Monday, July 18, 2016


How Caribbean Amerindians Influenced the History of the Americas

© Michael Auld (Yamaye)

Today we may find it hard to believe in the reality of myths. Yet, beginning in 1492, an entire hemisphere was explored and exploited by arriving Europeans many of whom were primed by the belief that folklore was real. One seminal myth that drove the exploitative greed of the Spanish was the Taíno epic of the Travels of Guahayona  (the First Shaman). Amerindians paid with their lives for the actions of the Spanish, due to the story of an Island of Women and its twin, an Island of Gold. The myth was reworked and incessantly perused by the Spanish search of the fabled Amerindian treasures.

The First Shaman

Guahayona was believed to be the first shaman of the Taíno. He originated in one of the two caves of creation, Cacibajagua, along with the Noble People. He had been the one to bring sacred tobacco to the people. (His name also meant "Our Pride"). Guahayona’s epic helped to shape how Europeans perceived the Americas. The telling of his story by elders was meant to warn women against the danger of pride. This tale influenced both literate and illiterate Spanish seamen as factual evidence of Amazons and unimaginable amounts of gold in the Indies. Over the years, many adventurers lost their lives or gained riches in search of the fabled gold of the Indies.

  (Above:) The First Shaman of the Taíno epic the "Travels of Guahayona". The life sized wood canoa by the artist is in the shape of a barracuda (usually a solitary fish, barracuda is a Cariban word that means "He Who Is Alone").—Sculpture by Michael Auld

(Above-- Leftdetail: Guahayona was an integral part of the canoe culture of the seafaring Taíno
 (Above-- Right:) Guahayona, meaning “Our Pride”, is an epic myth of the seduction of pride that was exhibited by the first women. After the abduction, men were left without women who were taken away to Matinino by the shaman. As the story continued, it told how some feminine creatures without genitalia were made into wives with the help of a pecking of a woodpecker.
--Materials: wood mask, vine, shell and macaw feathers.
by Michael Auld

Cristoforo Colombo a.k.a. Cristóbal Colón, the one we know as Columbus, arrived in the Island of the sacred Iguana in 1492. Guanahaní (Iguana Island), as it was called by the Lukku-Cairi Taíno, was named for a spiritual symbol of the sun. On that day in 1492 in the Bahamas, the Lukku-Cairi (Small Island) Taíno oral tradition required them to entertain the Italian captain and his Spanish seamen with an areito, a part of an epic put to song and dance. Through sign language, the Taíno also related the portion of their ancient heroic story when asked about the gold jewelry (yari) that some of them wore. Columbus was told about Matininó, an Island of Women and its twin Guanin, the Island of Gold to the south. Fragments of the story stuck with Columbus who had now more than ever began the search for these mythical islands. In addition to exotic spices, gold was at hand! 

“I was attentive and labored to know if they had gold, and I saw that some of them wore a small piece hanging from a hole which they have in the nose, and from some signs I was able to understand that, going to the south or going around the island to the south, there was a king who had large vessels of it and possessed much gold”—The Journal of Columbus, p.26

The “king” alluded to may have been Guahayona. Columbus’ journal had many references to spices and gold whose source was south (in the geographic direction of Martinique). Later, in Cuba, the Taíno came to believe that "the Cristiano's God was Guanin (14k gold alloy)."
Cacique Hatuey who had escaped the massacre of Anacaona on Ayti Bohio, had said, "They love him so much. Even if you swallow him they will cut you open to retrieve their God."

To the direct south of the Bahamas were islands the Taíno called Cuba, Kiskeya/Ayti Bohio, Boriken and Yamaye. On his Second Voyage, now entering the Americas via the Eastern Caribbean (south of the Bahamas), Columbus thought that he had found Matininó. Today’s Martinique was that mythical isle, only it was populated by the Island Carib, a warrior society. Columbus wrote that he followed the direction (with this 2nd voyage of 17 ships) given to him by a Taíno whom he had taken to Spain as evidence of reaching India. It seems, according to Columbus' writing, the Taíno man on board ship had known a shorter route between the Americas and Europe. This was the route used by sailing ships from then on entering the Americas, until the invention of steamships. The Taíno were seafaring agriculturalists who had daily navigated the thousands of islands from the Orinoco River Basin to Florida over 1,000 years before. It was not until a few years later when Columbus had been made governor of "Hispaniola" (Kiskeya/Ayti Bohio) that he learned the entire story of Matininó and Guanin. 

On Columbus’ 1st Voyage one of his ships sank off the coast of Ayti Bohio. His crew was saved by the local cacique, Guacanagari, whose people had helped to salvage everything from the wreck. The Spanish seamen were impressed with Taíno honesty, since "not even a needle was lost." Columbus left from the hastily constructed fortification of La Navidad, to sail back to Spain, where he obtained 17 ships and financing. The crew that was left behind became mutinous and greedy. They requested multiple women from their hosts. Another nearby cacique had enough of the disrespect and launched a scorched earth attack with pepper smoke grenades, disorienting the Spanish, and all of the intruders were killed. Upon his return, Columbus meted out revenge, killing a number of Taíno who had not left the area. 

The Taíno revolted. “The first American insurrection against colonialism was put down in a bloody battle at the Vega Real [Hispaniola/Kiskeya/Ayti Bohio] on March 27, 1495.”  Amerindian warriors were not the docile people that he had written about from his first impression in the Bahamas. The shipment of a small amount of gold and exotic hardwoods was not enough to repay the debts for the voyage. His fateful decision to pacify the impatient Spanish Royals was to “fill the ships of Antonio de Torres with Indios to be taken back to Spain and sold as slaves.” 

As the governor of Hispaniola, in 1495, he sent a Catalán cleric named Friar Ramon Pané who had become fluent in Taíno languages, to record their beliefs and ways. For his own safety, Columbus decided to find out more about the people that he had previously underestimated. It was at this juncture that Pané recorded the following Taíno story.

Guahayona said to the women, “Leave your husbands and let us go to other lands and carry off much guyeö.
Leave your children and let us take only the herb with us and later we shall return for them.”
Guahayona, OUR PRIDE, left with all the women, and went in search for other lands.
He came to Matininó, NO FATHERS,
Where he soon left the women behind,
and he went off to another region called Guanin.—Cave of the Jagua, Antonio M. Stevens-Arroyo, p.157

Guyeö was a chewing tobacco made with green leaves mixed with salty ashes from algae. As a cleric, Pané recorded this story with some skepticism. However, vast numbers of the Spanish, both literate and illiterate, believed it as Taíno gospel. Taíno stories, when examined, were similar to the Adam and Eve biblical tale intended as a guide for inappropriate behavior. “Women”, it meant, “don’t be seduced by Guahayona/pride.” Abandoned on Matininó, the arriving Spanish wrote about and searched for this “Island of Amazons/Women”.

Figure 1: The artist’s 18” x 24” silk screen print of Guahayona's travel to Matininó, the Island of Women. The female images are of Attabey, the virgin mother of the Supreme Being, Yucahu. Her image is from a ballpark in Puerto Rico, dedication to honor her and the rubber ball game, batu, the ancient Mesoamerican game first seen by the Spanish in the Caribbean. She is the goddess of childbirth and fresh water. Her body is depicted in the shape of a frog that represents procreation while the woodpecker at her groin depicts a part of the story of “How the Women Came to the Men.”
Figure 2: Guahayona leaves Matinino and travels to Guanin, the Island of Gold. The print includes a 16th century woodcut by Oviedo y Valdéz who observed the Taíno method of panning for gold in Kiskeya. The Spanish adopted this method of gold mining. The glittering feather of the colibri (hummingbird) was their symbol for gold.

Fifteen years after Ramon Pané recorded Taíno myths in Hispaniola, a similar story with the same theme of women and gold was published in a popular novel in Spain.   

“Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue. The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks.” -- Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián) by  Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, 1510

During this "Age of Discovery" a novel was published in Madrid, Spain. It was the story titled La California an island of Amazons filled with gold and pearls led by the black warrior queen Califia. The epic continues to the point where this barbarous queen, who initially fights with the Muslims against the Christians, is converted to Christianity. Queen Califia's Amazons' weapons were made from gold, while man-eating Griffins (half eagle and half lion) that flew overhead protected the women from encroaching men, ripping them apart when trespassing on La California. This novel became one of the most popular books of the time and was widely read. Hernán Cortés, the touted "conqueror of the Aztec" Triple Alliance, while in upper Mexico (later called Baja California), believed that the high mountains seen in the distance was the Island of La California, and named it so. In the novel, La California was located next to the Terrestrial Paradise, one reference to the Caribbean. For some time, California was illustrated on maps as an island. 

The use of Amerindian themes in European writing after the “Discovery” can be seen in a variety of published stories and plays. For example, William Shakespeare’s character, Caliban in The Tempest, is an Island Carib, mislabeled Caribales, Cannibales and cannibal by Columbus. In the play, Caliban is a conniving savage, not unlike a current politician’s characterizing “Pocahontas” slur. Set in the Caribbean, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe’s companion Friday is a Taíno hiding from “cannibalistic” Island Caribs. Based on a story of an actual shipwreck in South America, this novel employs a Columbus inspired myth about cannibals. “Carib cannibalism” appears in Disney movies and was earlier used by Spain to justify the enslavement of “unfriendly” Indios, Carib or not. 

The thread of Matininó and Guanin ran through the other areas of the Americas. The Caribbean Taíno myth was sometimes combined with an old European story of conflict with the Muslims. The Hopi territory became the mythical location of Las Siete Ciudades de Oro. From a distance, gleaming pueblos appeared to be golden in the sunlight. Las Siete Ciudades de Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold, referred to a tale describing the flight of monks from a cathedral when the Muslims attacked. The belief was that the clergy escaped with the gold ornaments that may have ended up in the direction of the Indies. Although Estavanico the Moor was killed by the Hopi in the effort, the Hopi suffered great losses of life over a golden myth.

El Dorado and the Amazon

To the south of the Caribbean, after the fall of the Inca Empire, Pizzaro's crazy brother was sent off on a fateful search for more Amerindian gold. The expedition fell apart. Many Amerindian porters died or deserted the Spanish at the headwaters of the large river that was then to be named the Amazon. The survivors built a boat to go downriver to find food. The cleric on board recorded that the current of the river was too strong for their return and the boat was shot up with arrows by women warriors, or "Amazons" on the river's banks. "The boat appeared to be like porcupines," the cleric wrote.

Behind every myth, there is some truth. Ironically, the myth of Amazons/ Matininó the Island of Women and Guanin the Island of Gold proved to have been partially right. Large deposits of gold were actually "found" in the California Mountains. A related combined myth of the gold of "El Dorado" was found in Columbia, comparatively close to the “Amazons.” The Caribbean is a place where myths became real in the minds of Europeans who also searched for the Fountain of Eternal Youth among the youthful Taíno’s northern territory of Bimini (La Florida). Along with Greek Amazons there was the belief that the Caribbean was the location of Atlantis. So, our islands are called the Greater and Lesser Antilles and we border the Atlantic Ocean.

About the sculptures: 
Taíno symbolism is key to these artworks. In doing research for these Amerindian inspired sculptures the artist used the combined influence of both Mesoamerican Art and Taíno aesthetics to illustrate the Guahayona Epic. "If Taíno culture had not been disrupted by Columbus, our continued works would exhibit Mesoamerican influences. In terms of stylistic aesthetics, artistically these ancient Amerindian civilizations would have been the Western Hemisphere's ancient Egypt, that other hemisphere's mother civilization."

*Taíno words:
Iguana (big lizard); canoa (source of canoe); cacique (leader/chief); colibre (hummingbird); barracuda (solitary fish); Anacaona (Golden Flower, -Spanish assassinated Queen of Xaragua, Ayti Bohio);  bohio (roundhouse); macaw (talkative parrot); guanin (14k gold alloy made with caona--pure gold);  yari (gold jewelry);  Lukku-Cairi (small islanders of the Bahamas. Cairi became cayo in Spanish, cay and key in English); Cuba (Coabana. Coa = site, bana = large); Kiskeya/Ayti Bohio—“High Mountain Home”-- (the Dominican Republic and Haiti renamed Hispaniola, both the center of the Taíno civilization and later the fledgling Spanish American Empire); Boriken (Puerto Rico); Yamaye (Jamaica).
There are monuments to the Taíno heroes Hatuey and Anacaona; Hatuey (cacique and hero who fled to Cuba. He was late to Anacaona's diplomatic celebration put on for the new Governor Ovando.  At the celebration, Ovando massacred over one hundred of her caciques in attendance, and hanged her. Hatuey was hunted down by the Spanish and burned at the stake. When asked at the stake if he would convert to Christianity so that he could “go to Heaven,” Hatuey asked the priest, "Are there Cristianos in Heaven?" "Yes", the priest answered. "Then I do not want to go there." So, they burned him.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

State vs Federal Recognition: One Scenario

"There are 566 federally recognized American Indian tribes in the U.S" at this writing. Additionally, there are also Non-Acknowledged Tribes that are tribes which have no federal designation as sovereign entities but may be state recognized. To be recognized as a sovereign entity, tribes must meet certain criteria as "Indians". As of 1978 there were "33 separate definitions of 'Indian' used in federal legislation."--Wikipedia 

Because of sovereignty and self determination status, along with tax, health, educational and social benefits, one of the most prized possessions in American Indian life is recognition. Next to tribal identity, to belong to a recognized tribe is the most coveted state of American citizenship. To gain state or federal recognition as an indigenous tribe of the United States, among other requirements, applicants must provide evidence of unbroken descent from a historic Amerindian group. 

Although proving continuity with cultural practices can be daunting, both state and federal recognition processes are dissimilar. The Federal recognition process is exceedingly more invasive. Not all tribes can successfully survive the gauntlet of scrutiny. It is not unusual for some folks to borrow traditions or fabricate immaculate revelations as part of "an ancient ancestral practice". At stake may be a mythical golden self sufficient road to gleaming casinos that often rise out of the skyline like a Disney mirage. This goal, however, is even more difficult than current gambling concerns think since an established reservation or land held in trust may be a part of the federal requirements. For some, gambling is an acceptable device. After all, wasn't Jamestown, (and by default, America) started by the Great Virginia gambling Lotteries of 17th century London?

The irony not missed by many Natives is that some governmental  bureaucrats, often the beneficiaries of conquest, must decide weather or not you are what you say that you are genetically. Private citizens may identify with whomever they please. However, traditionally, you can only be "Indian" in the eyes of the law if some state appointed commission approves your tribe's petition. Although states may call upon an appointed body of commissioners as part of the recognition process, the most prized or elite recognition is processed by the Beaureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Successful applicants to the BIA are called "Feddies". Members of these lucky tribes act like the upper class of American Indian society. Some Feddies, having gained the prized BIA blessings, often look down on both state recognized and un-recognized Indians as "wannabes". One of their favorite slights. "Heinz-57" is another term describing mixed bloods.

I had the fortune to be a private citizen and extended observer at some of these very contentious recognition hearings. Observed was a case where one unhinged tribal applicant almost physically attacked a female state appointed commissioner with whom he disagreed.

Here below is a composite dramatized animal story of one process of recognition pursued by a fictional group. Resemblance to any human persons is coincidental.

The Eagle & the Crow

"This still does't make you an Eagle."

The Caucus Room

Once upon a time, Chief Bald Eagle, a full blood, headed a large nest of American Eagles. He called a meeting that included Crow and Chickadee.

Chief Eagle: "Get Crow in here!"
Chickadee: "Yes, Boss."

Crow: "Sent for me  sir?"
Chief Eagle: "What the hell is this? Some civilian says here you are not an Eagle! You a Dodo, Crow? I don't know of any crow-Eagles."
Hands Crow a letter.
Crow reads the letter. Face feathers turn pink.
Crow: "My mother wasn't an Eagle... But I am a Spiritualist Eagle."
Chief Eagle: "Christ! That makes you a crow, Crow. Nothing to be ashamed of. Don't make us look stupid, asshole! Get DNA.
... Take care of this!" 
Chief Eagle hands Crow the letter to investigate himself.

Unable to definitively provide proof of Eagle DNA kinship to raptors within a 500 mile area from his believed homeland, Crow reverted to the Eagle's Adam & Eve scenario. 

Crows had a history of migrating from other continents. Their Eagle pedigree was fictional. However, in Crow's case, Adam was an albino Hawk and Eve was a Blackbird, but this still didn't make him an Eagle. Besides, officials at the Bureau of Eagle Affairs (BEA) determined that Crow's petition to be an eagle was invalid since "most of the members of the applicant's tribe had no more 'Raptor blood' in them than the average bird in the state." Since the time of The Great Invasion, confusion abounded. Birds either flew away, or in the case of the flightless Dodo, walked off never to return. Laying eggs 
in other bird's nests became epidemic and the BEA had to separate the eagle chicks from the chumps. 
The campaign was called "Chicks for Chumps".

The above scenario is not common to all petitioners. Most birds who pass BEA muster have proof of unbroken lineage to recognized historic Eagle nests. Even if as eggs, they may have mistakenly ended up in the wrong nest since crows sometimes lay eggs in other bird's nests. Crow's "proof" of Eagleness was, however, more Biblical than actual. Not what the BEA looks for since wearing sacred eagle feathers doesn't necessarily make a crow an eagle.

Crow: Mumbling to himself. "DNA? &$@FK!!! Oh, copulate me!" 

Beads of sweat begin to undo Crow's processed feathers. The crow took the letter and begins to plot a witch-hunt. A kinky lock fell from a balding yellow forehead, cutting across blue Mongoloid crow's eyes. 

"Got to get the heat off me. How the 'FK' do I redirect? Who can I scapegoat?"
Crow paused then jumped for joy... "Those bastards on the Eagle Commission, Duck and Cohonk, voted for my dim witted cousins to be the first recognized Eagle tribe in our state. I bet the governor will approve recognition. Bovine excrement! They are just a bunch of gigaboos posing as Eagles. I will out those uncircumcised Eagle Commissioners!
"Wait. I am a government employee and I can't go after the public for tribal gain. Ahah! I will get my rabid cousin, Coony to do it. That alki owes me one."

The Witch Hunt

Crow's cousin, Coony Auraccoon organized two carloads of his mutant blackbird relatives and headed for BEA Commissioner Cohonk's tribal center 400 miles away. Cohonk was chosen as the easy target since Commissioner Duck had cited connections to an extinct tribal group. Arriving in a cloud of dust, Coony knocked on the door of a trailer scrawled with a sign, "Eagle Trading Post".

Coony: "Is the chief in?" 
Possum #1: From behind a squeaky screen door. "No. Gone to New Jersey."
Coony: "Is the asss-istant chief in?" He stuttered.
Possum #1: Assistant Chief Muskrat is down by the fishing hole." 
Door slams. 
"What the hell these blackbirds want?" She murmured to herself with a suspicious air.

Coony: Stumbling down the step he mumbled to his posse. "Bastard. Don't recognize a chief when she sees one? Black feathers must have turned her off. See how she looked at us? Must-a thought I was Blacula... fangs an' all! Got to get these coon rings from around my eyes."

At the riverside, the troop of coon morons with out-a-town tags found a Muskrat fishing from the river bank.

Coony: "Hey, fellow. You de Asss-istant chief?"
Muskrat: "Nope. Tribal Councillor. Ass went to the crapper. I'm his cousin. But for the right price I could be him." Flashing a broken incisor tooth grin. "What you fellers want?"
Coony: "Don't get much work around here, I expect? Can I buy a letter off you?" A crooked grin curled across a yellow pecker-like beak.

Muskrat: "You think this is Sesame Street?"
Coony: "No, no. I want a letter from your chief. I collect autographs." He lied.

Muskrat: Smiles at the opportunity. "Meet me over yonder at that there boat house in five." 
Scurrying back to the tribal office, the accomplice enters the chief's room, grabs a few of the chief's signed letterheads and heads for the boat house. 

Coony: "Yeah! I like the chief's signature! I will dictate."

The Letter

The forged letter stating that the BEA Commissioner, Cohonk, was not an Eagle and should be disqualified from the Commission, mysteriously found itself in the hands of Chief Bald Eagle, the staff of the Eagle's nest, the BEA Commission and anyone interested in gossip. The bogus letter was even widely published on the Animalnet.

In spite of missing DNA and flunking the eyeball test, Crow's peeps were accepted as Eagles. Their wings now cast a shadow along the eastern corner of the continent spreading pedigree myths while claiming territory everywhere crows have passed urine. 

MoralsWho said life is fair? Not all that glitters is gold.

In spite of Crow and Coony's under-the-radar approach to recognition, they became honorary Eagles. Not because they cheated, but because their cousin Raven, as questionable as the state's recognition methods were, did provide proof of prehistoric "tri-racial raptor descent". Crow and Coony came into the Eagle fold on Raven's tail feathers.

Friday, September 11, 2015

An Artist's Dilemma: How to portray a Native American

An artist must be able to portray phenotypes in portraiture, especially in sculpture, painting, illustration and caricature.  Since this is my profession, I have been a keen observer of nuances in facial structures, body types and skin colors. Similar to a dentist who observes teeth upon a first encounters; I notice facial bone structure, eye and mouth shape, skin texture and color. However, Amerindian identity is so mired in mythology that accurate phonotypical portrayal in the visual arts is problematic. More confusion to the issue of Native identity was added by the Federal Government’s “blood quantum” rule in 1934. This rule was inspired by the racist 1705 [English law] when Virginia adopted laws that limited colonial civil rights of Native Americans and persons of half or more Native American ancestry”. -- Professor Jack D. Forbes (2008). "THE BLOOD GROWS THINNER: BLOOD QUANTUM, PART 2". University of California-Davis. 

Five hundred years of racial mixing in this hemisphere has created a category of human beings that have varying physical features some of whom choose to accept or ignore their Amerindian genes. Throughout the Americas, identifying with the indigenous has continued to be controversial. Peoples of the Americas are often ignorant about Amerindian cultural and historical achievements. Little is taught about the hemisphere that produced pyramids, large cities, empires, multitude of medicines and is the source of 60% of what humans eat. Yet, against some remaining obstacles, there has been resurgence in Native pride. Compounding the problem of identity are the labels Mestizo, Métis, Latino, Hispanic, Chicano, Black Indian, etc.  

Some newly formed tribes handle the issue of resurgence well, while others create havoc in trying to be “more Indian” than the rest. One example of this extremism is the group’s attempt at historical revisionism by usually stating that “We are the Indians” of a geographical location on which their tribal name never historically appeared. This con-game was also played out by the late Italian-American actor “Iron Eyes Cody”.  Hollywood Westerns of an earlier period played a pivotal role in this confusing sham by casting Italian, Middle Easterner, English and Irish actors as Indians.

Notwithstanding Columbus’ confusion; the answer to who is “Native” is not cast in stone. For example, a Mexican (even with a high percentage of Amerindian DNA) would say that unless you speak your language, you are not Indio. In North America the answer to this question is more fluid. 

Top Row:  (1) Tecumseh, leader of the Shawnee. (2) Chief Joseph, Nez Perce [Nimíipuu is their name for themselves].
 (3) Charles Curtis, 31st Vice President of the United States who had maternal grandparents on the Kaw reservation. 
(4) Noted sculptor Edmonia Lewis whose father was black and mother an Ojibwa Indian who named her Wildfire. She grew up with her mother’s family of basket makers on the reservation. Both African and Native Americans claim her.

Bottom Row: (1) Italian-American actor Iron Eyes Cody (born Espera Oscar de Corti April 3, 1904 – January 4, 1999). He impersonated Native Americans in Hollywood films. (2) Astronaut John Herrington, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. (3) & (4) Irish-American actor Burt Lancaster who played Massai, an Apache leader in Hollywood’s Apache (1954).

Native American  n. (1Aboriginal American. a member of the indigenous people of the Americas, belonging to the Mongoloid group of peoples. (2adj. relating to any of the indigenous American peoples, their languages, or their cultures. Encarta World English Dictionary

full blooded  adj. thoroughbred of unmixed breed. Encarta World English Dictionary

half breed  n. an offensive term referring to a person of mixed racial parentage, especially Native American and Caucasian.  Encarta World English Dictionary

Mestizo n. American Spanish. A combination between Indio (Amerindian) and Spaniard.

Pardo n. American Spanish. A person who is mixed with Amerindian, European and African.

Except for the last two pictures of Burt Lancaster and Iron Eyes Cody, the above images are of people whom some Indian tribes would call Native Americans today.  Although, in the United States, we often reserve the term Native American for only the indigenous people of the mainland USA.  This attitude has caused many legal and “illegal aliens” from south of the border to insist that they too are Native Americans.  According to some anthropologists, we can evaluate the survival of indigenous populations in the Americas since 1492 in two ways.  Either, (1) Disease and genocide drastically reduced the Americas’ multimillion indigenous populations. Or, (2) Racial mixing has greatly increased the numbers of indigenous people within the Americassince 1492.  

The second theory, however, has contributed to a Native American identity dilemma for people without and within those ethnic groupings.  It is also difficult to identify Native American phenotypes especially in states with a high percentage of American Indians and Mexicans.  For example in AlbuquerqueNew Mexico, I found it hard to make a visual distinction between both populations.  Although most Mexicans are from the same indigenous genetic pool as other Native Americans, in Albuquerque there were incidents of animosity between both groups.  This dilemma caused a prominent Native American artist in another locale whose son had been beaten up by Mexican youths, to state, “Why would they beat up my son?  Don’t they know that Mexicans are also Indians?” East of the Mississippi River, the ability to identify who is an Indian is even more difficult.

The Native American identity problem began after 1492 when Columbus believed that the Caribbean’s Taíno and Island Carib were the Indians from Asia’s subcontinent.  Although there is documentation that indigenous Americans had been arriving on European shores at least since the Roman Empire, their sustained impact on the rest of the world began in earnest in 1492.  According to Dr. Jack D. Forbes, author of The American Discovery of Europe, “What we do know is that two or more Americans, at least a man and a woman, reached Galway Bay, Ireland, [in two dugout logs] and there seen by Christoforo Colomb (Columbus) long prior [around 1477] to his famous voyage of 1492.”  Dugout canoes are from the east coast North America, South America and the Caribbean so it is unclear exactly from whence these Americans came.  It is believed that indigenous Americans either came east to Europe at varying times via their own volition and/or were hijacked by Atlantic storms.  Oceanic tempests and Atlantic currents had floated American trees into Galway Bay where there was once a local business in American driftwood lumber. Today, heavy Atlantic shipwrecks still end up on Ireland’s coast.  Descriptions of people arriving at various times from the west going eastward, both dead and alive, matched the phenotypes of various indigenous Americans.  At that time, it was very unlikely for people from Asia to have been blown ashore on Western Europe and the Azores.  In Europe, they were mistaken for people from “Catayo” or Cathay (meaning China), and India.  Later, Columbus’ encounter with the people of the Lucaya Bahamas convinced him that they were Indians from Asia’s subcontinent.

Were ancient American phenotypes similar?

It is obvious to the casual observer that the Inuit (“Eskimo”) are decidedly different in appearance from the Olmec and Maya of the Yucatan, or the Cherokee, Iroquois and Algonquians of North America’s Eastern Woodlands.  The pre-Columbian  diversity in skin color, hair texture, facial and physical composition varied greatly among peoples of the Americas.  Even in two isolated and recently contacted Amazon tribes phenotype decidedly differed.  One group was tall, slender and yellowish (the Zo'e) wearing lip plugs; while the other was shorter, muscular, brown skinned and
 seemed not knowing how to make fire.  Although many people believe that Native Americans belong to one monolithic “race”, DNA studies tell us differently.  Geneticists trace all indigenous Americans back to six “original mothers”.

A study released on March 12, 2008 “identifies the six surviving Native American mtDNA lineages that are dated to approximately 20,000 years ago, designated as A2, B2, C1b, C1c, C1d and D1. Today's study also confirms the presence of five more rare, less known and geographically limited genetic groups: X2a, D2, D3, C4c and D4h3.”

Who or what is a Native American?  Can the average American identify a Native American?  The influx of European, African, Asian and “Hispanic” admixtures has made the answer more complex. 

Who is a Native?

The answer to this question lies in how the sovereign tribes of the United States and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) define a Native American.  First, tribes have varying criteria for membership that range from ½ to 1/16 “Indian blood” (See the July 22 blog article on “Blood Quantum”).  Tribes themselves define who is eligible for membership in the Native American family. Similar to loosing American citizenship, tribes can excommunicate blood members for reasons that go against the American Constitution. Federally recognized tribes are sovereign nations. 

Second, in a case brought before the BIA, a man in North Carolina tried to discredit his wife who identified herself as a Native American by calling her a Negro (since she was mixed).  The federal agency replied to his charge.  In their response, the BIA stated in essence that they did not care about the other racial composition of a Native American.  Although many Americans harp on the notion of the authenticity of “full bloods”, there are both tribal and federal acceptances of the multiracial composition of individuals who call themselves Native Americans.  This self-identification factor in sovereign “Indian Country” confuses the average American.  Hollywood further muddied the issue by painting Italian, Irish and Jewish actors brown (such as Jeff Chandler, Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman and others) while casting them in leading roles as either Native American full bloods or “half breeds”.  A founding member of a District of Columbian indigenous American organization once told me that a person who wants to identify as a Native American, regardless of blood quantum, must be publicly acknowledged as a Native American by members of both the Indian and non-Indian community. 

The Crossover
From the time of 17th century JamestownVirginia up to today’s Vice-Presidential nominee Governor Palin’s Alaska, Native Americans populations continue to be both hated and expendable.  The English from Jamestown went out twice yearly to kill Powhatan men, women and children in attempts of early ethnic cleansing.  This practice caused some Virginia Indian families to go underground and as they say, “hide in plain sight”.  Also, societal, economic and peer pressures have caused many Native Americans to identify themselves as black or white.  In spite of gaming windfalls, Native Americans are still on the lowest end of the American society’s economic and health ladder.  In some parts of Virginia and WashingtonDC, Indians were forced to be reclassified as colored, mulatto, Negro, and later black.  They were threatened with physical violence or loss of their jobs if they publicly acknowledged their Indian heritage.  Some lighter skinned descendants of these Native American families moved out West into the Sun Belt to pass as tanned whites.  Since it has become safer to identify with one’s Native roots in recent years, some of these family members have now enrolled in Native American tribes.  Historically, many Native American families from the times of the Southern plantation system could only live in black neighborhoods.  Dr. Walter Plecker, an avowed white supremacist and advocate of eugenics compounded the case against Native American identity by fiercely recommending the enforcement (by incarceration) of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of March 20, 1924.  

A Washingtonian relative in her 80s told me of the case of Sacagawea H. a Delaware Indian childhood friend whose family owned a store in D.C.’s Georgetown, who committed suicide.  Attempts to identify herself as a Native American in Washington,D.C. met with typical skepticism.  My source said that as proof of her Native American ancestry, “The chief of a Delaware tribe attended her funeral.”  Another story is of a Mattaponi woman who was denied a federal job for “lying” on an employment form by stating in the “Race” category that she was an Indian.  Also, consider the case of a prominent New York gallery owner who identifies herself as black.  Her full-blooded Indian parents had escaped with their lives from the persecution of Cherokees in the South.  They were spirited away to the North by a sympathetic sea captain.  They could only live in an African-American community in Boston.  Or the saga of prominent sisters from the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina who were misidentified as attractive “Negroes” in black entrepreneurial WashingtonD.C.’s early U Streetcorridor.  Maybe someone should write an Oscar awarding song titled “It is hard out here to be an Indian.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cultural Revival: The Taíno

I can still hear the lesson taught to me by a late sculpture professor, mentor and friend, Ed Love. Upon a visit to my home in Washington, DC, he commented on my sculptures. At that time, I worked mainly in welded steel inlaid with etched and color embellished Plexiglas panels.

He said, “Always describe your own work. Don’t leave its interpretation up to anyone else. No one else can accurately explain its meanings.”

I took this advice.  It is now associated with two pieces of artwork , presented to the 2014 Jamaica Biennial judges, that is part of a cultural revival of Taíno aesthetics. One is an assemblage sculpture titled “Inriri: Yamaye Bird-man” and a silkscreen print, “Deminan of the 4 Twins”. Both are part of the Creation epic of the Caribbean’s Amerindian people, the Taino.

Usually an art historian or critic takes on the task of catering to his own experiences or taste.  During some critiques, the term “in the style of” is often evoked. For example, “in the style of Picasso, or Rembrandt.” They never say in the style of a non European “master”. What if I choose to emulate unknown artists from an indigenous Amerindian culture such as the Taíno? The viewer may be unfamiliar with indigenous Caribbean cultural aesthetics, but should not avoid a Caribbean model for visual expression. I see my artwork as an extension of an ongoing cultural revival of the indigenous people of the Caribbean.

Research in a number of scholarly fields continues to reveal more about the once-believed “extinct” people, of the Caribbean, as newly discovered revelations about Amerindians survival are constantly being made. The impact of over six million Taíno Amerindians is Earth-shaking (Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas was the source of this count).

Chief Irvince Auguist, Carib Reserve, Dominica 1992
The Island Carib

The Island Carib who live in the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles and Central America, have a story of survival that differs from the Taíno with whom their warriors had continued to intermarry. They, like the Taíno had lived and navigated among 7,000 islands and the mainland Americas. To say that these indigenous Caribbean people became extinct is a gross misunderstanding of human survival 
after a holocaust. The rest of the planet, 
like the Amerindians never recovered from a form of culture shock that spread as far east as Europe, Africa and Asia. World languages, cuisine and technology are as peppered with the Taíno aji (chili/capsicum) as Jamaican jerk (really Taíno barbecoa) with scotch bonnet and pimento (Taíno allspice). Over time, Caribbean Amerindian influences so subtly melded into most world languages and cultures that they are rarely identified as imports. Pizza, curry, sweet potato and pumpkin pies, stir-fry (with bell and chili peppers), fish & chips, and barbecue (called barbie in Australia) although identified as part of local national customs all share this common South American and Caribbean Amerindian source. Unknowingly, most of the world’s people carry a little Amerindian in their stomachs. Those millions who survive off Mainland (Central and South America) originated corn/maize or cassava/yuca were introduced to these foodstuffs via the Caribbean’s Amerindian cultures during a 28 year First Encounter period.

According to Dr. Jose Barreiro (Cuban Taíno) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in a 2013 discussion at Fondo del Sol in DC, the Taíno survivors in Cuba still 
practice traditional agriculture by the fazes of the moon. Not unlike the Island Carib canoe-maker in Dominica who cut down the gommier tree (”when the moon is finishing”) also by the moon’s position. “Unless a researcher knows the right type of question to ask, or understands what they are seeing,” Barriero stated, the incorrect assumption would be that these capmecinos up in the mountains, don’t know much about Taíno culture. This wrong assumption can lead to the common statement that the Taíno of the Caribbean became extinct soon after the arrival of Columbus. Not only does the DNA visibly survive in the populations of Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but also in the diasporas living outside of the Caribbean. There is no question of the Island Carib, for they have a reservation on the Island of Dominica where they elect a chief every four years. Their relatives, the Garifuna population is estimated to be around 600,000 who live along the “Caribbean Coast in Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras including the mainland, and on the island of Roatán”. They also survived with their African kin via insurrections on St. Vincent, Martinique and Guadeloupe and by way of a shipwreck of Africans not yet slaves, but bound for enslavement. They did not go quietly into the night as some have thought.

The Taíno 

Above: “Dr Erica Neeganagwedgin, a Taino born in St Elizabeth [Jamaica] who attended Hampton School in the said parish, makes a point to Cacique Roberto 'Mucaro' Borrero, president of the United Confederation of Taino People.”— Jamaica Gleaner, Saturday , July 5, 2014

An example of Amerindian revival is being spearheaded by Cacique Roberto Mucaro Borrero, director of the United Confederation of Taíno People (UCTP) of which I am a member. Taíno organizations both in the US and the islands are currently keeping alive both the language and culture of their ancestors.  It is with this aim that the two works, a silkscreen print and an assemblage sculpture were created. As a Jamaican artist, like most people in my profession, I have gone through a series of self-examining style and content changes in my career. From an island of mainly non-European people, having not been taught about any other cultures that comprise my identity, was only natural to fill in the gaps ignored by a colonial government. 

The question first to be answered was, “Where am I?” The only real answer was, “In Amerindian territory.” If so, were there any vestiges of indigenous cultures? A research grant in 1992 led me to “Yes”, even though they were subtly hidden in practices we consider to be Jamaican.

Above: ”Olive Moxam-Dennis (left) said though she always knew she was Taíno). But  never discussed. It was her daughter, Dr Erica Neeganagwedgin (right), who helped her to embrace her Taíno heritage”,-- Ibid.

My survival theory was recently realized by a Jamaican newspaper article. Some Yamaye (Jamaican) Taíno descendants publicly announced their lineage in  2014 at the sixth 
Charles Town International Maroon Conference held in Portland, Jamaica. Other Taíno representatives from the NY/Puerto Rican (Cacique Borrero) and Connecticut/Dominican Republic areas were photographed with Jamaica’s indigenous descendants. The original fear by the local Taíno, a common occurrence among survivors, was public ridicule. For some inexplicable but not uncommon reason, the general populace seemed shocked at the survival of people who went underground or “blended in”. Having been on the Eastern Woodland Native American powwow circuit for over 30 years, I often have been told similar stories of Amerindian survival and the added burden of being a “hidden Indian”. 

Above: “Jamaica-born Taíno, Olive Moxam-Dennis, chats with Cacique Jorge Baracutey Estevez, Dominican Republic Taíno who lives in Connecticut, USA, at the sixth Charles Town International Maroon Conference in Portland recently.”-- Ibid

Above Maroon Conference photographs by the Jamaica Gleaner (

 There was recently a call for entries for the 2014 Jamaica Biennial sponsored by the 
National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). I submitted two Taíno-inspired pieces of art in an effort to include the missing Amerindian portion of Jamaica’s cultural puzzle. From my observation Jamaica (similar to the US in the 1960s) is rightfully going through its once denied Afro-centric phase. I had been following the type of artwork that is promoted as competition worthy. The current emphasis is on abstraction, some minimalism and “Intuitives”, artists who are spiritually moved to create art without “formal” training. One NGJ blog article also highlighted the works of some contemporary artists. Abstraction is the norm.  While technically good; the subject matter exhibits the thinking of a nation working towards artistic 
identity while mimicking artistic styles that have a genesis in Europe and American Modernism. This begs the question; what is Jamaican art? Is it a colonial shadow or, if given clues, would it be identified as uniquely Jamaican? Only the Intuitive works could be compared favorably with similar but distinctive Haitian painting styles.

Granted, Jamaica is a European creation in the Amerindian Caribbean. Its current population is mostly ethnic African mixed with European, Middle Eastern and Asian, built on Amerindian Taíno retentions. Although many Caribbean artists have varying degrees of 
African DNA, one could not easily tell by most of the artwork being created. Some artists seem to be exploring their African roots; echoing an early 20th century movement called the “Harlem Renaissance” (that included Jamaican poet Claude McKay) which gave birth to African American “race pride” artists, such as those members of the Africobra art collective (a Chicago-based group known for its “Wall of Respect”. Africobra’s aim was to consciously express one’s self by going against Mainstream Eurocentric styles by using African designs, imagery and “Cool Aid” colors. The experimentation with American Indian aesthetics had 
taken hold in New York decades earlier ushering in the Modern Art Movement, a style emulated by some Jamaican artists today. In the US this infusion of the indigenous was necessary in order to create a truly new American style of expression. Jamaican artists could take a page from this American Modernist movement by researching those things that make them Jamaican and not European, American or African. Truly “Jamaican” cultural heritage has a Taíno foundation. A country that prides itself on jerk foods, a Taíno based cuisine that uses a Maya word for its technique should know more about its indigenous roots.

 Amerindian acknowledgement

Below: Three views of Inriri: Yamaye Bird-man”. Assemblage sculpture. Materials: Maple and plumb wood, macaw and wild turkey feathers, abalone and cowrie shells.  (2014) by Michael Auld.
Front view

Semi profile

The Amerindian acknowledgement phase in Jamaica is just beginning. My e-mailed photographs and explanation along with an entry form for the Jamaica Biennial read:

“My two works titled "Deminan of the 4 Twins" and "Inriri: Yamaye Bird-man" are based on contemporary 
interpretations of stories and aesthetics from the indigenous ancestors of Jamaica, the Yamaye Taíno. Deminan, is one of the four sons of Itiba Cahubaba the Fifth Earth Mother of the Taíno Creation epic. Inriri is a part of the bird-man category of beings, one found in Jamaica's Carpenter Mountains in the 1700s, and is also associated with the bird (Cahubabael) that is related to the woodpecker's finding a woman's "honey spot". Duality is important to the Taíno belief system, so the twin "Inriri" imagery represents "the crucifixion of Taíno culture."
In the Taíno Creation story, Deminan Caracacoal and his three brothers, called the “4 
Twins”, were born to Itiba Cahubaba, the Fifth Earth Mother. They mate with Turtle Mother to produce the world’s people. The Taíno are from Deminan, so only he is named. In my print, they are set in a cave-like womb surrounded by pictographs.

Deminan of the 4 Twins”, silkscreen print, (2013 ) by Michael Auld

This story, a part of the island’s history, should be told as effortlessly as the Anansi the 
Spider-man folkloric tales.

 All creation stories are valid parts of cultures, not unlike “Adam & Eve” of the Hebrews or Michabo the Great Hare of the Algonquians. After all, although many roots are in the Eastern Hemisphere, we do live in the Western Hemisphere.

Post script: Not surprisingly, my submissions were quickly rejected. As a designer my modus operandi (MO) has instinctively been to be ahead of the game.

Here are the sources for the above artworks.
AbovePrecolumbian(?) "Taíno bird-man". This wood sculpture, probably Inriri (the woodpecker who is featured in the Taíno's Guahayona story about the women who were taken from their husbands to the Island of Women) was found in a cave in Jamaica's Carpenter Mountains in the 1700s. It was the inspiration for my assemblage wall sculpture above. The iconic Bird-man loaned itself to a cross-like image and a contemporary statement of  crucifixion, a method of torture implemented by the ancient Romans. To me, it represented a cultural crucifixion. My sculpture's analogy alluded to the premature "death" and current resurrection of Taíno culture in Jamaica.

Above three photographs: My silkscreen print above, titled "Deminan of the 4 Twins", was inspired by my life-sized sculpture of Itiba Cahubaba the Fifth Earth Mother of the Taíno. (Seen here in close-up details). Materials: composite wood, vines, shell, clay and paint.

In the epic about her, she died after giving birth by Cesarean section to four "twins". The twins are set in a cave-like womb since caves (sometimes with pictograph drawings) were considered sacred by the 
Taíno. The cave was the womb of Mother Earth, from where we came into this reality.