Who are the indigenous people of Cuba?

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Dimitri Prieto

Mercedes Quesada, from Jiguaní, Granma, retains some of the native features. Photo: Juventud Rebelde

HAVANA TIME – October 20 – Cuban Culture Day – a very interesting event was held at the headquarters of the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), dedicated to the indigenous peoples of Cuba.

This forum, organized by the socio-historical literature department of UNEAC, dealt with a subject relatively unknown in Cuba and which – for those who know it – is controversial.

Almost all the national history texts used in schools and universities at all levels establish the fact that the indigenous population who lived in Cuba when the Spaniards arrived, almost entirely disappeared within a few decades, due to their extermination through murder, disease, suicide, over-exploitation and abuse, all of which were the result of the colonization of the island by the Spanish Empire. These indigenous communities should not be confused with the Yucateco Indians who were brought to Cuba, from Mexico, by the colonial government over the following centuries, nor with the presence of Native American tribes from Florida and South.

The most interesting thing about this event was that it publicly exposed evidence, in a truly exceptional way, even today, proving that there are still communities living here who not only trace their family trees “Biological” to pre-Hispanic indigenous ancestors, but still define themselves as such.

One of these tribes elected a chief in charge of the traditional direction of the group, according to what the professor of the University of Havana, Antonio Martinez explained, while showing the public many photos.

It is widely believed that the indigenous Indians of Cuba, the indigenous peoples (these are the names they use to call themselves) provided many place names and agricultural, botanical, zoological and architectural terms still in use today. .

We also need agricultural practices, typical dishes (like casabe) and a few plants grown to them, the best known being tobacco. Linguist Sergio Valdes Bernal spoke about the presence of these aspects of indigenous culture at the event.

During the Spanish conquest, Cuba was mainly populated by Aruacos, tribes of the Antilles belonging to the Tupi-Guarani linguistic family (which regrouped ethnic groups covering the vast space between the Caribbean and Paraguay), known by the conquistadores and their descendants like “tainos”. There are testimonies of the presence of other indigenous ethnic groups on the island (siboneyes, guanahatabeyes), but today their differences with the Aruaco people are called into question.

When the Conquest suddenly took place, the native population declined dramatically. And the most prevalent version accepted until today is that the indigenous tribes that remained, mixed with Iberian colonizers and African slaves, brought to Cuba as a labor force.

Recent genetic studies, which were mentioned by the speakers at the event, suggest that a large percentage of Cubans today have inherited via their native American mitochondrial DNA from the female lineage (which is only passed down from the mother to his children, and never fathers). And it is quite true that it is the native women who were the mothers of the first Creoles of this island: it was especially with men who came from Spain and one can only imagine how much this kind of relationship. was violent here at the time …

There were acts of rebellion, a veritable war of irregular guerrillas, with formidable leaders, not only men like Hatuey and Guama, but also women, like Anacaona. Historian Rolando Rensoli spoke of this forgotten war of resistance.

Today’s problem with indigenous heritage boils down to the following question: is there a single indigenous Indian cultural heritage that exists here in Cuba, in the cross-cultural mix of the country, or is there also Cubans who – like Afro-descendants, Hispanics or Cuban slaves – have their own traits, which they directly inherited from their Aruaco ancestors? Anthropologists Jesus Guanche, Ivette Garcia and Avelino Couceiro explained that the first part of this question can be answered with a big yes, and is no longer debated. José Matos also confirmed this finding, showing us evidence of the presence of indigenous traits in the cult of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.

Catholic patron of Cuba. However, the second part of the question has yet to be answered.

Many Cuban archaeologists, like Gerardo Izquierdo and his colleagues at the National Institute of Anthropology, have defended this opinion and have written books on how, in reality, these indigenous peoples of the island did not disappear in within a few years, and should not be treated as if it were an exotic past, but as part of our history of struggles and a cultural reality that should be respected. For example, on November 27, 1492, the first act of anti-colonial resistance in the Americas took place off the eastern coasts of Cuba: a group of anti-conformist Indians fired arrows at Colon’s fleet.

However, the proposition that “those Indians” are still here, now, with their own identity and living among us, has always remained an anomaly and news for most of us who live in Cuba today. While many American countries have indigenous movements claiming their cultural rights and civil dignity, Cuba has traditionally viewed itself as remote from all of this, because “everyone knows that the Cuban Indians have been exterminated” …

And then, Chief Panchito and his daughter recently appeared before their tribe in far eastern Cuba and claimed their unworthy ancestry and the right to establish themselves as the rightful rulers of their people. And activists from the Kagueiro group have also appeared, people who study the indigenous roots of our Americas and who defend the current presence of indigenous tribes here in Cuba.

I was grateful to hear all of this at UNEAC at a respectful event. An interesting opinion was expressed during this discussion: if those who practice rumba or Afro-descendant religions or Spanish dance, and who identify with their Iberian or African ancestors, are not obliged to present proof of the continuity of this cultural transmission over the centuries – while it is not strange to see people revert to the cultural practice of going back “to their roots” after generations of “modern” parents and grandparents, without any interest in tradition, so why is it now that people are asking those people who define themselves as “indigenous” in Cuba, to certify their ancestry in detail? Why do some people see this redemption as a threat to “being Cuban”?

A new form of censorship has been overthrown. Ultimately, no one can deny the fact that “Cuba”, the name of this beautiful land, comes from the language of our Aruaca tribes.


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