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RIGHTS-PUERTO RICO: The Taino’s Last Stand

Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, Aug 8 2005 (IPS) - A group of indigenous Puerto Ricans is occupying a cultural centre in hopes of pressuring Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to meet with them and address what they say are continuing violations of human rights and desecration of sacred sites around the Caribbean island.

On Aug. 4, a judge issued arrest warrants for five protesters at the Caguana Ceremonial Centre in Utuado, in northwestern Puerto Rico. One of them, Naniki Reyes Ocasio, has now been on a hunger strike for 14 days. The police have yet to enforce the warrants, however, and the activists are scheduled to appear in court again Monday.

”What is happening is that as more and more development hits the island, they keep running into Taíno burial sites and old villages,” said Roberto Borrero, president of the U.S. Regional Coordinating Office of the United Confederation of Taíno People (UCTP) in New York.

”Sometimes the construction stops until an archaeologist can verify if it is an ‘important’ site or not. What usually happens is that sites are not considered important and the archaeologist takes the artefacts and construction keeps going,” he told IPS on the eve of International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, Aug. 9.

Borrero said that 52 families have also been protesting in the northern coastal town of Arecibo, and another group in Caguitas has been fighting to keep a sacred area from being developed into a parking lot and a strip mall.

Although the mayor of Utuado has expressed support for the protesters, who began their occupation of the state-run archaeological park on Jul. 24, the head of Puerto Rico’s Institute of Culture has been generally hostile, apparently stating that the Institute "would not allow cannibalism or the sacrifice of captured enemies to take place there" – hardly among the protesters’ demands.

The Taíno are a subgroup of the Arawak Indians of northeastern South America, who inhabited the Greater Antilles – Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico – when Spanish explorer and conqueror Christopher Columbus arrived in the so-called New World five centuries ago.

When the European settlers first came in 1508, there were an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Taíno, but maltreatment, disease, flight, and unsuccessful rebellion had diminished their number to 4,000 by 1515. In 1544, a Spanish bishop counted only 60, but these too were soon lost.

However, their cultural influence persisted. Taíno place names are still used for such Puerto Rican towns as Utuado, Mayagüez, Caguas, and Humacao, and many Taíno implements and techniques were copied by the Europeans, including the bohío (straw hut), hamaca (hammock), the musical instrument known as the maracas, and the method of making cassava bread.

Juan Carlos Martínez Cruzado, a genetics professor at the University of Puerto Rico, recently completed a research project funded by the National Science Foundation, an independent U.S. federal agency, to determine the continental origin of the mitochondrial DNA of Puerto Ricans.

He found that analyses of some 300 hair root samples from Puerto Ricans chosen randomly by a computer identified 62 percent as Amerindian, 30 percent as African blacks and eight percent as Caucasian, casting doubt on the notion that the Taínos disappeared from Puerto Rico by the end of the 16th century.

"One of the biggest disgraces for the Taíno is the display of our ancestral remains in museums," Borrero said. "We know what our ancestors wanted because the archaeologist found them buried in distinctive positions and with funerary objects. They did not want to be dug up and placed in museums."

"As we come from an ancient agricultural society, it is important that our ancestors finish their mission and become part of the soil or ‘Mother Earth’ again."

He said that many other artefacts and even human remains are being sold on the popular Internet auction site Ebay, and there has been no attempt by the Puerto Rican government to stop it.

"We as a community want to have input into the way the artefacts are dealt with, how archaeological parks are managed, and we especially want to rebury or ancestors and let them rest in peace," Borrero said.

"Would others like their grandparents or great-grandparents to be dug up and put on display? How do you explain to your children why their ancestors are on display and not other groups?"

Governor Vila, Puerto Rico’s top government official, has not issued any public statement or indicated whether he would meet with the protesters. Calls to his spokesperson’s office in Washington were not returned by the time this story was published.

Puerto Rico is described as a ”commonwealth” which is a ”free associated state” of the United States. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but cannot vote for president. The island has no lawmakers in the U.S. Congress.

In May, the Taíno people of Puerto Rico, together with the Guyanese Organisation of Indigenous Peoples, the Hoboshirima Arawak Community of Venezuela, the Nación Taína de las Antillas and the UCTP called on the United Nations to schedule a trip by members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, including the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), to the region to gain first-hand knowledge of the situation of indigenous peoples there.

They urged the U.N. and other donors to allocate funding for meetings in the Caribbean relating to indigenous issues, and to ensure the effective participation of indigenous women, particularly with regard to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; and the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases by 2015.

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