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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Smithsonian Returns Taino Indian Remains To Descendants In Cuba

By Vanessa Bauzá

January 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

CARIDAD DE LOS INDIOS, Cuba -- Plucked from their graves in 1915 and stored in the drawer of a New York warehouse, the fragments of bones of seven Taino Indians finally completed their long journey home.

On a hillside cemetery nestled in the mountains where Tainos once thrived, representatives of the Smithsonian Institution turned over a cardboard box containing the pre-Columbian remains to the tribe's descendants.

"We didn't know these brothers, but we are proud to have them back in our homeland," said Panchito Ramírez Rojas, 67, a village elder who led the reburial ceremony Thursday.

Members of Native American tribes from the Mohawk, Navajo and Kaw nations who came to Cuba for the bones' repatriation stood in a circle around Ramírez Rojas and his relatives as they sang to the benevolent spirit they call Chiriwa, asking him to protect the remains.

One Navajo woman, in the tradition of her nation, burned cedar leaves nearby to cleanse the bones. A Puerto Rican Taino descendent raised in Spanish Harlem improvised a ceremony, placing blue parrot feathers and necklaces of dried corn and Camandula seeds on the small cement crypt.

Finally, the bones were sealed in the crypt in the remote Caridad de los Indios cemetery, where Taino descendents have been buried for years. It was a simple ceremony marking both the end of a journey and, many hope, the beginning of a new consciousness about Cuba's Tainos.

It took nearly seven years and the blessings of government officials in Havana and Washington for the Taino remains to be returned.

"It's an amazing thing this got approved. I almost didn't expect it," said José Barreiro, a Cuban Taino descendent who lives in New York and spearheaded the effort in 1995. "There's been an explosion of Indian expression which over the years has led to this question of what right there was to loot the graves of Indian people."

According to a 1989 law, federally funded museums are required to attempt to repatriate all human remains to their indigenous communities. So far the Smithsonian has returned thousands of bones and funereal objects to native communities across the United States, in some cases clashing with tribes such as the Zuni in New Mexico who prefer not to have ancestral skeletons repatriated because they have no ceremonies for reburying them.

Though the federal grave protection act has no international jurisdiction, the Smithsonian has extended the spirit of the law to communities in South America, so far returning several mummies to Peru and about a dozen shrunken heads to Ecuador.

"The whole concept of repatriation is the museum is returning items it should never have had to begin with," said James Pepper Henry, who handles repatriations for the Smithsonian Institution.

Cuban anthropologists and historians are interested in some of the other 5,000 Taino artifacts in the Smithsonian's collection which were dug up by American archeologist Mark Harrington during two trips to Cuba in 1915 and 1919. The collection includes pottery, shell masks and a particularly interesting 800-pound stalagmite known as the Cave of Patana petroglyph, which Harrington sawed into five sections and carried away by pack mule.

However, the Smithsonian's policy is to return artifacts only to native communities, not museums or scientific institutions. Additional artifacts must be claimed by the Cuban Tainos, something they have not yet done, Pepper Henry said.

For years, anthropologists widely believed the Taino-Arawak people, who lived in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, were completely extinguished within a hundred years of Christopher Columbus' arrival in 1492.

"From the Spanish historical point of view we've been taught those communities disappeared and there are no descendents," said Cuban anthropologist José Millet. "That's a great error. Now steps are being taken to show this is not a mere archeological legacy but a spirituality that lives not only in these settlements but in the Cuban culture at large."

From the northern town of Baracoa, Cuba's first capital and one of the oldest colonial settlements in the Americas, to the Sierra Maestra mountains, the island's eastern provinces are dotted with villages, such as Yateras, Maisí, Jiguaní and La Ranchería, where about 1,000 Taino descendents still maintain the agricultural traditions and religious beliefs of their indigenous ancestors.

A farmer and herbal healer, Ramírez Rojas remembers 50 years ago when his village, La Ranchería, had about 25 Indian families living in palm-thatched homes with no electricity or running water and surviving largely on what they grew. Today many of the homes are lighted with solar panels and two years ago Ramírez Rojas replaced his old, battery-powered transistor radio with a television set. But only 10 Indian families remain in La Ranchería, and many young descendents, including some of his 10 children, have moved to larger, nearby towns for an easier life.

"The race is disintegrating," Ramírez Rojas said. "I'd like for my children to marry Indians but there aren't enough. We are living in a modern world."

Still, he says they come to him for his knowledge of local medicinal plants and his blessings to guard against the malignant spirits of the "evil eye." He has also taught his children to plant root vegetables by the waning moon, a tradition said to bring greater yields, and to give thanks to the medicinal plants they pick and ask for their healing powers.

"The Spaniards did away with most of us, many were killed, but they left our roots and we've flourished from them," said Ramírez Rojas. "There were many who said in Cuba there are no more Indians. I've had this culture since I was young. I teach my children so it doesn't disappear."

For Ramírez Rojas, his family and a small group of visiting Puerto Ricans who claim Taino ancestry, the repatriation represents a recognition that their culture is alive.

"Growing up, I thought we were the only Indian family," said David Rey Cintrón, who lives in Orlando. "I always prayed to meet other Tainos. That we might come together as a people."

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