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Yamaye Taíno People in Jamaica

  • The Yamaye/Jamaican Taíno population is estimated at about 3,000 individuals. The community is represented at the local and international levels by the Yamaye Guani Council. Yamaye Taíno comprise three groupings: enrolled members of the Yamaye Guani Taíno People who have received their Yamaye Iri (‘name of the land’) through their commitment to preserving the culture; enrolled members of Yamaye Guani Taíno People who have not yet received Yamaye Iri; and families who have opted not to enroll, preferring to remain hidden until Yamaye Taíno receive formal recognition of their Indigenous identity and rights in Jamaica.

    The Yamaye Taíno community benefits from a strong relationship with Yenkunkun Pikibo (Jamaican Maroons). Since 2019, their representatives have been installed as members of the Yamaye Council of Indigenous Leaders (YCOIL). YCOIL, formerly known as the Maroon Secretariat, is a collective made up of diverse leaders who represent Taíno and Maroon Indigenous communities in Jamaica. It is composed of the Maroon Indigenous Women’s Circle, the Moore Town Maroons, the Scott’s Hall Maroons, the Charles Town Maroons and the Yamaye Guani Taíno People of Jamaica.

    The legacy of colonization continues to negatively affect Yamaye Taíno rights, for instance through the formal education system, which still teaches that Taínos are extinct. This has affected the current generation of Taíno descendants through a public denial of heritage, language, beliefs and rights.

    Presently, Yamaye Taíno retention communities are found in the parishes of St Mary, St Elizabeth, Westmoreland, Hanover, St Catherine, St Ann’s, Portland, St Thomas and Manchester. These communities, which are located either on the coast or in the montane forests of the interior, practice Yamaye Taíno fishing and farming techniques.

    A number of Maroon communities acknowledge their Yamaye Taíno ancestry and continue to practice Yamaye Taíno traditions along with their African heritage.

    Most people who identify as Yamaye Taíno are engaged in farming, fishing and handicrafts. Research shows that some Yamaye Taíno family lines can be traced to upper-class Jamaicans and the political class, even though elites typically identify with European ancestry, as this was a method of escaping the chattel slave trade system during colonial times.

  • In Jamaica, the Indigenous population is still referred to as the Arawaks, despite the adoption of the term Taínos to distinguish the native population of the Greater Antilles from the Arawaks of South America. The influential US archaeologist Irving Rouse defined Taínos as ‘the ethnic group that inhabited the Bahamian Archipelago, most of the Greater Antilles, and the northern part of the Lesser Antilles prior to, and during the time, of [Christopher] Columbus’.

    According to Rouse, the people referred to themselves by the names of the localities in which they lived. For example, Puerto Ricans called themselves Borinquen, which is their name for the island, and Bahamians called themselves Lucayo. This raises the question of what the Taínan name for Jamaica is. Traditionally, Jamaicans have been formally taught that Xaymaca was the Taíno name given to the island, meaning ‘land abounding with springs’, from which ‘Jamaica’ or ‘land of wood and water’, was derived. However, other sources have suggested Yamaye as the possible Taíno name for the island, based on information derived from Columbus’s journal.

    The term Arawak has been, and still is, mistakenly used to denote the indigenous peoples of the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas.


    Pre-Colombian / Colonial

    The genetic evidence offers new insights into the first human migrations of the Caribbean. The islands’ first inhabitants, a group of stone tool-users, travelled by boat to Cuba about 6,000 years ago, gradually expanding eastwards to other islands during the region’s Archaic Age. Where these people came from remains unclear. While they are more closely related to Central and South Americans than to North Americans, their genetics do not match any particular indigenous people. However, similar artifacts found in Belize and Cuba suggest a Central American origin.

    About 2,500-3,000 years ago, farmers and potters related to the Arawak-speakers of northeast South America established a second pathway into the Caribbean. Using South America’s Orinoco River Basin as a highway, these people travelled from the interior to coastal Venezuela and pushed north into the Caribbean Sea, settling in Puerto Rico and eventually moving westwards into Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba. Their arrival ushered in the region’s Ceramic Age, marked by agriculture and the widespread production and use of pottery.

    The Yamaye Taíno of Jamaica today are descendants of Ceramic Age people, as well as European immigrants and enslaved Africans.

    Spanish Colonization

    Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of Yamayeka in 1494. It was here that he first unleashed the mastiff dog attacks on local populations in a bid to assert dominance after the Yamaye Taíno refused to allow him to land his ships on their shores. Columbus later found himself on the island on the very site where he had initiated these dog attacks, only this time he was marooned and dependent on support from the Yamaye Taíno.

    What followed was a mutiny led by several of Colombus’ men, especially the Porras brothers who travelled throughout the island raping and pillaging. As a result of the mutiny, Columbus was denied food back at his makeshift fort in St Ann’s Bay. In his desperation, Colombus resorted to trickery. Using his astronomical tables, he correctly predicted a lunar eclipse and declared that his God had been angered by the Yamaye Taíno’s lack of generosity. Columbus was able to get the food he needed and survive long enough to be rescued.

    In 1510, the notorious Juan de Esquivel, the infamous participant in the subjugation of Higuey in Ayiti/Kiskeya (Hispaniola, today Haiti and the Dominican Republic), arrived to become Jamaica’s first Spanish governor. Esquivel’s arrival marked the start of a deadly campaign to eradicate indigenous people from Jamaica’s shores.

    Contrary to most contemporary and historical accounts, Yamaye Taíno did survive the genocidal rule of Esquivel, by heading into the mountainous regions of the island. Many people settled in Sierra de Bastidas, known today as the Blue Mountains. Here, Taíno communities flourished far away from the Spanish hatos (plantations) and ranchos. They maintained their traditions and raised their families. Many expeditions were launched in an attempt to find and tame the Yamaye Taíno. Even though it was known that Taíno settlements existed, none could be found. Yamaye Taíno also survived in small villages located near the main Spanish centres, especially after the notorious encomienda indigenous enslavement practice was abolished and replaced by the less repressive repartimento forced labour system.

    British Invasion

    In 1655, the British landed and pushed the Spanish out of the island. Thus began another challenging period in the colonial history of the Yamaye Taíno people. Whereas the Spanish interfered little with Taíno language survival, this was not the case during the British occupation of Jamaica. British interest in the island was mostly related to large sugar plantations, an economy that relied on ownership of land and titles that in turn rested on political propaganda declaring indigenous people extinct. Meanwhile, British colonists proceeded to hunt, deport and sell indigenous people into slavery.

    British colonialism also saw the imposition of British culture and language upon the few indigenous groups who opted to accept peaceful co-habitation within the conditions set out by British rulers. Those who held fast in the mountains received runaway African slaves into their communities They would eventually be called the Simarabo, Cimarrons and Maroons. Those communities would later win their right to exist as free men and would sign peace treaties with the British. The Yamaye Taíno of the plains and valleys had families with European or African settlers and thus continued to flourish, hidden among the island’s growing mixed-race population, nurturing remaining elements of Taíno culture.

  • From colonial times to the present, the government of Jamaica has readily accepted and wrongfully perpetuated the myth of indigenous extinction in Jamaica. The government has never acknowledged that Yamaye Taínos continue to exist or that Maroons are entitled to indigenous and tribal peoples’ rights. In 2022, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concerns about the government’s refusal to recognize Maroons and Taínos as Indigenous Peoples.

    Jamaica’s Constitution and laws do not recognize, guarantee or protect the rights of indigenous peoples under the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ADRIP) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), including rights to self-determination, autonomy, ownership and control of ancestral lands and resources.

    There is no mention of Yamaye Taínos in the early childhood education system in Jamaica. There is a section within the curriculum, sometimes referred to as ‘paper genocide’, perpetuating the myth of Taíno extinction. In this structural context, the Indigenous Peoples of Jamaica are exposed to serious threats and continued erasure.

    Unemployment in Yamaye Taíno communities is thought to be higher than in the rest of the country, while income is below the already low national average. There are no longer any surviving speakers of the Indigenous languages, though there is a language resurgence project being undertaken by the Taíno diaspora, which also involves Yamaye Taíno community members.

    Paradoxically, although the Taíno name Yamayeka alludes to the historical abundance of running water and springs in the island, Jamaica is currently experiencing numerous water-related issues that affect Yamaye Taíno communities especially. Water shortages, pollution and the high cost of private water supplies are some examples of how water injustice has been affecting local Indigenous communities over the past decade, especially Taíno fishing communities that rely on clean fresh and salt waters. In addition, climate change is causing increased stress for Taíno farming communities due to the intensifying hurricane activity, which is affecting Taíno cultivation as well as threatening archaeological and other heritage sites.

Updated March 2024

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