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Arawak/Taino Natives Of Hispaniola: (HAITI)

By Bob Corbett

On December 6th, 1492 Christopher Columbus landed at Mole St. Nicholas in Haiti's north. Thus began a totally new phase of life on the island of Hispaniola. Most people are aware that Christopher Columbus landed at San Salvador on October 12th, 1492, thus "discovering" the New World for Spain.

Less known is that his second land fall was at Mole St. Nicholas, Haiti on December 1492, or that the first settlement in the New World was La Navidad, on Haiti's north coast. This settlement, which housed sailors from the Santa Maria which sank off Haiti's coast, was founded on December 24th, 1492.

Columbus did not discover a lost or unknown land. There was a flourishing civilization of native Americas. The primary group was the Arawak/Taino Indians. Arawak is the general group to which they belong, and describes especially the common language that this group of native Americans shared.

They ranged from Venezuela through the Caribbean and Central America all the way to Florida. However, the particular group of Arawak-speaking people who lived on the island of Hispaniola was the Taino Indians. To keep both names before us, I'll use the term Arawak/Taino to refer to them.

Lifestyle Of The Arawak/Taino

The Arawak/Taino society was basically a very gentle culture. It was characterized by happiness, friendliness and a highly organized hierarchical, paternal society, and a lack of guile. Each society was a small kingdom and the leader was called a cacique.

At the time of Columbus there were five different kingdoms on the island of Hispaniola. The Indians practiced polygamy. Most men had 2 or 3 wives, but the caciques had as many as 30. It was a great honor for a woman to be married to a cacique. Not only did she enjoy a materially superior lifestyle, but her children were held in high esteem.

Housing And Dress

The Arawak/Taino used two primary architectural styles for their homes. The general population lived in circular buildings with poles providing the primary support and these were covered with woven straw and palm leaves. They were somewhat like North American teepees except rather than being covered with skins they needed to reflect the warmth of the climate and simply used straw and palm leaves.

The caciques were singled out for unique housing. Their houses were rectangular and even featured a small porch. Despite the difference in shape, and the considerably larger buildings, the same materials were used. When the Africans came beginning in 1507 they introduced mud and wattle as primary building materials. However, there is no record of the Arawak/Tainos having used these materials.

The house of the cacique contained only his own family. However, given the number of wives he might have, this constituted a huge family. The round houses of the common people were also large. Each one had about 10-15 men and their whole families. Thus any Arawak/Taino home might house a hundred people. The houses did not contain much furniture. People slept in cotton hammocks or simply on mats of banana leaves. They also made wooden chairs with woven seats, couches and built cradles for their children.

In addition to houses the typical Arawak/Taino village contained a flat court in the center of the village which was used for ball games and various festivals, both religious and secular. Houses were around this court. This was a hierarchical society, and while there was only one cacique who was paid a tribute (tax) to oversee the village, there were other levels of sub-caciques, who were not paid, but did hold positions of honor. They were liable for various services to the village and cacique.

Stone making was especially developed among the Arawak/Tainos, but they seem not to have used it at all in building houses. It was primarily used for tools and especially religious artifacts. The men were generally naked, but the women sometimes wore short skirts. Men and women alike adorned their bodies with paint and shells and other decorations.

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