Haruka Sakaguchi

I Am Taíno
"I Am Taíno" is a portrait series addressing paper genocide and the manipulation of Taíno identity. The Taíno are the indigenous peoples of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean who were believed to be extinct up until recently, partly because the racial category for being indigenous ("indio") was removed from census reports in the early 1800s, and they were forced to identify as either white, black or mixed on forthcoming census reports. The Taíno refer to this process as "paper genocide."

The dominant narrative in the Caribbean is that 80-90% of Taíno were killed after European contact in the 15th century, and those who survived became too "mixed" either via intermarriage or mestizaje (genetic and cultural mixing over time) to claim an indigenous identity. Still, a grassroots movement known as the Taíno Movement emerged in the 1960s amongst Spanish-speaking Caribbeans and the U.S. diaspora declaring Native survival. Moreover, a 2003 study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation revealed that 61 percent of Puerto Ricans have Amerindian mitochondrial DNA. After decades of being criticized as "fake Indians", the Taíno were finally able to claim their indigenous identity in the 2010 US census. They were further galvanized by the recent opening of a Taíno exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in NYC last August.

Taíno Chief Jorge Baracutei Estevez and I, along with NYC-based Taíno community group Higuayagua have produced a portrait series that depicts the Taíno’s ongoing struggle for recognition and the concept of "race" as a colonial legacy.

Name: Jorge Baracutei Estevez
Age: 58
Years identified as Taíno: since age 5

My grandmother and mother always asserted that we had Native ancestry, and that our hometown of Jaibon, Dominican Republic was home to many people of Indian descent. When I ente
Name: Maritza Luz Feliciano Potter
Age: 38
Years identified as Taíno: 5 years

Growing up, my family only ever discussed (and bragged about)our European lineage; despite family history of members being copper to dark skinned. It was obvious we also had Af
Name: Kacey Colon 
Years identified as Taíno: 8 years

I grew up without knowing my father or his lineage, and identified only as Quechua Indian from my mother’s side until college. What initially sparked my interest in my father’s lineage was a fr
Name: Mercedes Garcia
Age: 36
Years identified as Taíno: since age 5

Growing up, my grandmother kept telling me that I was Taíno, and that no matter where I was in the world, that was who I was. I didn’t fully understand what Taíno meant until I read abo
Name: Rene J Perez
Age: 33
Years identified as Taíno: since age 16

When I was 4 or 5 I asked my mother “What are we?” to which she replied “Taíno.” When I asked her what Taíno was she replied “Indios” which in Spanish means “Indian” so I always thought I
Name: Mayreny Santiago
Age: 18
Years identified as Taíno: 2 years

What led me to identify as Taino was simply learning more about myself. I didn't know who I was, where my people were from or that they even existed until I met Jorge Estevez and the Higua
Name: Gypsie RunningCloud
Age: 48
Years identified as Taíno: I have identified as Indigenous all of my life; in recent years, my self-identifying term has shifted from solely, “Taíno,” to “Lokonoaíri,” a term meaning “The Island Peoples,” that is inclusiv
Name: William Colón
Age: 44
Years identified as Taíno: my whole life

Since I could remember, it’s our roots.
Name: Michelle (Cruz) Bangash
Age: 41
Years identified as Taíno: since age 11

From a very young age I knew that something was off from the Caribbean cultural history that I read about. The stories didn’t resonate. I didn’t identify with the European or A
Name: Angel Luis Vazquez Jr. 
Age: 37
Years identified as Taíno: I have been identifying as Taino from Mayaguez Boriken my whole life.

My father and paternal grandparents taught me to identify as Taíno. They had phenotypical markers that were distinct fr
Name: Kayla Anarix Vargas-Estevez
Age: 17
Years identified as Taíno: I was raised as Taíno since I was a baby 

It is all I’ve ever known.
Name: Eric Alexie Cruz
Age: 48
Years identified as Taíno: 5 years

In 2014, I worked on a documentary film featuring Native Americans from Oklahoma called Spirit Roads alongside producer Campbell Daglish as a student aid and photographer. I connected with

"I Am Taíno" was created in collaboration with Chief Jorge Baracutei Estevez and New York City-based Taíno community group Higuayagua. Special thanks to Kacey Colón for assisting with research, production, and making this collaboration happen.

"I Am Taíno" was featured on National Geographic on Indigenous People's Day of 2019.

Read the article here.

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