Who Are Cuba’s Native People?

Dmitri Prieto

Mercedes Quesada, from Jiguaní, Granma, conserves some of the indigenous traits. Photo: Juventud Rebelde
Mercedes Quesada, from Jiguaní, Granma, conserves some of the indigenous traits. Photo: Juventud Rebelde

HAVANA TIMES — On October 20th – Cuban Culture Day – there was a very interesting event held at the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC) headquarters, which was dedicated to Cuba’s native peoples.

This forum, organized by UNEAC’s social-historical literature department, dealt with a relatively unknown subject in Cuba which -for those who know about it- is controversial.

Almost every national history text used in schools and universities across all grades, establish the fact that the native population who lived in Cuba when the Spanish arrived, disappeared almost in its entirety over the course of a few decades, due to them being wiped out by killings, disease, suicide, overexploitation and abuse, which were all the result of the Spanish Empire’s colonization of the island.  These native communities shouldn’t be confused with the Yucateco Indians who were brought to Cuba, from Mexico, by the colonial government in subsequent centuries, nor with the presence of native American tribes from Florida and the South.

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

One of these tribes has elected a chief in charge of the group’s traditional leadership, according to what Havana University professor, Antonio Martinez, explained showing the audience many photos.

It is widely accepted that Cuba’s native Indians, Indigenous people (these are the names they use to call themselves) have provided many place names, and agricultural, botanical, zoological and architectural terms still used today.

We also owe farming practices, typical dishes (such as casabe) and some cultivated plants to them, the most famous being tobacco. Linguist Sergio Valdes Bernal spoke about the presence of these aspects of indigenous culture at the event.

When the Spanish Conquest took place, Cuba was mainly populated by the Aruacos, tribes from the West Indies who belonged to the tupi-guarani language family (which grouped together ethnic groups covering the vast space between the Caribbean and Paraguay), who were known by the conquistadores and their descendents as “tainos”. There are witness accounts of the presence of other ethnic native groups on the island (siboneyes, guanahatabeyes), but today, their differences with the Aruaco people are being questioned.

When the Conquest suddenly took place, the native population declined greatly. And the most widespread version accepted up 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 event’s speakers, suggest that a large percentage of Cubans today have inherited via their native American mitochondrial DNA from the female line (which is only passed down from mothers to their children, and never from fathers). And it’s very much the case that it was native women who were the mothers of the first creole people on this island: it was mainly with men who came from Spain and we can only imagine how violent these kinds of relations were here back then…

There were rebellious acts, a real war of irregular guerrilla fighters, with formidable leaders, not just men like Hatuey and Guama, but women too, like Anacaona. Historian Rolando Rensoli spoke about this forgotten war of resistance.

Today’s problem with indigenous legacy boils down to the following question: is there only one native Indian cultural legacy that exists here in Cuba, in the country’s transcultural mix or are there also Cuban people who – like Afrodescendents, Hispanic, or Cuban slaves – have their own traits, which they’ve directly inherited from their Aruaco ancesters? Anthropologists Jesus Guanche, Ivette Garcia and Avelino Couceiro explained that the first part of this question can be answered with a great big yes, and is no longer being debated. Jose Matos also confirmed this finding, showing us evidence of the presence of indigenous traits in the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre cult.

Cuba’s Catholic Patron. However, the second part of the question has yet to be answered.

Many Cuban archaeologists, such as Gerardo Izquierdo and his colleagues at the National Anthropology Institute, have defended this opinion and have written books about how, in reality, these native peoples on the island didn’t disappear in the space of a few years, and shouldn’t be dealt with as if they were an exotic past, but as a part of our history of struggles and a cultural reality that should be respected. For example, on November 27th 1492, the first act of anticolonial resistance in the Americas took place in front of Cuba’s eastern shores: a group of nonconformist Indians fired arrows at Colon’s fleet.

However, the proposition that “these 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 demanding their cultural rights and civil dignity, Cuba has traditionally considered itself distanced from all of this, as “everybody knows that Cuban Indians were wiped out”…

And then, Chief Panchito and his daughter appeared recently in front of their tribe in Cuba’s far east and claimed their indigneous ancenstry and the right to establish themselves as their people’s rightful leaders. And activists from the Kagueiro group have also popped up, people who study indigenous roots in our Americas and who defend today’s presence of native tribes here in Cuba.

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

A new form of censorship was knocked down. At the end of the day, nobody can deny the fact that “Cuba”, the name of this beautiful land, comes from the language of our Aruaca tribes.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov has 254 posts and counting. See all posts by Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

13 thoughts on “Who Are Cuba’s Native People?

  • I was born in Havana Cuba, back in 1945. Both my paternal and maternal families came from both Norther Spain and Sothern Spain. They resided in the Vedado districts of Havana .
    Based on my Generic report that I acquired I am 1% native Indian , How can i find out what tribe do i belong to ??

  • Native Cubans or Indians came from Asia centuries ago . White races eliminated them in a systematic way or whitewashed them . History needed to be rewritten.

  • I’m from the USA and visited Baracoa many times. In January 2002 I saw a musical group at the museum. They were described as indigenous people and they seemed to be much shorter than other Cubans. Mr. Hartman was a great help at the museum.

  • Hello to all. I’m an artist, living and working in Australia.
    I’m also a decedent of the first nations peoples of Australia.
    There are SO many similarities in the histories of colonisation between Cuba and Australia.
    So many of our people died of diseases, massacres, lands conquered, babies brutally murdered in front of their mothers,… the list goes on.

    I will be in Cuba for the Cuban Biennale in Havana, April 2019.
    I have an idea. If you are curious, do keep reading.
    This is a link to an artwork I made about this in 2015.
    It’s titled The Aborigine is Present. (with Marina Abramovic’s permission) It is not about shame, blame or guilt, it is about acknowledging we, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia are still here, alive and well. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02FUIMAi6jk
    If you copy and paste this link you will see a little documentary about this performance work. It can also be found under the tab TAIP 2015 on my website. http://www.robynelatham.com

    Here’s the thing!
    What I’m proposing is I hold this performance art work over some days during the biennale, in Havana, with those of first nation decent of Cuba sitting opposite non Indigenous Cubans, for three minutes, in silence. I would not sit, as this would be purely about the first nation peoples of Cuba.
    Would any of you support this work? Would any of you be prepared to sit for up to 3 minutes?
    I will not hold this work without the permission and support of the first nations people in Havana and beyond, as this too would become another act of colonisation.
    Please email me, if you are at all curious about discussing this idea further. [email protected]
    Kind regards Robyne Latham

  • I am cuban and I was telling a cuban friend about the evidence of native dna in Cuba and this person was in total disbelief and somewhat angry about what I was saying

  • My Abuela was from Cuba. I recently discovered that I have Native American Dna from Cuba. I would love to more about my Cuban ancestry and am tired of all the white washing. All people are beautiful. We know all cultures have value. Why can’t we live in peace?

  • Hi, thanks for the article and the inspiring topic of Native Americans and the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Inspiring indeed. But a liguistic comment (I am a linguist interested in Native American languages): the Taino of Cuba did NOT sppeak a Tupi Guarani language, but Arawakan (Maipurean). Besides, there was an unclassified language of Guanahatabey language of Western Cuba, unrelated to Taino. Regards from Szymon Napiera?a, Poland

  • I think so too. I grew up thinking Indians had been extinct in Cuba. It is only due to the advent of dna testing that I have been able to learn of my own ( and my family’s) indigenous roots. For this small gift I am proud.

  • The Indigenous community of eastern Cuba (Baracoa) led by Kasike Don Panchito and his daughter Ydalis has been recognized as legitimate not only by many of the Native communities in other parts of the Americas, but also by prominent Cuban ethnologists such as the noted Dr Alejandro Hartmann of the Museo Matachin of Baracoa. Ademas de eso el Grupo Kaweiro Cuba al cual usted aludio previamente, the Grupo kaweiro Cuba to whom you alluded earlier is a well-recognized and influential organization in Cuba which has established a relationship with the multinational UNITED CONFEDERATION OF TAINO PEOPLE which represents Taino people from many of the islands as well as people belonging to other Arawakan nations such as the Lokono of Guayana. The existence of the Caridad De Los Indios community in Baracoa was brought to prominence as early as 1990 by Jose Barreiro, Taino of Cuban origin, and former professor at Cornell University in New York state. He has continued to bring to light the existence of this community in series of articles such as this one http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14888386.2002.9712584?journalCode=tbid20….I have personally interacted with the kasike’s daughter as well as Dr Hartmann, Jose Barreiro and the representatives of Grupo Kaweiro as the official representative of United Confederation of Taino People in Cuba. I plan to meet with some of these people again this coming month of July in or near my birth city of Santiago De Cuba…http://indigenouscaribbean.ning.com/profiles/blogs/viaje-a-cuba-con-mi-hijo-i-travelled-to-cuba-with-my-son

  • I so agree with you on this. I’m Cuban myself and we have been brainwashed since we were kids to deny our indigenous heritage. I wonder why? I guess is because of the Iberian elitist’s power on the island you mentioned above.

  • Correcting the system has nothing to do with knowing one’s roots. Want to correct the system? Impose democratic elections, get rid of the Iberian elitists who hold most of the power and avoid too much contact (other than trade) with colonial bodies (USA, UK, Spain, pretty much any nation who sees dollar signs on Cuba). Other than that, it’s important to dig more into Native history. Lest we forget about them completely thanks to the Spaniards…

  • Ought to spend less time studying you belly button, and more time to correcting the social system that is failing Cuba today!!! :-))

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