I grew up in New York City and was a student of the public education system for seven years. Therefore, every year we spent the obligatory 30 minutes on the indigenous people of New York, the Iroquois and the Algonquian. As much as half a page of the outdated history book mentioned the Five Nations, the existence of longhouses, the “Three Sisters,” and how they were susceptible to dying from European-borne diseases. Scalping of course was mentioned. The history of native New Yorkers starts with them.
When I got older, I learned about the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, where my maternal family is from (as I mentioned in this earlier article). These people were the Tainos. They called Puerto Rico Boriken which means “Land of the Valiant Lord.” The Taino people lived in villages ruled by caciques, grew cassava, beans, peppers, cotton and more. They worshipped the cemis, made weapons, held festivals, and built boats. The history of these people, as well as that of the Caribs and the Arawaks that also populated the Antilles, is very interesting, a wealth of information that would work in many campaigns. I encourage you to read up on their customs, their deities, their matrilineal inheritances, their clothing, and all that on the internet, in books, or by visiting events if you’re lucky enough to live near one.
The Taino population, like most of the indigenous populations of wherever Europeans trod, were basically forced to deal with the invaders’ germs, greed, and really terrible idea to not bring women along with them. Smallpox and other diseases destroyed the population, ill-treatment drove many to suicide, and scores died at the hands of the Spaniards. Groups of Tainos all over the Caribbean rose up and fought the Spanish, while other groups of Tainos fled, hiding in the hills and jungles they knew so well. Catholic priests spoke out against the ill-treatment of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, but still the indigenous people were enslaved, maimed, killed, and beaten. The Spanish took indigenous women as wives to gain land or just used them to sate their lust. The Taino population dwindled. The mestizo population grew. Slaves were brought in from Africa to make up the work force.
And then the Spanish census just…stopped counting the Tainos. Official inquiries were made into the number of Tainos left and many Spaniards answered there were none. In the Census of 1790, 3,000 “indios” were counted in one area of Puerto Rico. Later censuses, in an effort to streamline the process, just failed to have Taino as an option. Again and again, records claimed the Tainos were all gone, though other records named people who were clearly of indigenous descent. Intermarriage changed the face of the population, but the traditions, the language, and the knowledge were all still there. Physically, culturally, the Taino were alive. On paper? They were gone. It was easier.