On Caribbean Indigenous People

I am a Puerto Rican woman, born and raised in the mountains of Puerto Rico. Almost all Caribbean* people have Native heritage, but I have never had a session about it with another Caribbean person. We need the help of our allies to look at our history as Native people and claim our heritage. I think that many of the internalized oppression patterns that Puerto Ricans carry, which we have mostly thought about as coming from colonialism, actually began with attempted genocide.

The year 2008 marked the five hundredth anniversary of the Spanish occupation of Boriken, the original name of Puerto Rico. Boriken and Hayti (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) were the center of the Island Arawak (Taino) civilization. The Eastern Caribbean was home to the Carib; and Lucaya and Ciguayo peoples lived in smaller areas like the Bahamas. It was a rich and thriving world, with widespread trade, great reverence for the land, sea, animals, and plants, and exquisite artwork. The Taino people don’t seem to have participated much in war. The only Taino weapons that have been found were miniature versions used in rituals.

The Caribbean was the first place in the Americas in which Europeans attempted to commit genocide. From the moment of Columbus’ arrival, Native people were enslaved, tortured, and killed in horrible ways by the Spanish. They were forced to sift gold from the rivers and carry it to the Spanish as tribute. People who didn’t bring enough had their hands cut off. The Native people also had to provide food and clothing for the Spanish. The Spanish Inquisition was still in effect, and people were burned at the stake or hanged for both spiritual and medical practices. For Boriken, this really began in 1508 when Ponce de León brought a group to colonize the island.

In 1511 there was a mass uprising, which was crushed. Many people were killed as punishment, many left for other islands, and there was widespread suicide. There were many ongoing acts of resistance, including constant raids along the coasts by Carib and Arawak bands, but that was the only large revolt. In 1519, a smallpox pandemic swept through Central America, parts of Mexico, and the Caribbean. Half the remaining Native population of Boriken died within a couple of months. A generation later the Spanish began claiming there were no Native people left, partly to get permission to bring large numbers of enslaved Africans to the island. (When this happened, we immediately became allies with the Africans.)

Since that time we have experienced many kinds of oppression. One of the most devastating has been the destruction of so many Caribbean ecosystems. While this has been going on since 1492, it has become worse in the last thirty to sixty years. Large areas have been deforested, causing erosion and water shortages. The beaches have been seized by developers of expensive resorts. Hills have been ground up to make cement. Global warming has killed coral reefs. Our kinship with our world is being violated. Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain for four hundred years, and it continues to be a colony of the United States.

In spite of all this, the attempted genocide did not succeed. Most Caribbean people have Native ancestry through many branches of our families. We are the children who were saved. Our cultures have strong Indigenous components, and we have inherited both the gifts and values of our ancestors and the hurts of our ancestors. Small Native communities still exist in a few places.

Here are some Indigenous Puerto Rican strengths:

•Although we used armed resistance against genocide, we do not have a tradition of warfare. We love and respect the land, the sea, and living beings. When Indigenous people cut trees for woodworking, they named them as chiefs. People have mobilized in large numbers to stop open-pit mining of copper, military poisoning of water and land, and attempts to privatize beaches.

•We have a strong sense of community. People feel responsible for each other’s well-being. We raise each other’s children. We get in each other’s business. We love to celebrate together. We are proud of each other.

•We are tough and resilient. A study showed that Puerto Rican women see childbirth as a chance to prove our strength and feel cheated if we don’t get to labor. We spent nearly fifty years fighting to get the U.S. Navy to stop using the islands of Culebra and Vieques for military maneuvers. We succeeded in 2004.

•We’re scrappy and audacious. In 2004 the Puerto Rican basketball team became the first in history to defeat the U.S. team, in spite of huge differences in resources. Puerto Ricans everywhere celebrated it as proof that we’re gutsy and clever.

•We know how to have fun together.

Here are some Indigenous Puerto Rican distress patterns:

•Because the oppression has been in place for such a long time, and our major attempt to stop it was defeated early, we have strong recordings of despair and powerlessness. These show up as not believing we can win big battles, like gaining our sovereignty, ending ecological destruction, and stopping the theft of our resources. There are deep patterns of discouragement.

•We have some genuine cultural strengths around being happy, but we also carry a pattern of acting cheerful and throwing parties instead of facing the underlying feelings.

Here are some directions and contradictions useful for Native Puerto Ricans:

•Go straight toward the worst things that happened to us and face them, discharge hard, and notice that we’re still here.

•Grieve the past and ongoing injuries to our land. Many of us will start discharging as soon as we’re able to talk about how beautiful our island is. We can also discharge about having left it, or never having lived there. One direction is that we’ve never lost our connection to it.

•Take pride in the fact that we have been resisting genocide and colonization for so long in the Americas.

Aurora Levins Morales
Berkeley, California, USA

* In this case I mean the Caribbean islands, not the continental coast of the Caribbean Sea.

Last modified: 2014-10-06 18:45:47+00