The Tainos. Their culture is still highly-regarded today, most prominently in the Dominican Republic with the celebration of traditional Taíno festivals
Believed to have originally belonged to an Arawak tribe of Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta, the Taíno became a dispersed people as of 400BC as they embarked on a seafaring journey to neighboring Caribbean islands, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas. Settling most famously, owing to Columbus’ later arrival in 1492, on Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the Taíno prided themselves on their well-organized, self-sufficient and religiously centered society. Equally renowned for their beautiful artwork, naturally-produced medicines and innovative sporting activities, the Taíno, unsurprisingly, not only filled the 15th Century Spanish colonialists with admiration but their unique culture is still highly-regarded today, most prominently in the Dominican Republic with the conservation of former Taíno tribal villages and the celebration of numerous traditional Taíno festivals.
- Great controversy has surrounded the Dominican Republic’s Taíno heritage as some academics argue that the Native Americans were completely wiped out during the Spanish colonial period while others claim that their ancestry continues to the present day owing to past intermarriage with other ethnic groups.
- A variety of commonly-used words in the English language including “barbecue”, “hammock”, “tobacco” and “hurricane” derive from the Taíno’s ancient oral Maipurean language.
In the Taíno’s pre-Colombian rural society, hierarchy and religion were inextricably linked. Divided into two classes known as naborias (commoners)and nitaínos (nobles), the Taíno were governed by a cacique, a chief, who, with the help of a bohique, a priest or healer, would lead the village in music and dance orientated religious ceremonies and acted as a mouthpiece between spirits and mortals. As for the ideology of the Taíno religion, the Native Americans believed in multiple deities, all referred to as zemis,and in the existence of an afterlife in which, depending on their virtuous or depraved actions on earth and whether they worshipped the Zemi or not, they would spend an eternity in a paradisiacal heaven or an agonizing hell.
Talented craftsmen and artists, the Taíno’s ingenious inventions were numerous. From carefully sculpted pottery to exquisitely woven belts to religiously inspired carvings, the Taíno surrounded themselves with their skillful, and usually practical, creations. This flair for practicality was equally transferred to their construction of colossal dugout canoes and palm tree, cone shaped houses. Known as bohios, the dwellings typically housed up to fifteen families and one hundred Taínos could therefore live in a single bohio. Moreover, some historians claim that it is thanks to the Taínos favorite, active pastime, batey, which again was only possible to play through the Native Americans’ ability to produce expertly made equipment, that ball games still enjoy such widespread popularity today. With 12 players on each side, the aim of the Taíno game was to score as many goals as possible by transporting the batu, a rubber ball, from one side of the rectangular shaped court to the other using only their feet, thighs, legs or shoulders before using their accurate shooting skills to avoid the defending goalie and to hit the stone backrest or goalpost.
Although anthropologists have heatedly debated, with inconclusive results, the continuing existence of the Taíno people in the present-day Caribbean, visitors to these island nations, and especially to the Dominican Republic, certainly cannot deny the enduring presence of Taíno culture. From artifact-filled museums to beautifully-preserved villages to ancient pictograph-covered caves, the Dominican Republic showcases an indisputably fascinating culture which, despite being subjected to the threats of Spanish colonialism, still forms a vital part of the island’s unique national heritage today.