Extinction: Ideologies against Indigeneity in the Caribbean

By Forte, Maximilian C. | Southern Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Extinction: Ideologies against Indigeneity in the Caribbean


Forte, Maximilian C., Southern Quarterly


"Paper genocide"....With the stroke of their pens, the legacy of my ancestors was wiped out.

- Jorge Estevez, Taíno, Dominican Republic, 2005.1

Whereas anthropologists of past generations were seen as confining their subjects to a frozen "ethnographic present," a good deal of colonial and recent writing on the Caribbean has removed indigenous peoples out of history altogether, as a vanished population. The Caribbean may have been the first zone of the modern world-system to be characterized as "losing" the indigenous presence, but it is not an exception for that alone. Similar portrayals of vanquished qua vanished indigenes can be found with reference to Australia, New Zealand and North America, in both the works of early anthropologists and newspaper columnists of the nineteenth century.2 What is exceptional about the Caribbean is that the extinction story has been perpetuated for so long and has been taken much more seriously than the now discredited "reports" of indigenous extinction in the continents mentioned above. There are many possible reasons one can look to for an explanation of this Caribbean problem, ranging from the dominance of racial ascriptions as a way of denoting cultural affinity, the hegemony of Western ideas of evolution and progress, as well as the contradictory interests behind assertions of extinction that seem to render the idea plausible since there has been no unitary ideological motivation.

On the other hand, while acknowledging that there is not a monolithic set of interests motivating assertions of extinction, I will argue that a hegemonic discourse of evolution and progress is by far the most dominant strand and one that suited elite political and economic interests. By hegemonic I mean that these ideas of extinction have been taken for granted, distilled from their original ideological articulations and rendered unproblematic, as safe assumptions that defy questioning, truths that go without saying because they come without saying. In addition, I also suggest that these ideas have been hegemonic in that their original ideological articulations have been obscured, and, their continued perpetuation is meant to remove from view other possible alternative understandings.3

The Extinction Story and the Invention of Caribbean History

For those of us who were taught, as a matter of routine, that indigenous peoples of the Caribbean have been extinct for the past five centuries, developments during the last three decades would have struck us as very surprising. Communities, organizations, and individuals in the contemporary Caribbean and its diaspora are announcing their presence as indigenous peoples, as Amerindians, as Caribs, or Tainos, even while the dominant historiography has been that these populations were wiped out, save for a few "culturally diluted" and "mixed race" remnants. This immediately places us in a situation of conflict: do we accept as truth the reports written by colonial officials, and thus view contemporary self-identifying indigenes as bold pranksters or perhaps self-deluding holders of a false consciousness? The situation may not be so extreme, for as some of the works discussed below reveal, we can often see quite contradictory realities, assumptions and beliefs at play within colonial documents themselves.

Recognizing Caribbean indigeneity necessarily runs counter to some of the longest held assumptions of the historical transformation of the region. The dominant historiography of the Caribbean has tended to emphasize novelty over cultural persistence, highlighting the character of the region as being at the forefront of modernity, present at the foundation of the world capitalist system, a zone that is largely the creation of global forces such as industrial sugar production, international commerce, colonial governance, and the transplantation of peoples from across the planet. I would not argue that this description is fundamentally flawed either. …

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