Editorial: What’s in a name - Arawak or Taíno?
Friday, 09 September 2011


Arawak Woman


There is widespread confusion concerning the application of the term Arawak on Caribbean Indigenous Peoples. This is not surprising given our disparate state across the islands and into the Diaspora.  As descendants of the first Indigenous Peoples in the Western Hemisphere to be labeled Indians, our communities are dealing with over 500 years of colonization and misinformation via educational institutions promoting ideologies that were established by the colonizers.


Even non-indigenous academics have been struggling with the application of the term Arawak in the Caribbean. By the 20th century the term “Island Arawak” become preferable for use by some historians, anthropologist, archeologists, and linguists to highlight significant differences between mainland and island communities. 


Usage of the term Arawak varies depending on a country’s language and educational system. English-speaking Caribbean countries were set-up by the colonizers as replicas of the British educational system.  Spanish-speaking and French-speaking Caribbean countries, etc., were similarly modeled. Despite differences, these colonial educational systems all shared a common goal of "taking the Indian out of the man" and out of contemporary identity.


Historically, English-speaking countries in the Caribbean are more apt to use the term Arawak as a blanket term for related cultures of northern South America and the Caribbean islands. In Jamaica for example, until recently the term Arawak was used to identify the island’s indigenous inhabitants. Identification has been changed officially from Arawak to Taíno and Jamaica now celebrates “Taíno Day” nationally.    


The application of the term Arawak stems from the fact that Indigenous Peoples identified by the colonizers as Aruac, Aroaquis, Aroacos, Arawaks, etc. traditionally lived in the coastal areas of northern South America and Trinidad. As a result of their location they were among the first Indigenous Peoples to be encountered by Europeans on the continent. These peoples however - at least the some of the communities encountered in British and French Guiana as well as Suriname - did not call themselves Arawak.  These peoples called themselves Lukkunu or Lokono.


According to historian Daniel G. Briton (1874), Arawak, a term meaning “meal eaters” was applied to the Lokono by their indigenous neighbors as a way to describe their culinary practice of using products from Mauritia flexuosa palm as well as the edible root of the cassava (yuka/manioc) plant. Similar culinary practices, as well as additional cultural traits including linguistic relationships extended up through the Antillean island chain. For the record however, when Columbus encountered the Indigenous Peoples of the Greater Antilles they did not call themselves Arawak.  


Our ancestors self-identified in many ways, but they did not identify themselves in the blanket nationalistic sense that we see today. In the past, self-identification usually linked communities to local geography or particular cultural traits relevant to their extended families or clans, etc.  Sometimes communities simply self-identified as “human beings” or “the people”.


In the Antilles there are at least two early accounts revealing the indigenous term Taíno was used as a form of collective self-identification. In once instance, Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca reports that on the island known today as Guadeloupe, indigenous people there, originally from Boriken (Puerto Rico) used the word Taíno to differentiate themselves from other Indigenous Peoples in the area. Chanca was an eyewitness to the encounter. In a second introductory encounter, Melchior Maldonado was exploring the island of Kiskeia (Dominican Republic), and a group of Taíno men led by an elder make also identified themselves as Taino. The event was recorded by Peter Martyr D'Anghera who received the information from an eye-witness. While Chanca, misrepresents the term "Taíno" to mean "good," D'Anghera translates the word as "good men," which is closer to the actual interpretation of "good people."  


Taíno is used today as a unifying term across the Antilles into the Diaspora not only by academics, but by local Indigenous Peoples themselves.  Is Taíno being used in the same way that it was in the past? While some choose to debate that, Taíno is an appropriate, dignified indigenous term used and developed by our ancestors to describe themselves collectively.


As for Arawak, there are many contemporary indigenous groups that now identify themselves as Arawak or at least part of the “Arawakan family”.  Affiliation extends from the northern to the southern areas of the continent. This can be compared to the use of the term Sioux among the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Peoples or the use of Navajo among the Dineh Peoples in North America. Sioux and Navajo were not the original names of these peoples yet many have incorporated these terms into their contemporary identity. 


In the Caribbean, a similar practice occurs among indigenous islanders who identify as “Carib”. Local oral tradition affirms that at least some of these communities identified themselves traditionally as Kalinago. To reveal the complexity of the identity issue, Kalinago and other Island Caribs are more linguistically and culturally related to “Arawakan peoples” than to mainland “true Carib” (Karina Peoples).  


Another point to consider is that while the Lokono Arawak and the Kalinago are among our closest cousins, for Taíno to identify strictly as Arawak does not take into account our verifiable ancestral relations with other Indigenous Peoples from the region such as our Meso-American relatives. We are a part of the "Arawakan family;" however, and there are many contemporary Taíno who are comfortable identifying themselves as Arawak or even Carib. In my view, there is nothing wrong with this practice as long as it does not seek to hinder the aspirations of those identifying themselves as Taíno.  


In the end it is all a matter of self-determination.


Roberto Múkaro Borrero is a Borikén Taíno historian, artist, and activist who currently serves as President of the United Confederation of Taíno People. He can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or at www.uctp.org.

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