By Angela Padrón
Have you ever paddled in a canoe or smoked tobacco? Have you ever relaxed in a hammock, eaten food on a tasty barbecue, or seen a hurricane? Well, those words are all part of our vocabulary thanks to the Taíno Indians.
The Taíno Indians were a subgroup of the Arawak Indians. They lived as far south as Venezuela, but mainly resided in the Greater Antilles, which includes Caribbean countries, such as the island of Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic), as well as Jamaica, eastern Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas.
The Taíno people grew vegetables such as yuca, sweet potatoes, maize, and beans, among other crops. They were excellent fishermen and sailors who navigated the waters on large canoes that could fit about 100 people. The Taínos also developed natural medicines from plants and nature. Nobles were called niataínos and priests were called bohiques. The chiefs, or caciques, lived in rectangular shaped huts called caneyes in the center of the village. The working class, known as naborias, lived in round huts. Although both types of houses were made with wooden frames, straw roofs, and earthen floors, anthropologists believe they were actually strong enough to withstand hurricanes. In addition, the Taínos played a game called batey. It involved the use of a solid rubber ball with teams of ten to thirty people playing on a court outlined with stones. Furthermore, evidence of ornate pottery, woven belts from dyed cotton, and carved images in stone, wood, shell, and bone indicate that the Taíno had an extensive and rich culture.
When Christopher Columbus came to the Americas in 1492, he was greeted by the Taínos. The Taínos greeted him with generosity and helping hands. At first, the Spaniards and the Taínos found ways to coexist. Unfortunately, their kindness amounted to nothing, as Columbus and the Spaniards took advantage of their peaceful nature and enslaved the Taínos. They were forced to work in gold mines and colonial plantations. Unable to plant the crops that sustained them, the Taínos slowly starved to death. Many became ill from smallpox, measles, and other diseases brought in by the Europeans. Several more died in battle against the Spaniards, while others fled to areas not controlled by the Spaniards. Taíno women married conquistadors, and soon Africans who were brought over as slaves as well. These interracial marriages produced offspring that created a “mestizo” population. By the 1500s, about 85% of the Taíno population had disappeared.
Whether it’s in borrowed words, in names and uses of foods, names of cities and animals, or in music and dance, the Taíno people and their history and culture still live on in many Hispanic countries throughout the Caribbean.