Inhabitants of the islands once called Quisqueya / Kiskeya (Dominican Republic) and Borinquen / Borikén (Puerto Rico) are the people Columbus encountered in the Caribbean. Some scholars contend these indigenous populations — often referred to under the umbrella term “Taíno”— ceased to exist just decades after Europeans arrived. Others have chronicled Taíno legacies in contemporary Latino Caribbean culture asserting the presence of descendant populations today.
In this exchange, Antonio Curet a curator of Caribbean archaeology, tells us what an object in the National Museum of the American Indian collection reveals about the rituals and beliefs of the indigenous inhabitants of Quisqueya. L. Stephen Velasquez a curator of Latino history with the National Museum of American History, similarly looks to devotional objects in the museum's collection that reflect the religious, racial, and regional identities of their Puerto Rican users. Finally, the National Museum of African American History and Culture's Latino Studies curator, Ariana Curtis, unpacks how slavery and colonialism shaped these identities and how Caribbean Latinos foster new connections to their Taíno ancestors.
Story in a Bottle
Antonio Curet, Museum Curator, NMAI
This beautifully made bottle was found in a cave in 1916, during an expedition to the Dominican Republic funded by the Museum of the American Indian in New York. The artifact dates back to the 15th century when it would have been used by the natives of Hispaniola (the island that encompasses the Dominican Republic and Haiti).
A male figure with frog-like legs and a hump resembling a turtle is carved into the bottle. These details suggest that the bottle is connected to the story of Deminan Caracaracol, a mythical figure of the Ancient Caribbean. In the myth, Deminan’s back swells and aches after being hit, and a turtle eventually emerges from the hump.
The figure on the bottle also wears a highly decorated bonnet, belt, arm bands, and elaborate ear spools (ornaments inserted in the ear lobes). It’s interesting to note that the semi-squatting position and erect penis suggest that he has inhaled cohoba, a ritual hallucinogen, to contact the ancestors or supernatural beings.
When I see objects like this one, I admire the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the ancient Caribbean societies. But, I also think about the contemporary legacy of those groups. Readers may notice that the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) records associate this object with the Taínos of the Greater Antilles, Bahamas, and some of the Lesser Antilles. As an anthropologist of the Caribbean, I’ve written about how the term Taíno lacks specificity because a multitude of groups inhabited those islands.
Archaeologists are interested in detailsAntonio Curet Museum Curator, NMAI
The Caribbean in the 1400s was as ethnically diverse as the Caribbean of today. Looking at the bottle through this lens, I see not only the myth it attempts to embody, but also the terms and concepts that have been used to categorize indigenous people across the Caribbean.
Crossroads of the Caribbean
L. Stephen Velasquez, Museum Curator, NMAH
The bottle recovered from a cave on the Caribbean island of today’s Dominican Republic tells a story with meaning for the people of that community. For me, as a curator specializing in Latino history, I was immediately reminded of an object from the Teodoro Vidal collection at the National Museum of American History. Vidal was a collector and historian who amassed a trove of items related to everyday life in Puerto Rico. He collected musical instruments, carnival costumes, cooking implements, textiles, and religious items, including the carved wooden figures known as santos, or bultos. These figures are tied to the Catholic tradition on the island, and are often used in home worship contexts that pay homage to a saint or Virgin.
The santos in Vidal’s collection, like the effigy bottle from the Dominican Republic, are figurative ritual objects that tell stories of Caribbean life and devotion, layered in the regions’ histories. Such objects reflect the myths, beliefs, and traditions that provide meaning and significance for Latino Caribbean communities and tie the communities together.
The figure above, La Virgen de Hormigueros (Virgen de Monserrate), represents the story of a miracle the Virgin performed to save a man in the small rural Puerto Rican town of Hormigueros. The Virgin is a mulatta—a woman of mixed African and European descent. She is brown-skinned and holds a child. She appears before a man, a farmer often referred to as a jibaro, who is standing in front of a bull about to charge. The man asks for her aid and protection from the charging bull. She intervenes, stopping the bull and saving the man. In honor of the miracle, the community built a church at the spot of the miracle in Hormigueros.
Such objects reflect the myths, beliefs, and traditions that provide meaning and significance for Latino Caribbean communities and tie the communities together.
It is significant that the Virgin’s depiction is based on the Virgen of Monserrate from Spain, also a mulatta, painted figure. The people of Puerto Rico see themselves in these representations because they too are mixed with African and European ancestry. They may also identify with the rural aspects of Puerto Rican life presented through the bull and jibaro figure. Embodying the region’s mix of peoples and traditions, these figurative objects speak to shared histories, experiences, and cultures across the Caribbean, and are as meaningful today as when they were created.
Ariana Curtis, Museum Curator, NMAAHC
When I first saw this bottle, I immediately thought “Taíno,” a frequently used and widely understood term for indigenous people from the Caribbean. Contact with Europeans devastated indigenous populations like the “Taínos,” but it did not eliminate them. Forced and voluntary unions between Europeans and indigenous populations are well documented. Lesser known, however, is the complicated history connecting Native and African peoples for over 500 years.
Throughout the Americas indigenous men and women fled captivity to live with blacks in maroon settlements. The Spanish word “zambo” is a common term referring to a person of mixed African and indigenous heritage. In the U.S., anti-black racism led some tribes to outlaw intermarriage with blacks, while others like the Cherokee were slave owners. Stringent racial categorizations and anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. produced fewer terminologies for racial mixing than in Latin America. But mixing did occur. In the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) exhibition IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, the deliberately capitalized “V” emboldens the visibility of Americans of Native and African ancestry.
Latino Studies does not exclusively study Hispanic cultures; it includes indigenous and African cultures as well.
As curator of Latino Studies at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I view this “Taíno” bottle as an example of tensions between scholarly and everyday identity labels. NMAI curator Antonio Curet has noted that the label “Taíno” incorrectly lumps together the multitude of indigenous groups that occupied the Caribbean and that the term obscures their distinctions and diversity. As a fellow anthropologist, I agree. However, I also recognize the imperfect application of labels as a unifying tool to resist European-centered histories in the effort to reclaim marginalized identities.
Latino Studies does not exclusively study Hispanic cultures; it includes indigenous and African cultures as well. This “Taíno” bottle from Quisqueya—the indigenous name for the Dominican Republic—is one example of this multi-faceted cultural history. The Puerto Rican civil rights movements in New York provide more contemporary examples. During that era, artists of Taller Boricua celebrated their African and indigenous ancestry through their art, while the Young Lords collectively asserted Afro-Taíno and Afro-Boricua identities. Although flawed, these labels aim to elevate indigenous and African heritage and subvert European-centered histories of Latino identity.