The Taino Indians are a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians of northeastern South America. They were living in the Greater Antilles (Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico) when Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) arrived in the New World in 1492. The Arawak had a complex and highly ceremonial culture. While they had neither a written language nor an advanced system of counting, the Arawak people had a highly developed culture, including a universal language, a system of ceremonial dances, sculpture, jewelry, weaving, music, and poetry. They grew fruit such as guava, papaya, and pineapple, as well as beans, squash, chilies, and tobacco. They played a ceremonial ball game called batu, which, like stickball in many southeastern American Indian nations, was also used as a form of conflict resolution. They were governed by a village-based theocracy and were organized around a three-tiered class structure: Each village had a single cacique, or chief; nitainos, or noblemen; and naborias, or the working class. Villages also had bohiques, who functioned as priests and healers.
Taino culture was integral to the development of the postcontact region. Taino place names are still used in many areas (such as the Puerto Rican towns of Utuado and Mayaguez). The Taino also introduced to Europeans the hamaca, or hammock; and the barbacoa, or barbecue; the musical instrument maracas, and a way of making cassava bread. Tainos named the yuca among other plants and the iguana as well as other animals.
Mostly agricultural, seafaring, and peaceful, the Taino had been engaged in a series of conflicts with the more aggressive Caribs for about one hundred years prior to European contact. The Europeans probably confused the Taino with the Caribs and considered them a threat, subject to the Spanish Crown and liable to forced conversion to Catholicism. There is always considerable debate over the size of precontact indigenous populations and the degree to which those populations were reduced by Europeans. When the Spanish arrived on Puerto Rico (or Boriken) in 1508, it is estimated that there were between 20,000 and 50,000 Tainos. The vicious combination of disease, flight, and the wages of an unsuccessful rebellion in 1511 reduced that number to about 4,000 by 1515.
As with many other indigenous people of the Americas, these numbers allowed Europeans to assume that all Tainos had been decimated and no longer existed, although there was and is debate over whether “absorption” or “extermination” is the cause. However, there is no evidence that the Taino were eradicated. Many contemporary Puerto Ricans claim Taino heritage. The Taino are now asking for official recognition as indigenous and sovereign peoples from the government of Puerto Rico and have formed at least two organizations: the United Confederation of Taíno People and the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Boriken. There is also a growing movement of Taino revivalism, connected to a broader movement for indigenous resurgence across the Caribbean. Members of the movement advocate cultural preservation and promotion, correction of historical misconceptions, the preservation and maintenance of sacred sites, and environmental protection.
SEE ALSO Boricua; Indigenismo; Indigenous Rights; Native Americans; Nuyoricans
Forte, Maximilian C., ed. 2006. Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary Caribbean: Amerindian Survival and Revival. New York: Peter Lang.
Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Boriken. http://www.taino-tribe.org.
United Confederation of Taíno People. http://uctp.org/.
Mary E. Stuckey