Ethnohistory 47.3-4 (2000) 816-818
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The Indigenous People of the Caribbean
The Indigenous People of the Caribbean. Edited by Samuel M. Wilson. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. xiv + 253 pp., figures, tables, foreword, preface, works cited, contributors, index. $49.95 cloth.)
The indigenous people of the Caribbean have a long and rich history of cultural development. The first inhabitants were nomadic foragers who migrated from Central America some six thousand years ago. Subsequent migrations came from South America, notably by ceramic age people two thousand years ago. In a.d. 800 shifting strategies of resource exploitation led to the insular development of well-organized agricultural communities with great social and political cohesion. There was much cultural diversity within and between islands, and there existed extensive trade networks, astronomical knowledge, sea travel, spiritual traditions, and a high level of artistic and craft achievement.
The unique history and culture of the indigenous people of the Caribbean is often overshadowed by the tragedy of being the first Native Americans to suffer the effects of European colonization. As the first to “encounter” Columbus, native people of the Caribbean have been written into Western history as the first victims of Spanish genocide in the New World. There is no doubt that the indigenous people of the Caribbean were decimated by post-1492 colonial practices, including the interruption of agricultural scheduling, slavery, foreign disease, and outright genocide. Yet against great adversity—sharing with and borrowing from other cultures—indigenous bloodlines, traditions, and life ways have survived for five hundred [End Page 816] years to the present. Though declared extinct in many parts of the Antilles, many individuals and groups with indigenous Caribbean ancestry are today challenging colonial history and are reclaiming their indigenous identity.
Like other colonized regions of the Americas, most Caribbean nations have been unable, or simply unwilling, to critically examine their native past. Caribbean history, like most American history, has remained the story of the conquerors. The work of archaeologists and historians, like those represented in The Indigenous People of the Caribbean, may be seen to redress this situation. These researchers study the individuals and cultures that traditional histories have trivialized, romanticized, or otherwise marginalized into invisibility. The archaeology and history of marginal groups may be seen to bring formerly invisible people into the light. In fact, this is the stated motivation that led to the collection of essays presented in the book. Based on a 1993 conference in the Virgin Islands commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of that island’s “encounter” with Columbus, this book purposefully focuses attention toward native people.
Broad in its scope, the book describes the indigenous people from the earliest immigrants to their modern descendants and defines the Caribbean region as the entire archipelago and coastal regions. The book is also expansive in its chapter topics. Essays range from archaeological site studies to whole culture group analyses. There are focuses on religion, language, art, and trade. The authors of the seventeen chapters include noted researchers from nine countries, including residents from seven islands. Archaeologists are highly represented, as this field provides much information on a people who did not have a formal writing system. Anthropologists and historians lend an interdisciplinary flavor to the volume. However, the real surprise is the inclusion of the critical essay by Garnette Joseph, a Karifuna representative from the island of Dominica. One indigenous person of the Caribbean out of seventeen mostly academic, nonindigenous contributors may be considered low for a book about the indigenous people of the Caribbean. However, given the mostly Western-driven history of the study of the indigenous Caribbean, the editor must be commended for including this voice.
The editor does his best to patch together the varied chapters by providing a focused introduction and short prefaces to each of six sections. Although he is mostly successful in this difficult endeavor, many gaps appear in both space and time. Several chapters restate much of the same background on the native culture. Others offer technical detail on archaeological topics that seem beyond the range of an introductory-level book...