Hemispheric Journal: San Juan de la Maguana, Taíno Capital of Quisqueya (the Dominican Republic)
There are places that hold layered memory, places recognized long ago to hold spiritual density. Our common ancestors knew such places, gathered and “opened” communication—connection—with the alignments, the patterns of wind and water, the visual signals of seasons and moments. There is always revelation in this, if difficult to describe.
San Juan de la Maguana, in the Dominican Republic (DR), is one of those places where density of space blends with continued human attachment to the indigenous memory. I was there with Ranald Woodaman, from the Smithsonian Latino Center, on behalf of NMAI's Caribbean Indigenous Legacies research project. We traveled to various places in the DR to open up a discussion of our anticipated exhibition Consciousness of Taíno: Caribbean Indigeneity.
The Indigenous Legacies project, with collaboration from the National Museum of Natural History and many others, seeks to understand and appreciate the variety of Caribbean indigeneity found today in a broad range of topics.
In Santo Domingo, at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano, we met with established figures of Dominican scholarship, including Manuel García Arévalo, Frank Maya Pons, and Bernardo Vega, as well as members of the group Guabancex, a Taíno epistemic, or shared-knowledge, community. Scholars and various participants commented on the ideas and themes of the proposed exhibition and related productions. In Santo Domingo, we also visited museum collections, stopped by to chat with Minister of Culture Jose Antonio Rodriguez, and teamed up with Eduardo Diaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, to host a dinner for the American ambassador, the Honorable Raul Yzaguirre. Later in the week, we would travel to La Romana and Altos de Chavon to visit an accomplished Taíno-based curriculum-development project.
In a country of presumed extinction of indigenous identity and culture, San Juan de la Maguana—in the island's old cacicazgo of the Taíno queen Anacaona—stands out for its concentration of people who profess and relish the indigenous heritage of Quisqueya and the Caribbean, broadly identified as Taíno.
At each of more than 20 kilometers on the highway nearing San Juan markers depict a sculpted Taíno cemi. Entering town, the Plaza of Caonabo, with its statue of the tough early cacique breaking his chains, signals the mentality later expressed by local leaders. Caonabo was Anacaona’s husband and the chief who wiped out the first Spanish garrison left by Columbus in the Americas.
At the forum in the Municipal Center, in her formal greetings, Mayor Hanoi Sánchez made it clear that her constituents in San Juan de la Maguana take seriously their indigenous heritage. The mayor has been a leading power behind the strong identification of civic institutions with indigenous Taíno legacy. She asserted with much pride that San Juan de la Maguana is the “capital of aboriginal culture” in the country.
The Native-identification of the mayor and testimonies by a number of other speakers gave intellectual and cultural bent to a conversation that invited local and national researchers in these themes to share their work and to lead us to all possible approaches to the subject.
As always, some express a belief in the total extinction of their indigenous roots while many point out pieces of indigeneity in the puzzle of identity and culture of the area. As always, too, in these types of meetings in the Greater Antilles, people of apparent Indo-Caribbean ancestry approach, wanting to explore more of their indigenous culture and legacy. One middle-aged woman asked for orientation in conducting oral interviews with her aging mother, “who knows many of our Indian things.” Others spoke of Indian roots that undergird Afro-Dominican socio-spiritual movements, music, religious practice, memory in place.
A local group including Dr. Sobieski de Leon guided us to the Plaza of Anacaona, known locally as the Corral de Indios. This is a sacred space in the old cacicazgo, a large circular ceremonial field, with a stone—the Stone of Anacaona—at the center. It was fascinating to me that the stone is identified as having been in place for more than five hundred years since the massacres that were committed at this exact site. A local prayer woman (oradora), blending Catholic saints and "world alive" practice, normally cares ceremonially for the stone. However, she was not there for the day.
On behalf of the group, Dr. Sobieski wondered if we would conduct a greeting ceremony for the Anacaona Stone, and I acceded. We cleaned up, burned sage, and announced our greetings to the sacred space of Anacaona's old areito ceremony, located notably near the exact center of the island. The place and the elements of wind and sun were with us, strong imaging in the clouds, undeniably a sacred landscape to be acknowledged and appreciated.
Not far up the mountain, where roads turned to dirt and stone, we later arrived at the altars of the region's Liborio tradition. This, too, is a context of sacred landscape, a sacred water place still guarded by young men of descendant families.
Liborio is a legendary figure—clairvoyant, curandero, natural mystic leader of the early 20th century. Christ-like for some, source of inspiration and spiritual strength for many, Liborio left a legacy in the history and memory of his intense and extensive movement. Liborio's blessing of the water at this site is remembered in the ritual and bathing in the mountain’s sacred water, observance that strongly persists.
Here, too, we offered our respects to the cave altar, the “path of crosses,” and the sacred water. In conversations with the young people guarding the site and with ethno-documentalist Ariel Mota and scholars Fatima Portorreal and Glenis Tavares, all gave testimony of many family ceremonies to water still performed in the area.
As we visit sites and peoples in our approaches to indigeneity, often there is call for ceremonial formality. We opt to respect local tradition and share in "world alive" ceremony, purely traditional or blended with other beliefs that reflect a basis of respect.
Just these brief visits around San Juan de la Maguana and elsewhere in Dominican Republic offered evidence of rich orality and currents of identity and belief of considerable indigeneity. The challenge of our research and exhibition project is how to continue to gather and interpret this layered reality, how to decipher, correspond, compare across islands and localities the evidence of indigeneity in the Caribbean world.
Jose Barreiro (Taíno) is head of the Office of Latin America within the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
To read more about the Indigenous Legacies project, please see a related short essay by Smithsonian Latino Center Director Eduardo Diaz.