I read this essay with much interest and can identify quite a bit with what Michelle is saying when speaking of the attitudes encountered when interacting with the native peoples of the US.
I am of the opinion that some of the native peoples of the US have been convinced into believing that a piece of paper gives them authenticity. As their ancestors were brainwashed into believing the fences around their reservation, they have been brainwashed into the fences around the nation called United States of America. They have forgotten their own history, that recognition as an Indian meant that you were part of the local wildlife; it wasn’t until 1879 that they were legally recognized as “people”, a century after the US was established. They have forgotten that “Native American” is not defined by political borders, it’s defined by being born in the Americas and what tribe recognizes you as their own. Because of the 230+ years the US has had to flourish and create new “Native Americans”, native peoples have bought into the propaganda given to them by the federal government. I have heard some indigenous people say the South American Indians were just “South Americans” and not recognize them as brothers. Very rare is the fellow native that recognizes the Taino people as one of the first nations attacked by the European invasion.
As for our Latin nations, they are still suffering in the throws of colonization practices of old. To be white is to be superior, to be smarter, and to be prettier; the term “Indian” or “Apache” is an insult and suggests an ignorant, lazy or uncouth person. People in Latin America use lighteners by the gallon and stay out of the sun to avoid darkening the skin; wear contacts to change eye color and dye their hair blonde till it falls off in tufts. They have bought into the Americanized Barbie doll ideal as well as the disrespectful notion that natives are uncivilized barbarians, with no idea of the value of the lands they sit on thus don’t deserve to keep them; lands, way of life, religious beliefs… Thus the decimation that began when Columbus landed continues unchecked.
And thought I agree with your thoughts that many people carry a romanticized image of what it is to be “Native American” I have to take exception to the comment that the Taino as a people would not be willing to face the discrimination and the hardships that the Natives in the mainland have faced. We have already done so! Reading up on Caribbean history will reveal the horrors inflicted on our ancestors. In the feudalistic system the colonizers established in the Caribbean, the lord or master of the fief, had the right to the wedding night of any marriage or union on his property. This was part of the genocidal plan; impregnate the woman with Spanish seed before she is impregnated with Indian or Black. If the child came out fair skinned, he could be taken away by the master, sometimes recognized as son, and raised "properly", if not he could stay with his parents and work. Added to this was the understanding that the lord could take any woman he wanted when he wanted to because he was the master after all. And all this was happening before the natives in the US were put into reservations! And even then, those natives in the northern mainland were still allowed their identity while ours was punishable by death. The fact is that although the natives in the US had to face abuse and discrimination and horrors of their own, they didn’t face the kind of genocidal tactics imposed on those conquered by the Spanish and French. US Indians were allowed reservations where our people had to go underground. We were forced into invisibility; to the point that people don’t recognize themselves today. The US got us as spoils of war in the 1800's but didn't allow us the "honor" of citizenship until they needed bodies to fill out the infantry during WWI. You could say we were an island reservation... To take it a step further, we are not even recognized historically. Everybody knows Columbus “discovered” America, but the Indians he met remained generic and no one seems to question that.
How much more do we need to suffer to be considered “worthy” to be called Native American?
As for federal recognition, I don’t see that it can be possible due to record keeping practices of the Caribbean. Puerto Rico is under Federal law and to be recognized as a tribe there is a blood quantum requirement- the US’ more humane way to genocide. This requirement also extends to the possibilities of receiving any federal benefit ($$) provided to Native Americans by the US government. To receive such benefits one needs to provide a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, which is a document non-federally recognized tribal members cannot apply for. However, a tribe, although not federally recognized, can still be recognized by they state they are located in. Puerto Rico, as a commonwealth, can (and I believe may have already) recognize the Taino as a people.
Because the Caribbean islands are politically separate, identification in one country will not offer automatic identification in another; one would have to meet the requirements of the laws of each country, much like doctors and teachers are required to do. Because the US natives have federal recognition and federal law blankets the 50 states and territories, their identity is recognized across the nation, but different countries may have another view. Each branch of the Taino will need to be recognized by their own country respectively although they, as a nation, may recognize each other. Much like what happens to the tribes that live on or near US border lands, between Mexico and Canada, when they wish to share with their relatives on the other side of the political fence.
As for your questions on definitions, standards, belonging and motives- I don’t believe those questions have a definite answer. Those who wish to control will set limits on who belongs and who does not, politically as well as socially. Blood quantum is not the answer, because it denies the native’s cultural traditions of adoption and absorption into the tribe. Who belongs then when the blood is mixed? And as for motives, well those are as varied as the people participating, ennit?
I agree with Max’ assessment that the Taino today is jumping the gun. The few people I have contacted and spoken with regarding getting together and sharing have sounded much more like a social club, or an organization as opposed to a “clan” or “tribe” in the social sense. Everyone wants to be chief and be the one with all the answers as opposed to just being a group of people willing to learn, share and grow together. Yes, a tribe or clan has a hierarchy, and I see nothing wrong with people taking on a position; but when it becomes an issue of charging a monthly fee to participate and be added to a list of names so as to be recognized as Taino, or the “positions” become more important than the people- well, that is just dispiriting. It shows the group for what it is, like Max said- a veneer; a front, a bunch of people getting together and “playing Indian”.
Then again, we are young and still learning.
What I feel is most important now is that those who identify as Taino take the steps to get to know themselves first and begin taking responsibility for their actions; like the Lakota would say, Walk the Good Red Road. We have a lot of baggage and our egos get in the way. Just as people living in this day and age we have baggage, let alone recognizing who we are, what that may imply to us, our family and the bigger picture, what is still being taught in schools, what continues happening to our relations in South & Central America and what our place may be in the whole “menjunje”. I feel we need to tackle ourselves first before getting all gun-ho about being Indian, taking on a new persona half way, and with it society as a whole. Instead, we can focus on our personal and spiritual growth, face our shadows and make peace with them, help heal our children and our society. Yes, we do need to focus on society but we can only give what we have given ourselves first. And if we haven’t given ourselves the time and space to grow into our identities how can we help others do so?
Thank you, Michelle, for the opportunity to engage in such interesting conversation…
(c) Anita Pagan