CountryPuerto Rico
Report By
DeAnna Rivera (UCTP liaison), with R. Mucaro Borrero (UCTP president) and Naniki Reyes Ocasio (UCTP council member)
September 1, 2007
September 1, 2007

Sitting in the lush central mountain range of Puerto Rico (Borike), the ancestral home of the Boriken Taíno people, Caguana is the largest and most complex ceremonial site in the West Indies. Caguana Ceremonial Center consists of a large central plaza, a ceremonial dance area, 10 rectangular earth-and-stone–lined ball courts and plazas and one circular plaza, as well as the remains of an oval-shaped structure and a sacred cemi mound. Ethno-historical accounts of early European “explorers” noted that ceremonial sites like Caguana were places where highly important ceremonial ball games were held. Today, one can still see stone collars, elbow stones and petroglyphs carved on perimeter stones. Caguana is today one of many sacred sites for the Taíno people. Because of its rich archaeological significance, Caguana became a National Historic Landmark in 1993. However, this designation has not prevented vandalism and tourist devastation to the ceremonial center. Now, the Taíno are calling upon the Puerto Rico government and the U.S. National Park Service to “ensure that any governmental projects promoting tourism go hand in hand with protecting and safeguarding the integrity of local Taíno culture, sacred sites and the environment.”

The Land and Its People

The ancient tropical homelands have shaped Taíno relationships to the world. Taíno tradition honors all creation, from ancestors to flora and fauna, the elements, the salt and sweet waters, the sun and the moon. The people honor them through ritual, prayer, music and song. The Taíno people thrived in the vibrant and fertile land with relatively no venomous or predatory land animals and managed the adjacent volatile marine environment. Throughout history there has been no greater threat to the Taíno than the appearance of foreign peoples on their lands.

Since the beginning of the western hemisphere’s colonization by European peoples, the Taíno have struggled to survive. The Taíno were the first people to meet Columbus, at which time the misnomer “Indian” was first used, marking an era of devastation for these native people of Puerto Rico. From those first moments, the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church leveraged a brutal assault on Taíno peoples and culture. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the United States annexed Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War, over 60 children identified as “Porto Rican Indians” were sent to the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn., where stringent attempts were made to assimilate them to western culture. Colonial policies like these forced the Taíno to hide their spiritual, economic, social, political and cultural lives as they feared being killed or kidnapped and removed from the island.

By the 1950s, the United States was increasingly interested in Puerto Rico as a military asset. The American desire to survey and develop land resulted in increased archaeological research into Taíno culture. Taíno ceremonial centers have myriad functions within the people’s daily lives. They represent Taíno social, spiritual, economic, legal and political organization, extending over large territorial units.

Within Caguana, the remainder of a large earth mound represents the sacred cemi mountain or cauta, which guards the ancient ceremonial grounds. A cemi, for the Taíno people is a living spirit. It holds a central place in Taíno beliefs concerning fertility, healing and communication with the spiritual worlds. In 1955, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture acquired the Caguana site and created an archaeological park open to academics and tourists but effectively closed ceremonially to the Taíno.

While archaeologists came to understand the ceremonial center as a set of ballparks and petroglyphs belonging to the earlier Ostionoid period (600-1200 A.D.), the Taíno know Caguana as the embodiment of a divine being who brings forth, renews and sustains life. Caguana evokes stories through the cemi and petroglyphs bordering the batey or batei (ball parks). Cemi, found within and around the batey, are living beings that carry with them specific creation and hero stories that illustrate for future generations the important agricultural and fishing cycles. Competitions held on these ancient courts historically substituted for warfare between autonomous Taíno communities. The people conducted their trade and decided whether to go to war at these centers. Thus, their ball games were ceremonial, political, social and recreational. Batey are where the Taíno continue to carry out ceremonial responsibilities, and the recent revival of the ceremonial ball games or batu is an opportunity for young Taíno warriors to demonstrate their skill and valor and gain the respect and esteem of their community members.

Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts

The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture currently operates the Caguana site as an archaeological tourist park. The U.S. National Park Service is ultimately responsible for managing the wealth of indigenous knowledge contained there; however, poor management over the years has had a devastating effect. The site receives thousands of visitors each year, resulting in immeasurable destruction. Maintenance practices threaten the integrity of the site: weed trimmers and tractors hurl pebbles and debris at the fragile, ancient stones. Guards and tour guides freely jump between the stones threatening to topple them to the ground. According to the park service, “stones bearing petroglyphs have been worn down and decayed to the point that these prehistoric works of art may be irretrievably lost.” To the Taíno, these images are not works of art, but living beings that are dying slowly under gross mismanagement by government agencies.

However, the agencies involved with the management of Caguana refuse to acknowledge the Taíno as viable allies in preserving, protecting and maintaining the lives of these ancient beings. Currently, no agency will allow the Taíno ceremonial access to the site, which on many occasions would entail overnight stays and community feasts on the grounds. While there are laws in the United States designed to protect Native American cultural properties, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and sections of the National Historic Preservation Act, these protections do not extend to the Taíno of Puerto Rico as they are not a federally recognized tribal community.

The Taíno consistently fight to preserve the Caguana site, but they are faced with challenges to their existence. Archaeologists as well as state and federal government officials tell them that they no longer exist, despite recent DNA testing that indicates 61 percent of the Puerto Rican population has Taíno mitochondria.

The agencies responsibile for Caguana consider it unnecessary to consult with Taíno as an indigenous community. In several attempts to work with the State Historic Preservation Office, the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture and the governor’s office to protect the site collaboratively, the Taíno have been rebuffed. According to Naniki Reyes Ocasio, a Taíno elder, “The greatest threat to our sacred, ceremonial and burial sites and ancestral remains is the lack of recognition of the Taíno peoples.” Today, the Taíno people feel that the threat to their cultural survival is nearly as great as it was over 500 years ago.

Every year that passes sees these threats increase while more and more visitors degrade the physical and ceremonial integrity of the Caguana Ceremonial Center, harming the stones and leaving behind larger amounts of litter. Taíno community members have organized cleanup projects to call attention to this problem. Under the guise of improvements, the National Park Service has made concrete additions and erected iron fencing, which the Taíno believe is an attempt to imprison and disconnect Caguana spiritually and physically from the adjacent river and the cemi mountain. The Taíno feel that the cemi and the river are parts of the sacred grounds of Caguana that cannot be demarcated.

Shackled by legal and administrative governmental policies, the Taíno say they are unable to fulfill their ceremonial, spiritual or ancestral responsibilities. In 2004, a well-respected community elder turned over the spiritual caretaking of Caguana to another elder. The Elders Council decided at that time that they needed to take action. On July 25, 2005, an annual holiday marking the implementation of the Puerto Rican Constitution, several Taíno elders and community members took over Caguana Ceremonial Center to call attention to the violation of their constitutional, human and international rights and to the desecration of the site. Attracting media attention but little governmental attention, three protesters, including Reyes Ocasio, engaged in a hunger strike. “Grandmother Naniki” went nearly three weeks without eating, surviving on small amounts of spring and coconut water. After the 17-day standoff, during which the Taíno peacefully performed their ceremonies and Puerto Rican courts scrambled to find a way to remove the protesters, Grandmother Naniki and two others protesters were violently arrested by four units of Puerto Rican law enforcement, including a SWAT team.

Initially the protestors were charged with criminal trespassing; however, the courts only found probable cause in a lesser charge. Eventually, the charges were dropped, but the government requested an injunction barring the protesters, their attorneys, agents and community members from entering the Caguana ceremonial grounds after official visiting hours. The defense argued such an injunction would be unconstitutional, but the court upheld the injunction.

Today, the Taíno are in need of attorney services to challenge the validity of the 2005 injunction on the people and organizations involved in the Caguana protest, as well as the unnamed persons classified as “supporters” and “members.” The Taíno believe the injunction unconstitutionally prevents the protestations and actions of all persons and organizations that have supported and might support the Taíno into perpetuity.

Several nonprofit organizations, including the Caney Quinto Mundo (CQM), El Consejo General de Taínos Borikanos (CGTB) and the United Confederation of Taíno People (UCTP), are mobilizing grassroots support for the protection and preservation of Caguana. The mayor of Utuado, the municipality in which Caguana is located, has issued two proclamations recognizing the work of these organizations and supporting the participants of the Caguana protest, now called “El Grito Indigena Taíno de Caguana” (the Taíno Indigenous Uprising of Caguana).

The CQM, CGTB and the UCTP work in concert by providing educational fora, workshops and public presentations to raise awareness of human rights violations in need of immediate attention and remedy. These organizations work at the local, national, and international levels to make sure that Taíno concerns are heard and addressed. They continually reach out to Native nations within the United States to learn from their efforts at sacred-site protection. They also work to gain the attention of the international community through their participation at the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

Within in Puerto Rico, the CQM, CGTB and UCTP are calling for public pressure upon the government and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture with the goal of securing the rights of the Taíno to access and comanage Caguana.

“Until there is official recognition of our people, classification of our ceremonial sites as historical landmarks will not result in the same protection that it may provide for other Native Americans. Taíno sacred, ceremonial and burial sites, artifacts and ancestral remains will continue to be the subject of further desecration, ‘investigation’ under the legal guise of the Historic Landmarks commission, National Patrimony and archaeological laws and policies,” Grandmother Naniki said.

What You Can Do

To support the Taíno, write letters to the governor of Puerto Rico requesting attention to the management of Caguana. Please encourage him to issue an executive order recognizing the Taíno and guaranteeing their constitutional, human and international rights to, inter alia, the repatriation of ancestral remains and sacred objects and to the protection, preservation, conservation, administration, management and access to their sacred ceremonial and burial sites. In addition, please ask that the Puerto Rican government recognize and pursue dialogue with the CQM, CGTB and the UCTP organizations.

You can also sign the online petition posted by the UCTP to support these efforts.

If you personally know of other strategies that have been successful at gaining ceremonial access, administration and management of sacred sites or if you want to assist in this work, please contact the Taíno organizations at the addresses and e-mails listed below.

Browse the UCTP web pages for more information and to see the submissions made to the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations in 2002 and ask that people refer to and support it at future meetings of the Forum.

Visit the National Park Service’s Historic Places in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands web page.

For more information and resources, contact:

Caney 5to Mundo
HC-O1 Box 5761
Ciales, PR 00638

Consejo General de Taínos Borikanos
HC-61 Buz. #5075
Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico 00976

UCTP – Office of International Relations
PO Box 4515
New York, NY 10163