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  • Adventures in Indigenous Caribbean Resistance, Survival, and Continuity in Borikén (Puerto Rico)
  • Tony Castanha (bio)

One of the greatest myths ever told in Caribbean history is that the indigenous inhabitants of primarily the northern Antilles1 were extinguished by Spanish colonizers around the mid-sixteenth century. For a people who have long been considered a remnant of the past, it must have been a curious occurrence to some residents of Borikén to learn a few years ago of the occupation of a native ceremonial site by persons claiming indigenous ancestry. In August 2005, three community leaders representing three indigenous organizations, Caney Quinto Mundo (Fifth World Learning Center), Consejo General de Taínos Boricanos, and United Confederation of Taíno People, were arrested in the mountain region of Utuado after a seventeen-day hunger strike. They and other members of their organizations were protesting the government’s desecration of sacred sites and ancestral remains, and the lack of recognition of their identity and rights as indigenous peoples. The Puerto Rican Institute of Culture and its director flatly denied the legitimacy of the groups, and even portrayed their actions akin to “cannibalism.”2 While such a belief is normally not so publicly paraded today, invoking the anthropophagic myth stirred an outcry from some supporters of the demonstrators. Still, it is a stretch for many to fathom a modern-day indigenous presence in Puerto Rico. The history books and pedagogy have not allowed for it, much less for alternative paradigms of interpretation. So some who [End Page 29] identify as the first peoples of the land have felt the need to take matters into their own hands.

This article is based on my doctoral work in which I mention that in recent years an increasing number of scholars have become aware of much (or some) of the controversial evidence surrounding certain discourses and myths that were analyzed in relation to Caribbean indigeneity. 3 I acknowledged that some have been writing on the imaginary extent of the most dominant myths for a long time. However, these scholars have been largely marginalized academically as their views have challenged mainstream dominant theories, and their works have often gone unpublished. An example of this is the writing of the late Carib-Jíbaro linguist and scholar, Oki Lamourt-Valentín. One of his texts, Cannibal Recipes, provides an important indigenous interpretation of the work of Fray Ramón Pané, the Jeronymite missionary who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, but has not been published. Cannibal Recipes is a sociolinguistic account of indigenous Caribbean culture and rebuttal of Pané’s Antiquities of the Indians. Lamourt-Valentín challenges the myth of the extinction of the indigenous peoples of Borikén and the widely held scholarly view that the first alphabetical work written in the Americas was that of Pané. As he explains, the Carib people and cacike (regional chieftain) Guarionex, who provided Pané with the information needed in this transliteration, turn out to be the true authors of the text.4 These types of sources are often labeled as “revisionist” and routinely dismissed by the academy. In addition to attempting to debunk mainstream theories, they have sometimes never been heard of before. When asked nineteen years after authoring Cannibal Recipes why much of this information is largely unknown, Lamourt-Valentín simply replied, “Because nobody has bothered to ask the Jíbaro. . . . Everybody says the Jíbaro is extinct.”5

What’s to Come

The myth of extinction has been passed down through the centuries a priori and has dominated the outside perception of indigenous Caribbean peoples. I say “outside” referring to the dominant thought held by the outside world, and by most who are nonnative to the region, because many Indian descendants have in fact known who they are and have maintained and continued to practice their culture. Many others have had some knowledge of their background, and some are in the process of recovering their heritage. One might wonder, then, how it was possible for the people who Christopher Columbus stumbled upon and committed ethnocide and genocide against6 to have survived the encounter. This article seeks to unravel this dilemma. With a focus...