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Taino of New York

The Caribbean is ever-present in the parts of New York where I frequent. Several hundred thousand immigrants from the Caribbean and their US-born offspring form a large portion of New York City’s population. Many of them carry visible Indigenous ancestry, and a smaller number even acknowledge it and make it part of their present-day identity. They are the same folks Christopher Columbus first met when he bumped into the Bahamas. They are the original “West Indians.”

Most identify with their island (or mainland country) of origin. The Garifuna, who still speak a Carib language, also speak Spanish and English and will usually identify themselves as Hondurans to non-Garifuna, unless you ask specifically. A far larger number are Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians and Jamaicans. Its an open question as to how much native Arawak ancestry composes any of these nationalities, and even within these communities, there is much disagreement. Of course, their home languages contain many words from the two large language groups of the West Indies, Arawak-Taino and Carib, and their eateries contain many foods, such as yucca, that were first cultivated and eaten by the Natives.

Then there is that “other” Indian component that gets very little attention: the North American Indian people enslaved and shipped to the islands. Hundreds of Natchez Indians from Louisiana were shipped by the French to Haiti, and over the years the British shipped a steady pace of Carolina Natives to their island possessions. Presumably, their descendants are still part of Caribbean populations. For example, I know a Haitian-born woman whose given name is the exact same name as an Indian people from Louisiana, but she claims to have no clue how the name came to be in her family.

New York’s most visible connection to its Caribbean heritage is the collection of communities known as Jamaica, New York. This Jamaica (a lot colder than the tropical island) was once a separate large town from at least the 1600s until it was absorbed into the greater city of New York in 1898. I have read different explanations for how it came to be named “Jamaica.” One theory is that it is from an Algonquian word “Jameco” or “place of the beaver”. Another holds that free farmers, possibly mixed-bloods, from the island of Jamaica, founded a farming community there. Not only was the town known as Jamaica, but so is the large salt marsh, Jamaica Bay, that separates it from the Atlantic Ocean.

Jamaica Bay is itself a magical place, a crossroads for migrating birds; part forest, part sandy savannah where wild prickly pear cactus grows farther north than I have ever seen. The present community of Jamaica has become, possibly not coincidentally, the most prosperous Caribbean community in the United States. This gives Queens County, New York, where it is located the distinction as one of the few counties where the black population is wealthier, on average, than the white.

In his book Native New Yorkers, Evan Pritchard, does not take this phenomenon lightly, and rightly connects the name of Jamaica, New York with its dominant ethnic group. He details the different Lenape languages spoken in the New York region, and mentions the Renneiu language, which was a version of Taino combined with local Lenape tongues spoken in the coastal areas of what became New York City. Of course this contradicts the official histories I was taught, that American Indians remained isolated in little pockets, unaware of each other for centuries until Europeans arrived. Pritchard paints quite a different picture, one of there being a sustained contact between the Caribbean and North America. Pritchard even suggests that this ancient connection explains why the Caribbean “immigrants” found New York such an inviting home, as opposed to numerous points further south on the east coast.

Florida has recently become the most common destination of Puerto Ricans who leave their home island. Official histories tell us that the pre-contact Natives of Florida were Arawakan people, close relatives of the Taino of Borinquen (Puerto Rico). Because it was the Spanish who largely depopulated the Florida peninsula by enslaving the inhabitants and shipping them to Cuba, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico, one might say the people are not so much immigrating as they are migrating to their ancestral homelands.

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Kevin A. Thompson

Kevin Thompson is of Creek descent and raised in the Southern Tier region of New York State. He has a Masters in Teaching, and currently employed in the social work field. He is also a US Army veteran.'

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