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.