wilson, admits that the colonial conquest of the Caribbean, like in so many other places, both killed large numbers of people and forced others through a historical labyrinth of changing possibilities -- and changing cultural and political strategies for survival. As he says in his introduction, "...despite the ravages of five centuries of European conquest, the indigenous people of the Caribbean have survived...and the voice of their descendants is growing ever stronger in the modern Caribbean." In the conclusion he adds, "The descendants of the Indians of the Caribbean still live in the islands and play an important political and social role." It is a pity that more attention was not paid to this very important subject in the body of the text.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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