The Legacy of the Indigenous People of the Caribbean

Samuel M. Wilson

clough painting of Caribbean women

from The Indigenous People of the Caribbean (Univ. Press of Florida 1997)

This paper explores the important roles the indigenous people of the Caribbean still play in the region today. On many islands some people trace part or all of their ancestry back to the people who lived here before Columbus's voyages. On nearly every island, the modern inhabitants relate to the environment in ways they learned from the Indians: they grow some of the same plants for food and other uses, fish the same reefs in the same ways, and follow the same seasonal patterns. Also, on nearly every island, even those where none of the indigenous people have survived, the Indians are powerful symbols of Caribbean identity, national identity, and resistance to colonialism. This paper will explore these themes, assess the status of the indigenous people in the modern Caribbean, and discuss the history of indigenous survival in the Caribbean.

Although it is the painful truth that the Native peoples of the Caribbean were almost completely destroyed by the processes of conquest initiated by Columbus's voyages, it is also true that these people still play a significant role in the region. I must say at the outset that the dimensions and nature of indigenous cultural continuity are complex and multi-layered: any search for groups which have retained pre-contact ways of life, untouched by the historical processes of the last 500 years, would be a futile one. It would also be incorrect, however, to conclude that indigenous people ceased to exist in the tragic years of conquest, or that they play no part in the modern Caribbean. Rather, the indigenous people of the Caribbean have played a crucial part in the historical processes that produced the modern Caribbean. Had the archipelago been uninhabited in 1492, the modern Caribbean would be radically different in language, economy, political organization, and social consciousness.

In looking at the "legacy" of indigenous people in the modern Caribbean, I am attempting to avoid the approach that merely looks for persistent traits, words, practices, genetic characteristics, and so forth. I particularly want to avoid what might be called the "contributions" mode of analysis, which identifies modern cultural elements as hold-overs from centuries past as "Carib" or "Arawak" contributions. Such an approach makes it seem to me as if the European conquerors had said, "We've come to wipe out you and your people and take your land, but before we do, would you care to make a contribution?" The modern presence of indigenous Caribbean cultures goes far beyond such contributions, but in more subtle and less obvious ways.

I propose to examine several areas in which indigenous influence can be seen--in economic patterns, language, myth, and even in the genetic makeup of modern Caribbean people. In approaching this I will deal first with the "overlap factor"--the time, longer or shorter from place to place, in which indigenous people lived and interacted with the people of African and European descent who were to replace them. I will then turn to the main point I hope to make, concerning the role that the conquered Indian people play in modern constructions of Caribbean identity.

The "overlap factor"

One of the most critical issues in discussions of the Indigenous presence in the modern Caribbean is the extent to which Indigenous people interacted with people from Africa and Europe. In some areas this period of time--sometimes centuries--allowed for substantial transfer of what cultural geographers call the system of "human-land" interactions. Such systems involve a group's complete way of living in the ecosystem--how they obtain food, shelter, medicines, and tools, and generally fit into the larger rythms of the environment. In many places throughout the islands one can see the effects of this interaction--in fishing techniques, house construction, horticultural practices and crops, in social and political structures, and in many other ways. But not everywhere, and this points to an interesting feature of the overlap issue: the Caribbean archipelago is geographically diverse, and the indigenous groups who lived here in 1491 were also different from one another. Historical change took place in different ways on different islands, and so this "transfer" of indigenous ways of living in Caribbean landscapes took place in different ways, with different results, nearly everywhere. Ironically, this complexity seems to stimulate an essentializing impulse among scholars, who are inclined to talk about pan-Caribbean processes and patterns. These pan-Caribbean processes are problematic, however, because obviously what happened on St. Croix is very different from what happened on Cuba or Trinidad or Dominica.

Nevertheless, I would add one additional generalization: I am persuaded that the significance and impact of this "overlap" period is underappreciated in the Caribbean. To give an example, the subsistence economy that developed in the 16th century, based on the sea's resources and heavily inter-cropped kitchen gardens, clearly comes in large part from pre-conquest, aboriginal, economic practices. But documentary historical detail on the patterns of interaction that took place during this period is almost non-existent, because the adoption of indigenous Caribbean practices was going on outside of the contexts with which the people writing about the Caribbean were familiar. The interaction was largely between African people, both free and enslaved, and Indigenous people.

In the Lesser Antilles especially, there was considerable interaction between Native people and newcomers in the period between 1493 and the beginning of intensive European colonization attempts in the 1620s. From ethnohistorical records made in the 17th century, it is clear that the indigenous people of the Lesser Antilles expanded their population through the active incorporation of captives (Hulme and Whitehead 1992). By one estimate made in 1612, there were two thousand Africans living as captives among the Caribs in the Lesser Antilles (Alquiza 1612, in Borome 1966: 37). The taking of European captives also clearly went on in this period, yet that process remains largely beyond the gaze of contemporary historians.

Agricultural overlap

Compared with other areas of colonialist conquest and population replacement, North America for example, the degree to which indigenous economic practices were adopted in the Caribbean is remarkable. The modern Caribbean subsistence economy certainly contains more elements of the aboriginal one than is the case anywhere in North America. The long list of crops used in both systems helps to establish this: the most obvious adopted food plants are manioc (Manihot esculenta), sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), and yams (Diascorea sp.), but several kinds of beans (Phasolus vulgaris and P. lunatus) were used as well. Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) and peppers (Capsicum annuum) were also grown in both aboriginal and historic gardens. Sweet sop and sour sop (Annona spp.), guava (Psidium guajava), and mamey apples (Mammea americana) are other crops that survived large-scale population replacement as important parts of the Caribbean diet (Reynoso 1881, Sauer 1966, Sturdivant 1961, Watts 1987). During this period the newcomers also learned about hundreds of other plants used as medicines, fish poisons, and raw materials for tools.

The new Caribbean people adopted more than just the plants; they used the indigenous plants within a relationship between people and the environment that had been developed by their indigenous forbears. More significant than the individual plants, the human-land relationship survived as one of the most important continuities of the conquest.

Linguistic connections

The indigenous component of post-conquest West Indian diets also suggests linguistic connections, because many of the words for indigenous foods come from indigenous languages. For example, the mamey fruit just mentioned kept its indigenous name (mamey) in several modern Caribbean languages, from the Spanish-speaking Greater Antilles to the Anglophone and Francophone Lesser Antilles. The names of some ways of preparing foods also come from Indigenous languages: in Puerto Rico dishes like mofongos, casabe, mazamorra, guanimes are examples (Navarro 1948).

Linguistic continuity is quite variable from island to island, of course, depending on the history of conquest and the duration and nature of the period of overlap. On Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) the indigenous population was decimated quickly by the intensity of European exploitation (Wilson 1990). In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, there was a longer period of Indian-European-African interaction, and the indigenous influence can thus be seen more clearly in Puerto Rican culture. A population census from as late as 1787 records the presence of 2,302 Indians, although some might have been brought from outside Puerto Rico (Anderson-Córdova 1990, Brau 1966). And on Puerto Rico there are many Taíno place-names, such as Bayamón, Jayuya, Guánica, and Manatí (see Dick 1977 and Jesse 1966 for other examples of Indigenous place-names). Also, more Taíno words persist in modern Puerto Rican (and Cuban) language use than in Hispaniola (Hernandez Aquino 1977, Navarro 1948, Tejera 1977). Similarly, more Indigenous words have been carried over into modern usage in Dominica and St. Vincent, where the Island Caribs have survived and flourished, than on islands were they were quickly killed or driven out.

Despite these connections, it must be noted that in comparison with other parts of the Americas where Indigenous people still make up a large percentage of the population, like the Mexican Highlands or the Andes, the impact of the indigenous Caribbean languages on modern usage is not great. Only a few hundred Taíno words are known to modern scholars (Taylor 1977). Caribbean languages are predominantly combinations of diverse European and African languages, mixed together in complex ways (Le Page and Tabouret-Keller 1985).


Native myths also provide connections between the pre- and post-Conquest Caribbean peoples. Given the overlap that occurred on many islands, it seems reasonable that some of the rich mythology of the aboriginal people would survive into modern mythology. To a small extent at least, this seems to have happened. The most notable story of clearly pre-conquest origins is that of the "Carib migration" from the mainland. In the accounts of this, when the Europeans arrived, warlike (and allegedly cannibalistic) Carib Indians were in the process of conquering the Lesser Antilles, killing or capturing the peaceful Arawaks, or driving them before the invaders into the Greater Antilles. Whether or not such a Carib migration or "invasion" actually happened is a matter of considerable debate among ethnohistorians and archaeologists (Allaire, this volume; Davis and Goodwin 1990; Wilson 1993). Nonetheless, as Father Raymond Breton noted in the mid-17th Century (Hulme and Whitehead 1992: 107-116), it did happen in Caribbean mythology when the hero Kallinago, tired of living on the mainland, moved with his family to Dominica. In Dominica one of his many descendants, the nephew of his nephew in Breton's telling, killed him with poison. Instead of dying, he turned himself into a monstrous fish called Akaiouman. This powerful man/fish, called Atraioman in contemporary stories, is still recognized in parts the Lesser Antilles. Many other myths in the islands come down from pre-conquest times, and other stories are of African or European origin, but are spiced with twists and turns that come from native Caribbean peoples (Corzani 1994; see also Relouzat 1989 for contemporary myths of Carib origin, and Alegría 1969 for Puerto Rican stories which combine Indigenous, African, and European mythological traditions).

Population Continuity

Despite the catastrophic population declines in the conquest period, individuals and groups of Indians managed to survive. Their descendants live in the Caribbean today, and carry a genetic legacy of the Indigenous people of the Caribbean. On many islands, especially in the Greater Antilles, it is widely said that people who have indigenous traits live in particular regions. The Sierra Maestra and the mountainous area of Baracoa in eastern Cuba are known for this, as are areas in Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico (Omos Cordones 1980). Indigenous genetic traits are of course found among the Caribs of Dominica, but also in other Lesser Antillean populations (Shillingford et al. 1966, Harvey et al. 1969). This attention that scholars have paid to individuals and isolated groups of people who are considered phenotypically "Indian" may mask the fact that a great many Caribbean people have indigenous ancestry. Intermarriage between Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous people took place very early on after first contact, and occurred equally on islands controlled by Spain, France, England, Holland, and other European countries. For example, about one-fifth of the recorded marriages in 1530 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, were between Spaniards and Taínos (Brau 1966). The same practices, probably in even greater numbers, went on throughout the Indies. The result of this in much of the Caribbean is that most peoples' ancestry includes a rich combination of African, European, and Indigenous forebears. This is important for understanding what I would argue is the most important legacy of the Indigenous people in the modern Caribbean.

The Indigenous people as symbols in the modern Caribbean

We looked at some of the tangible ways that the first peoples of the Caribbean were responsible for important parts of Caribbean culture. These individual continuities or "survivals" may seem anachronistic and relatively insignificant when taken by themselves. However, I would argue that the importance of the indigenous people is far greater than the sum of these identifiable "contributions." Its importance come from the way that Caribbean people understand their own identities, particularly in the sense that many Caribbean people feel that they are in part descended from Indigenous ancestors. I would argue that the indigenous presence in the modern Caribbean is vitally important in three ways: 1) as a link between people and the land; 2) as a symbol of a shared identity; and 3) as a symbol of resistance to external domination.

When post-conquest people adopted the Indians' foods and subsistence practices, they also inherited, at least in part, the relationship that had existed between the indigenous people and the Caribbean environments. This human-land relationship was virtually destroyed by exploitative sugar cultivation practices. But as sugar became unprofitable, or as the fertility of the land was diminished by overcultivation, the older human-land relationship reasserted itself in Caribbean subsistence practices. The complexly intermixed West Indian gardens, with tree crops, root crops, spices and peppers growing all together, are not unlike those that would have been growing on the same ground a millennium earlier. But what may be more important to modern Caribbean people than the Indians' plants and ways of growing them, however, is that in a real sense these modern people inherited the land itself from their indigenous forefathers. That is, many modern people view themselves as rightful heirs to the land by virtue of their Indigenous ancestry, rather than because of their relationship to conquering ancestors.

It should perhaps be noted that Caribbean people of predominantly African or European ancestry find it very reasonable to identify and feel kinship with the indigenous people of the Caribbean. Caribbean people of color have expressed the view that the oppression suffered by the Indians was similar to that of the Africans who were brought to the islands as slaves, and that being descended from both Africans and Indians they have been twice exploited in history. Africans and indigenous people were united in being tyrannized by Europeans and saw the benefits of collaboration, as the emergence of groups such as the "Black Caribs" suggests. In the Greater Antilles, very few people would deny a possible Indian ancestry; most would claim it. Indeed, it could even be argued that the essential part of being a Caribbean person is having a multicultural background. For example, María Teresa Babin (1971:28) discusses the Puerto Rican people as a fusion of different backgrounds, but her sentiments might be shared in other parts of the Latino Caribbean and beyond:

In seeking the points which sustain the cultural homogeneity of the Puerto Rican people, a review of all the attributes contributing to its formation by the Indian, the Black, and the Spaniard is needed, without forgetting the fruitful contributions of the minority groups of foreigners who have been assimilated into our country. With the cultural and racial amalgamation of all these diverse beings, a national reality has been able to coalesce, which persists and is projected toward the future with growing impetus, centered on the impregnable fortress of the Spanish mother tongue and in all that derives from it and the traditional inheritance accumulated during almost five hundred years of existence in the Hispano-American world.

Indigenous people also play a second important symbolic role as symbols of unity for diverse people. The history of the Caribbean includes ruthless interethnic conflict, genocidal conquest, and brutal slavery. Yet cooperation within and among ethnic groups is essential. Calling upon a shared indigenous ancestry is a way of bypassing stratigraphic differences that are based on racial, historical, and socio-economic conditions. Groups that are divided by the historical spectre of slavery might fine the basis for unity in an older shared history.

An example of the importance of finding something which unites the diverse people of an island may be seen in electoral politics, where invoking a common indigenous heritage is a way of building coalitions. Political parties in the Greater Antilles use indigenous symbols subtly or conspicuously as ways of establishing this common ground. In the same way, calling upon a shared heritage is a way of reinforcing national unity. In this way, for instance, all Puerto Ricans or Dominicanos can share a sense of being related to their countrymen.

A third, related way in which indigenous people are important in the modern Caribbean is as symbols of resistance to external domination. In a region that is acutely sensitive to colonialist domination, the Indians stand as symbols of resistance because they were the first to fight against colonialism, and the first to fall victim to it. Thus the indigenous people are one of the most powerful symbols of defiance against colonialist oppression. In the modern Caribbean, this sentiment is also shared by the majority and strengthens the sense of national cohesion.


The numerous and diverse indigenous people who lived in the Caribbean at the time of European conquest play a more important role in contemporary Caribbean society than might be suggested by any listing of the "contributions" they have made to Caribbean culture. More than the sum of all of the surviving traits, words, myths, plants, and practices, the importance of the first people of the Caribbean is more far-reaching than is widely recognized. The descendants of the Indians of the Caribbean still live in the islands and play an important political and social role. And in both concrete economic realms, where an indigenous pattern of human-land relations is still a part of people's daily life, to the arena of political discourse and nation-building, where indigenous people are central symbols, Caribbean cultures carry an indigenous legacy.


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this paper appeared in the volume The Indigenous People of the Caribbean, Florida Press 1997.
S. M. Wilson