Native people of puerto rico: Indigenous Puerto Rico: DNA evidence upsets established history

Beyond Paper Genocide: Taíno Recognition in Puerto Rico

The name of the influential ’90s Latin American metal band ANIMAL stands for Acosados Nuestros Indios Murieron Al Luchar, which roughly translates to “Harassed, Our Indians Died While Fighting.” That our indios, or Native populations, were mostly exterminated except for a few extant pockets of survival, has become a fixture of contemporary Latin American discourse. In North America, US history books teach students that within 100 years of Columbus’s arrival, the Natives of Puerto Rico had been assimilated, perished from disease, or massacred to the point of nonexistence.

However, the story these books tell is incomplete. Their text perpetrates paper genocide, or the disappearance of entire civilizations in official paper reports, data, and other records. This crime has been committed against several mainland-US Native populations, from the Native American tribes of Virginia, which eugenicist and physician Walter Plecker reclassified as “colored” in Virginia’s 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, to Rhode Island’s own Narragansett people, who engaged in a centuries-long struggle to achieve federal recognition, which was finally attained in 1983.

Despite this dominant narrative, I grew up hearing from my paternal family that we were, and are, Taínos—the longstanding Indigenous people of the Caribbean with whom Columbus infamously first made contact. My namesake, Guarocuya, comes from a former Taíno cacique, or prince. In the Caribbean, from Borinquen (Puerto Rico) to Xaymaca (Jamaica), there has always been a collective cry seeking to fight the notion that our communities were erased from history. And, although the circumstances of US mainland Native Americans today garners much attention, the parallel experience of Native Americans outside of the 50 states is often forgotten. Terms that include Natives of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, such as “Indigenous of the Americas,” have recently come into use.

«The Taíno people were—and continue to be—trampled on by a set of legal, political, economic, and social mechanisms that systematically keep Indigenous people out of positions of political power.»

However, the identity of modern Puerto Ricans differs drastically from mainland Native Americans—it represents a fusion of Taíno, African, and Spanish cultures, with American influence that stems from the territory’s 1898 incorporation. Modern census practices perpetuate the paper genocide of Taínos, feeding into the false settler colonial narrative of our erasure. These practices must be amended to promote interculturalism and allow for self-identification.

The traditional historical discourse maintained by paper genocide is that Puerto Rican Taínos all disappeared through mass suicides and mestizaje (miscegenation), and such mestizaje supplanted any native identity. Terms such as mulatto and mestizo granted Spanish Catholic priests who registered births the power to greatly diminish the official numbers of Taínos. Under US rule, this treatment continued: The US Census limited its race and ethnicity categories to Hispanic, white, Black, or mixed. According to data collected by Spanish authorities, the Taíno population plummeted from an estimated one million at the time of Spanish arrival in 1493 to just 2,300 in 1787. Not one was documented in 1802. To systematically prevent the formation of more federally recognized tribes, the 1802 US Census reclassified any Puerto Rican who identified as “Indian” as “mixed.

illustration by Maria Hahne

Yet, in the 2020 US Census, over 92,000 Puerto Ricans self-identified as Indigenous. According to a 2016 National Geographic report, the latest genetic research showed that 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans have Native American mitochondrial DNA, revealing “a high number of genetic markers for a supposedly extinct people.” In 2018, a team from the Center for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen managed to reconstruct the complete Taíno genome using an 8th to 10th century Taíno skeleton. The researchers were able to establish “clear similarities” between modern Puerto Ricans and Taíno genetic ancestry.

Historians such as Antonio Sotomayor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign argue that Taíno culture, even more so than African or Spanish culture, had the largest contribution to the formation of a Puerto Rican identity. This is for a very simple reason: It is our mother culture, whereas the other two are overseas cultures. Evidence of Taíno influence abounds, illustrated by the simple example of someone attending a “barbeque” to try some “Caribbean” cuisine, which is infused with a taste of “guava,” going off to smoke “tobacco” while resting in a “hammock” and ending the day by sailing in a “canoe” before the “hurricane” comes. All of these words are of Taíno origin.

«And, although the circumstances of US mainland Native Americans today garners much attention, the parallel experience of Native Americans outside of the 50 states is often forgotten.»

The Census Bureau and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s refusal to acknowledge this evidence perpetuates a paper genocide that has occurred for centuries and clearly indicates the US government’s systematic opposition to Native and Indigenous recognition. At the root of the problem is the issue that in Puerto Rico, a territory that has been under external rule for 528 years, foreign occupiers have always prioritized colonial interests over the diversity of peoples or nations. The Taíno people were—and continue to be—trampled on by a set of legal, political, economic, and social mechanisms that systematically keep Indigenous people out of positions of political power. In the hands of foreign elite, Puerto Rico has institutionalized colonialist systems and policies that maintain the status of the Taíno people as third-class citizens, or even non-citizens.

Oppressive systems have resulted in an American society in which Indigenous peoples are generally the most impoverished populations. Similarly punitive structures have not spared Puerto Ricans. Indigenous people in Puerto Rico suffer from myriad injustices, including, but not limited to, economic depression, poor education, and inadequate healthcare. Colonization has not ended: It may have transformed, disguised, and concealed itself, but it maintains its brutality against the poor.

Unlike colonialism, interculturalism recognizes the reality of a multicultural human family, and it promotes processes that value all cultures in an environment of mutual respect. It seeks to eradicate the historical positioning of dominant and subordinate cultures, instead focusing on appreciating and celebrating human diversity. The goal of interculturalism is the full integration of populations and cultures with their own identities, rather than their assimilation into a dominant national identity. Through intercultural dialogues, the swift judgment of casting out what is different from one’s own culture gives way to considerations of the complexity of human society and diverse forms of human organization.

«According to a 2016 National Geographic report, the latest genetic research showed that 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans have Native American mitochondrial DNA, revealing “a high number of genetic markers for a supposedly extinct people.”»

Along with generally promoting an intercultural perspective, the US Census Bureau and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs should allow for self-identification on the basis of parentage, family descent, or genetic ancestry. Proposals to implement self-identification have thus far fallen on deaf ears, largely due to the government’s selfish fear that they would cause many new tribes to spring up and claim reparations or gambling licenses.

In the meantime, modern personal genomics technologies, such as those sold by Ancestry. com, 23andMe, or MyHeritage, allow Taíno descendants to research our ancestry. These genetic tests tell me that I am nearly 8 percent Indigenous American and that my Indigenous composition comes entirely from the Caribbean. This evidence clearly demonstrates the paper genocide committed by federal Native American policies: I carry a Taíno name, speak the Taíno language, and 8 percent of my DNA is entirely Taíno—yet Taínos are extinct? No one dares to deny my African, European, and Jewish roots, yet my Native ones face constant rejection.

Fortunately, hope is not lost: Many modern heritage rescue groups, such as the Taíno Jatibonícu Tribe of Boriken, the Taíno Nation of the Antilles, the United Confederation of the Taíno People, the Guatu Ma-Cu A Boriken Puerto Rico People, and Higuayagua, are actively working to foster and protect the Taíno culture. While many aspects of Taíno culture have been lost over time or mixed with Spanish and African cultures, our heritage remains unique, and we all want to be heard and recognized for who we are.

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Brockell, Gillian. “Here Are the Indigenous People Christopher Columbus and His Men Could Not Annihilate.” The Washington Post. WP Company, October 14, 2019. 

Estevez, Jorge, Rene Perez, and Keisha Josephs. “Origins of the Word Taino.” ResearchGate, September 2016. 

Magazine, Smithsonian. “Ancient DNA Contradicts Historical Narrative of ‘Extinct’ Caribbean Taíno Population. ” Smithsonian Institution, February 22, 2018. 

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The Taino of Puerto Rico

by pr51st

on January 30, 2019

The Taino were the indigenous — the first — people of Puerto Rico. Taino is classified as an Arawak language. These languages are or were spoken in the Caribbean, and in more than a dozen South American nations. Some of the words English has borrowed from Taino are “hammock,” “canoe,” and “hurricane.” While Taino is officially a “dead” language (since it has no native speakers), there is a movement to revive the language by teaching it to children.

The Taino people had also been declared extinct, but DNA research has shown that modern Puerto Ricans are more closely related to the Taino than to any other indigenous American population. Researchers estimated, based on data from the 100 Genomes project, that modern Puerto Ricans may have 10-15% Taino DNA.

Oral history in Puerto Rico has long held that the Taino did not die out, but were in fact among the ancestors of the modern inhabitants of the Island. The DNA research provides scientific confirmation.

More than 75% of Puerto Ricans identify themselves as white, according to the most recent census data. All the genomes tested in the DNA research showed European and usually African descent as well. There is no current research identifying modern people who are of primarily Taino heritage. However, 9,399 people in Puerto Rico identified themselves as Taino on the 2010 census.

South American connection

Similarities in language and in DNA show a relationship between the Taino and people of the Amazon basin in South America. It is generally believed that the Taino people moved from South America to what is now Puerto Rico thousands of years ago. They lived on other islands such as Haiti and the Bahamas, too.

Courtesy of Richard Thornton of the Apalache Foundation

Over time, the Arawak people on different islands and in different parts of South America developed different languages and cultures.

Puerto Rico’s Taino people were the ones who welcomed Columbus in 1492. They were a matrilineal society, living in large villages built around a central plaza used for public events. Their economy relied on agriculture, hunting, and fishing, but there is evidence that they traded with the Maya and other South American and Caribbean civilizations.

How does this affect Puerto Rico now?

One possibility is that the Taino could achieve federal recognition as a Native American tribe. The Taino at present are not a federally recognized tribe.

Dr. James Rhodes of the Coweta Creek Confederacy reached out to PR51st claiming that the prehistoric relationship between the Taino and Coweta Creek is also supported by this DNA evidence. Dr. Rhodes invited Puerto Ricans to join the Confederacy, saying “Our only requirement is an ancestral relationship; blood quantum is not a factor as we are an inclusive, not exclusive, organization.

Rhodes believes that federal recognition for the Taino would lead to opportunities for Puerto Rico. “We believe it is our common destiny that the Taino and the Coweta be reunited at this point for a common good,”he wrote. Dr. Rhodes can be reached via email.


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Sensational find: Carib Indians survived Columbus’ invasion

Modern Puerto Ricans carry the genes of the ancient Taino Indians who inhabited numerous islands in the Caribbean and were previously thought to have been destroyed immediately after the colonization of these places by Christopher Columbus in 1493. It is noteworthy that the inhabitants of Puerto Rico themselves have always considered themselves direct descendants of this amazing people, all local legends and traditions speak of this, but scientists considered them nothing more than folk tales. nine0003

Earlier, scientists from the University of Copenhagen discovered a unique archaeological find in a cave on the Bahamas island of Eleuthera — a rather large burial place of the ancient Lucayans — a branch of the Taino, the indigenous inhabitants of the Bahamas. One of the skeletons found there belonged to a woman who lived between the eighth and tenth century. Just one of her teeth contained intact DNA, from which a team of researchers was able for the first time to assemble the complete human genome of the ancient inhabitants of the Caribbean.

This analysis showed that the female is genetically most closely related to modern Arawakan speakers in tribes from northern South America. But that’s not all. nine0003

— We found that the «native component» in the genes of modern Puerto Ricans is closely related to the ancient Taino, the researchers write. — They survived despite the devastating effects of European colonization.

It is believed that Columbus called the Taino people «Indians», and gradually this word began to designate all the indigenous peoples of America. Half a century after Europeans first set foot on the lands of the New World, the number of local residents decreased from several hundred thousand to several hundred people. Most of them died from viruses that sailors brought with them (their immunity was not adapted to fight them), died at the hands of the Spaniards during the seizure of territories, or died out on slave plantations. nine0003

— This is an exciting discovery. Modern history books say that the indigenous population of the Caribbean was wiped out, but in the Caribbean people have always identified themselves as Taíno, says genetic archaeologist Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. — Now we know they were right all along.

— I want my grandmother to be alive today. Then I could confirm to her what she already knew,” says one of the “heirs” of the tiano, Jorge Estevz, who now works at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and helped the team with their research. nine0003

Now scientists continue their genetic research with great enthusiasm. Further research will more than likely prove that other indigenous Caribbean bloodlines also survived.

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