Indigneous Caribbean Tribes

Indians, Caribs or Arawaks?

The Indians are powerful symbols of the Caribbean and national identity on many Caribbean islands. The lineage of one’s ancestry for many can be traced before Columbus’s voyage. On nearly every island, the modern inhabitants relate to the environment in ways they learned from the Indians. The outset and dimensions and nature of indigenous cultural continuity are complex and multi-layered: any search for groups which have retained pre-contact ways of life remains untouched by the historical processes of the last 500 years.

Although it is the painful truth that the Native people’s of the Caribbean were almost destroyed by the processes of conquest initiated by Columbus’s voyages, it is also true that indigenous people still play a significant role in the Caribbean today. The indigenous people ceased to exist in the tragic years of conquest, they play no part in the modern Caribbean. Rather, the indigenous people of the Caribbean have played a crucial role in the historical processes that produced the modern Caribbean. Had the archipelago been uninhabited in 1492, the modern Caribbean would be radically different in language, economy, political organization, and social consciousness.

Indigenous Presence In The Modern Caribbean

The current presence of indigenous Caribbean cultures goes far beyond these contributions, but in more subtle and less noticeable ways. The Indigenous influence can be seen in economic patterns, language, myth, and even in the genetic makeup of modern Caribbean people. The Native people interacted with people from Africa and Europe. In some areas this period of time–sometimes centuries–allowed for the substantial transfer of what cultural geographers call the system of “human-land” interactions. Such systems involve a group’s complete way of living in the ecosystem–how they obtain food, shelter, medicines, and tools, and fit into the larger rhythms of the environment. In many places throughout the islands, one can see the effects of this interaction–in fishing techniques, house construction, horticultural practices, and crops, in social and political structures, and in many other ways. But not everywhere, and this points to an interesting feature of the overlap issue: the Caribbean archipelago is geographically diverse, and the indigenous groups who lived in the Caribbean in 1491 were also different from one another. The historical change took place in different ways on different islands.

This “transfer” of autochthonous ways of living in Caribbean landscapes took place in different ways, with different results. Ironically, this complexity seems to stimulate an essentializing impulse among the pan-Caribbean processes were problematic, however, what happened on St. Croix is very different from what happened in Cuba or Trinidad or Dominica. The subsistence economy that developed in the 16th century, based on the sea’s resources and heavily inter-cropped kitchen gardens, clearly comes in large part from pre-conquest, Aboriginal, economic practices. But the documentary historical detail on the patterns of interaction that took place during this period is almost non-existent because the adoption of indigenous Caribbean practices was going on outside of the contexts with which the people writing about the Caribbean were familiar. The interaction was largely between African people, both free and enslaved, and Indigenous people.O

Agricultural Overlap

Compared with other areas of colonialist conquest and population replacement, North America for example, the degree to which indigenous economic practices were adopted in the Caribbean is remarkable. The modern Caribbean subsistence economy certainly contains more elements of the Aboriginal one than is the case anywhere in North America. The long list of crops used in both systems helps to establish this: the most obvious adopted food plants are manioc (Manihot esculenta), sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), and yams (Dioscorea sp.), but several kinds of beans (Phasolus vulgaris and P. lunatus) were used as well. Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) and peppers (Capsicum annuum) were also grown in both Aboriginal and historic gardens. Sweet sop and soursop (Annona spp.), guava (Psidium guajava), and mamey apples (Mammea americana) are other crops that survived large-scale population replacement as important parts of the Caribbean diet. During this time, the newcomers also learned about hundreds of other plants used as medicines, fish poisons, and raw materials for tools.

The modern Caribbean people adopted more than just the plants; they used the indigenous plants within a relationship between people and the environment that had been developed by their indigenous forebears. More significant than the individual plants, the human-land relationship survived as one of the most important continuities of the conquest.

Linguistic Connections

The original component of post-conquest West Indian diets also suggests linguistic connections, because many of the words for indigenous foods come from native languages. For example, the mamey fruit just mentioned kept its traditional name (mamey) in several modern Caribbean languages, from the Spanish-speaking Greater Antilles to the Anglophone and Francophone Lesser Antilles. The names of some ways of preparing foods also come from Indigenous languages: in Puerto Rico dishes like mofongos,casabe, mazamorra, guanimes are examples.

Linguistic continuity is quite variable from island to island, of course, depending on the history of conquest and the duration and nature of the period of overlap. On Hispaniola (The Dominican Republic and Haiti) the indigenous population was decimated quickly by the intensity of European exploitation. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, there was a longer period of Indian-European-African interaction, and the indigenous influence can thus be seen more clearly in Puerto Rican culture. A population census from as late as 1787 records the presence of 2,302 Indians, although some might have been brought from outside Puerto Rico. And in Puerto Rico, there are many Taíno place-names, such as Bayamón, Jayuya, Guánica, and Manatí. Also, more Taíno words persist in modern Puerto Rican (and Cuban) language use than in Hispaniola. Similarly, more Indigenous words have been carried over into modern usage in Dominica and St. Vincent, where the Island Caribs have survived and flourished, than on islands where they were quickly killed or driven out.

Despite these connections, it must be noted that in comparison with other parts of the Americas where Indigenous people still make up a great percentage of the population, like the Mexican Highlands or the Andes, the impact of the native Caribbean languages on modern usage is not great. Only a few hundred Taíno words are known to modern scholars. Caribbean languages are predominantly combinations of diverse European and African languages, mixed in complex ways.


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