Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Death by Census

Taino Village in Cuba

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 As much as half a page of the outdated history book mentioned the Five Nations, the existence of longhouses, the “Three Sisters,” and how they were susceptible to dying from European-borne diseases.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.

Nowadays, advances in genetic testing science has proven that the Tainos were not eradicated but were rather integrated into the Caribbean gene pool. Not that you had to tell some people. People still worship the cemis, use traditional folk medicine and wisdom, cook the same foods. Puerto Ricans are starting to identify as “Native American/American Indian” on censuses in larger numbers than before, demanding the indigenous blood within them be recognized. Other indigenous groups have recognized the Tainos and tribes participate in Native American festivals. Many seek recognition by the United States government as an official people group, while other groups speak out against the sudden upswing in self-identification as Taino, saying it splits the population instead of unifying it in a positive way. Others discredit any scientific evidence, saying indigenous blood could be from any number of tribes, not necessarily Taino. Still, the fact remains that the culture is alive and has persisted through horrors both systematic and unintended. The numbers of the Tainos, erased by cruel hands, have been increased by people speaking up and claiming the heritage that permeates the Land of our Valiant Lord.

Dealing with other cultures, the conquered, and a resurgence of people thought long gone could be worked into a campaign with a group willing to deal with issues of race, culture, and politics in a mature fashion. The invading and conquering of nations is a common point in history and the devastating effects can permeate a culture hundreds of years after first contact.

For GMs

  • What is the history of the people groups of the region? What people group has been there the longest? Has the country ever been invaded by another culture/country?
  • Is the group of people that control the government culturally/ethnically the same as those they rule?
  • What small people groups live/have lived in the region? How have they influenced the current culture? Where do they live?
  • Is there a census? Do they just count the number of people or do they care about their ethnic/cultural background? How specific are they? Why?
  • If invaded by a larger force, how would the people of the region react? Who would uprise? Who would try to escape? Who would give up hope?
  • What is the cultural/ethnic background of the people and how many generations have passed since everything/everyone started mixing?
  • Do/did the invaders bring their families with them or do they try to start families in the new land?
  • Do people identify solely as belonging to the country/region or do they have ethnic/cultural pride? What does the local government think about that? What does the rest of the population think about that?
  • Does the government try to integrate smaller ethnic/cultural groups in any way i.e. through schooling, encouraging marriage, incentives such as citizenship?
  • What does the main religion think of any smaller groups within the nation?
  • Do the smaller ethnic/cultural groups have vastly different ideals than the people at large in regards to division of labor, gender, spirituality, war and peace, rearing of children, etc.?
  • Have any people groups been completely eradicated? Was it intentional? How was it done? Where did they go? How did it come to happen? Is this common knowledge?

Plot Hooks

  • A few weeks before the annual census is about to take place, a leader of a small cultural group demands to be recognized by the local government. The PCs are officials who are taking the census and travel the land and have to deal with people both for and against the new group being recognized. What does the group gain if they are recognized? What are their motivations? What do other people think their motivations are? What do the PCs think? What does the government want?
  • When the PCs are sent to investigate strange objects found in a cave, they find that the objects were made by a civilizations many scholars and historians insist were never in the region. How did the artifacts get there? What do the PCs do with the objects? What would it mean if the population was in the country? What is the history of that people group in that region?
  • Adolescents all over the country are starting to exhibit strange features suggesting that their heritage is not quite human. What is the cause of these pubescent transformations? What is the explanation behind these children? How do the children identify? Do their parents keep them around? Do any institutions try to monitor/train the children? Who comes to claim these children?
  • A small people group receives word from a neighboring country they are invited to relocate to the neighboring country. If they do so, they will be recognized officially by their new government. The PCs are part of this group and trying to figure out why they are all being invited. What are the motivations of the neighboring country? How does the country they currently live in react? How are they treated by the population at large? What are the current government’s motivations behind not recognizing them?
  • The PCs are part of the remnant of their people trying to escape from invaders. The group is trying to get to a remote location where they will meet up with other survivors and avoid death at the hands of their oppressors. Who else is in the group? How are they planning on getting to this location?
  • The bones/remains of the person who founded the country have supposedly been stolen by the indigenous people and the PCs must retrieve them. Why did they steal them? Do they actually have them? What do they do with the remains? Desecrate them? Reanimate them?

For PCs

  • What is your cultural/ethnic identity? Are you mixed? How does this compare to the rest of the population? How is it related to the history of your country? Do you try to blend in with everyone else? What are the benefits/drawbacks to fitting in/standing out?
  • Are you part of the dominant culture or part of a smaller or marginalized culture?
  • If your country/village/people were attacked by a larger force, what would you do? Fight? Organize? Hide? Despair?
  • Do you differentiate behind a person’s ethnicity and/or their culture?
  • How do you answer for yourself on a census?
  • If laws didn’t recognize your ethnicity or culture, would you care? Would you fight? How do you feel about those who care/don’t care?
  • Do you think smaller people groups deserve recognition or do you think it unnecessarily divides people?
  • How do you feel about various heroes/villains in your country’s founding story?

What say you?

Many thanks to my friend Vas Littlecrow Wojtanowicz for helping me with links, information, and general support. I appreciate it.

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