Smithsonian Forums on the Living Indigenous Legacies of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico

Rick Kearns
March 29, 2013


The Taino presence in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico can be found in the people and the cultures according to scholars conducting research in both places.

Scholars from the Caribbean and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) held forums and conducted research in both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico recently to explore indigeneity or the indigenous presence in both of these cultures.

In January, the Indigenous Legacies of the Caribbean Project (ILCP) of the NMAI sponsored a forum on Thursday, January 17th at the Archaeological Museum in San Juan de la Maguana, a Dominican town well known on the island for its indigenous heritage. The title of the event was "The Indigenous Legacy of the Dominican Republic.”

In his account of the visit, Dr. Jose Barreiro, Assistant Director of Research at the NMAI, noted why the town of San Juan de la Maguana was chosen for the event.

“In a country of presumed extinction of indigenous identity and culture, San Juan de la Maguana…stands out for its concentration of people who profess and relish the indigenous heritage of Quisqueya and the Caribbean, broadly identified as Taíno,” Barreiro wrote.

At the forum in San Juan de la Maguana, Barreiro presented information about the ILCP’s research and plans for a future exhibition entitled “Consciousness of Taino: Caribbean Indigeneity.” Another member of the ILCP team, Ranald Woodaman of the Smithsonian’s Latino Center also came to gather research for the project and participate in the forum.

Scholars such as epidemiologist Tony De Moya and Anthropologist Glenis Tavares of the National Museum of the Dominican Man then presented studies and evidence of indigenous heritage in the local area and throughout the country.  During the discussions held after the presentations, many local residents asked questions about how to conduct oral history interviews as well as descriptions of some of “the Indian roots that undergird Afro-Dominican…music, religious practice,” Barreiro stated.  He did note that there were audience members who believed in the “total extinction” of the indigenous presence in the Dominican Republic but that most of the Forum audience was sympathetic and supportive of the ILCP.

Following the event in the museum, the ILCP team traveled to the municipal center of the town where Mayor Hanoi Sanchez stated that San Juan de la Maguana was “the capital of aboriginal culture” of the country.

In visits near the town, Barreiro and Woodaman were shown a local indigenous ceremonial area.

“A local group including Dr. Sobieski de Leon guided us to the Plaza of Anacaona, known locally as the Corral de Indios. This is a sacred space in the old cacicazgo, a large circular ceremonial field, with a stone—the Stone of Anacaona—at the center. It was fascinating to me that the stone is identified as having been in place for more than five hundred years since the massacres that were committed at this exact site. A local prayer woman (oradora), blending Catholic saints and "world alive" practice, normally cares ceremonially for the stone,” Barreiro said.

The presence of indigenous traditions in families and regions were among the topics explored when the ILCP team traveled to Puerto Rico a few weeks after the visit to the Dominican Republic.

On Tuesday, February 19th, the NMAI and the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean held a forum entitled “The Indigenous Legacy in Puerto Rico” at the Center in San Juan, the island’s capital.  The Center is devoted to graduate level studies in history, economics, anthropology and other fields involving Puerto Rico and its role in the Caribbean.

Along with Barreiro, who gave an overview of the ILCP, the presenters at the forum included the Puerto Rican Archaeologist Dr. Osvaldo Garcia who spoke about the Smithsonian’s Caribbean Indigenous Collection, Dr. Juan Martinez Cruzado, the Puerto Rican geneticist who conducted the indigenous mitochondrial DNA Survey of the island who has done further studies there and throughout Latin America, and Professor Jalil Sued Badillo, a noted historian and author of two books involving Taino history in Puerto Rico. 

After the forum, the ILCP team visited a number of Taino historical sites in Puerto Rico, including a number of caves with extensive petroglyphs and pictographs.  Accompanying Barreiro was Professor Juan Manuel Delgado a historian who over 30 years has collected oral history interviews of Puerto Ricans with indigenous heritage.  Delgado, along with Woodaman, Garcia and Martinez Cruzado, are participants in the ILCP.

Through Delgado, Barreiro met with Alice Cheverez and her family in the mountains near Morovis, on the western side of the island.  Barreiro described part of his visit to the family and their indigenous aspects, noting that Alice had "classic Taino physique and facial features".

 "We had driven for over three hours out of Mayagüez to visit her family. Puerto Rico around San Juan is heavily urbanized but go east or west out of the capital, pass up the mountains to the central and some coastal regions, and you can still meet some families of distinguishable indigenous legacy and lineage," he stated.

"The Chéverez are a large, extended indo-Boriken family still living in these precious mountains. Their place has the feel of the old campesino (jibaro) homestead – hanging hamocks, animals walking loose, barefoot children playing," Barreiro continued.  "The family is reminiscent of large multi-family, indo-Cuban homestead caserios found in the Cuban mountains. More than a single nuclear family at the end of a long and winding road of verdant hills, the Chéverez are a multi-family lineage. Mapping preliminarily with Alice on her family’s extensions, we could count ten families with several children each just among her siblings, while the extended genealogies of a large chain of uncles and aunts and their children’s families through three living generations, took our quick kinship count to some two hundred people...I encouraged Alice and the family to develop a count of their relations."

"There is a Taino revival and a great continuing interest in things indigenous in Puerto Rico," Barreiro asserted. "The revival is as intense as it is contested, but nevertheless real and extensive. Major historians and archeologists sustain vigorous research agendas, pushing the edges of knowledge and interpretation of a substantial and growing Taino material and archival wealth. We were fortunate to meet up with a few from this distinguished circle during our recent journey through the island."



Leonel De Jesus's picture
Leonel De Jesus
Submitted by Leonel De Jesus on

This not doubt, that Arawakos descendant are here in DR, so many people look like like taino, they still doing conuco, kasabe, areytos, etc,etc... thanks for shared this important article...

Guaribo Naboria's picture
Guaribo Naboria
Submitted by Guaribo Naboria on

Born in a Mountain Boriken, Puerto Rico. My Relative and Ancestors are in Kiskeya all over Caribe.

Domingo Hernandez's picture
Domingo Hernandez
Submitted by Domingo Hernandez on

Being Taino identified is not easy. While it is now accepted that the average Puerto Rican is at least 15% Taino, their claims to the identity are often viciously contested. The concept that one must be a full blood in order to claim Tainoness is the weapon most used against us. Being African descendant can be claimed by people with only one drop and no one would dare dispute their claims. Taino people today are genetically tri-racial with 15% to 39% Taino ancestry. Yet we identify as Taino first because of our ties to the land and it's spirits. For the most part our maternal inheritance connects us biologically to the earliest inhabitants of our island homes. Mixing with Africans and Europeans does not mean we are any less Native and indigenous to the Americas.


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