Blocking Out the Sun with a Fingertip ~ A Taino response to Haslip-Viera

As found in the commentary section of the online magazine The Venture

Blocking out the sun with a fingertip
By Jorge Baracutei Estevez

Since the early 1980’s, an ever growing number of people from the Caribbean have been identifying with the regions first people, in this case the Taino Indian. At its worst this quest for identity could be viewed as a misguided romantic notion, but when the subject deals with the Taino some scholars feel unusually threatened and make assumptions and accusations that have nothing to do with the reality of the situation.

In the article “The Myth of Taino Survival” by Mr. Haslip-Viera (his recent but certainly not his last), the author makes claims that are totally inconsistent with the reality of the matter. As a representative of Guabancex : Taino Cultural Society and President of Grupo Higuayagua, I would like the opportunity to address the claims made by the author of the above named article and perhaps shed light on the subject.

First and foremost, not a single individual of what is popularly called the Taino movement has ever claimed to be pure a Taino. Why, because it is common knowledge that the people of the Caribbean are tri-partite owing our existence to the fusion of three racially and culturally distinct people, the Indian (Taino), the African and the Spanish. To say that we are claiming to be “pure Taino” is misleading and blatantly false, but why does Mr. Viera make such a claim? For the record and arguments sake the classic Taino who met the Spanish in 1492 were a mixed blood people just as we are today. They had been mixing for thousands of years with many different tribes. They were as “mixed” as the Spanish who enslaved them and the Africans that came with them.

This leads us to the DNA issue. Yes, mitochondrial DNA only looks at the mother’s line, but Mr. Haslip-Viera asserts that we ignore the thousands of other genetic contributors to the gene pool. But he is assuming that he knows for a fact that the “rest” of our ancestors were non-native. How does he know this for sure? If the Taino had all gone extinct then the maternal line of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans would not be 61% (Martinez Cruzado) and 51% (Tajima/Hamaguchi) respectively. What Mr. Haslip-Viera offers as proof of Taino extinction is the high number of genetic male influence from the Spanish and African. Interestingly, the author accuses us of using DNA in a “self serving” manner then turns around and uses DNA sequencing analysis to make his point. Mitochondrial DNA is a tool that simply traces migration patterns. In our case it demonstrates that the maternal gene pool of the of Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Ricans is overwhelmingly of Taino origin. We are simply dealing with that reality and it is a reality. Further the mtDNA sequenced thus far demonstrates that these lineages have local mutations that have been on the islands for thousands of years. Initially many historians upon hearing of DNA sequencing results were certain these genes must come from Indians brought to the islands as slaves from the mainland. Today they know better.

Another alarming claim is that of autosmal DNA (admixture) testing which again Mr. Haslip-Viera uses to make his points but is apparently appalled when we do the same. I would like to point out that people were identifying with Taino ancestry long before DNA testing was available. Autosomal DNA does in fact give the individual “pedigree” percentages of deep ancestry. But the interpretation being given by Mr. Haslip-Viera is flawed. First of all the percentages he points out are statistical estimates and of the entire population and mind you only of those tested thus far (which have only been a few thousand in a population of millions). Individual sequences can range from 3% to much higher. For example I participated in three separate admixture tests (the tests are periodically up-graded) and got 3 different results ranging from 29% Indian, 32% Indian to 42% Indian. Unlike mtDNA which does not change from generation to generation, autosomal DNA recombines and sometimes skips a generation. My children for example may have more Native autosomal DNA than I or very little of it. Later their own children may have it at a higher or lower frequency.

Whether its 10% or 50% the fact is that we have a genetic connection to our Taino ancestors. And yes, indeed, we are as genetically African and Spanish as we are Indian. But the question is not how much or how little Indian blood one has, the real question is, who decides what percentages makes a person an Indian? I personally identify with Taino for cultural reasons. The present situation is one where a historian, Mr. Haslip-Viera, wants to tell us how to identify. No matter how high or low a person’s Indian pedigree is, we have to choose Afro/Spanish because someone else decided it so. Personal identity is a complicated issue and should never be left to others. Robert Mukaro Borrero of the United Confederation of Taino peoples says it best “We have a right to our own self determination”. It is after all a god given right

Isn’t it odd Mr. Haslip-Viera points to the higher African or Spanish genetic markers in some individuals as PROOF of ancestry for all of us and yet ignores the fact that all the samples he put forth have Indian ancestry at some degree or another? Again, his argument didn’t begin with pedigrees, it started with outdated purist racial viewpoints that went out with Hitler and the eugenics wars. I am certainly not calling him a racist, but I am saying neither he nor anyone else is qualified to tell us how much percentage of Native blood is needed to identify with our ancestors.

In conclusion we the Taino of today are neither obsessed nor concerned with DNA as some would have you believe. We are however concerned with cultural practices, customs and language that have survived to this day and are now truly disappearing. We wish to preserve them forever and feel that we have the right to do so. The viewpoints of some modern scholars are unusually harsh and the amount of energy they spend on trying to debunk us is amazing. It is a shame (for our debunkers) that DNA didn’t support their conclusions. However deep ancestral dna was found and these tests are in their infancy.

Here is an undeniable fact: the average person has 20,000 genes in his genome. The average Puerto Rican (statistical) may have 5 % percent Indigenous to 15%. Well did you know that if only one of those genes is faulty or breaks down the individual would die. So how important are the Taino genes in the Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican populations…..think about it.

This argument of Taino survival versus extinction is old now. But people identifying with Taino ancestry is growing at an even faster pace now. This movement is never going away. The attacks and denials are interesting though. I am reminded of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilee during his inquisition by the church and forced to admit that the sun revolves around the earth and not the other way around as his telescope clearly demonstrated. Legend has it that upon admitting this lie he whispered “Epur si movi” ( and yet it turns). Deny Taino all you want, and yet it grows and grows …………….

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