From now until the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.

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Native and American
by Sandra Rodriguez Barron

Walking in a nature preserve this spring, I overheard a man loudly complaining to his companion that Connecticut politicians were allowing “Puerto Rican refugees” to resettle here after Hurricane Maria. Roughly 135,000 fled to the U.S. mainland, the highest concentrations winding up in Florida, Massachusetts, and New York. But given that Connecticut already has the largest percentage of Puerto Ricans per capita, I found his comment disturbing. I’m Puerto Rican by birth and couldn’t resist taking him on.

“You can’t be a refugee in your own country,” I interjected. “You mean evacuees. People who lost their homes in the storm went either wherever they have family or where FEMA sent them.”

“Well, they don’t pay taxes in my state,” the man said.

We went back and forth. He knew that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but his resentment was stubborn, based on the misapprehension that American “nativism” and European patrimony are the same thing.

“More than 60 percent of Puerto Ricans have Native American blood, sir,” I said. “Our ancestors, the Taíno, were here centuries before Columbus.”

“But not here,” he said, pointing at the ground.

“Yes, here! Puerto Rico is a part of the U.S., so it’s here.” I opened my arms and pointed toward the seagrass swaying around us. Exasperated, he shook his head and kept walking.

Bringing up natives always flusters faux nativists. We’re still weak, as a nation, at illuminating our Native American roots, much less understanding the centrality of the Taíno people to the full sweep of American history. Maps of American tribes never include Puerto Rico, which one could argue has everything to do with the island’s marginalization. To be fair, though, the island’s indigenous population was considered extinct by historians. The official story held that its first people, overpowered by Spanish horses, firearms, and diseases, were genetically unrelated to the Puerto Ricans living today. Only in the mid-2000s did the fields of anthropology and genetics converge to prove otherwise. Puerto Ricans woke up to the astonishing news that their native ancestors—the peaceful, seafaring Taíno—had survived the onslaught of their other ancestors, the Spanish.

Does this matter to people like the guy on the boardwalk? Maybe not. But it appears that Americans are teachable. A study published earlier this year found that 78 percent of American adults surveyed are open to learning more about historical and contemporary natives—and that most of them assume what they know is outdated and inaccurate. By extending the chronology of American history curriculum and syllabi—before the English arrived, before the Indian ethnic expulsions of the 1800s—we can reframe how the average American sees Puerto Rico, and in turn indigenous people both inside and outside our borders. The few who already teach Taíno history report that even short attention spans are reliably captured by the legacy of battle and struggle and the mysterious nature of Taíno existence. “Kids learn that the ‘threads of brokenness’ aren’t exclusive to any one race,” says Jessica Galán, a high school teacher in Torrington, Connecticut. “They hear this incredible story and they begin develop empathy for other cultures.”

Experts say Puerto Rico’s recovery process will take years. While our president denies the breadth of the impact and death toll, a thousand evacuees with storm-ravaged homes are still waiting in hotels, and FEMA has either denied or not yet approved housing aid for thousands more. There will be more policy questions regarding Puerto Rico’s status in the future. The waterline of racism and xenophobia is rising. Including the island’s ancient indigenous legacy in our collective history may seem obscure, but it’s a crack in the wall of uninformed nativism. Tapping into the subconscious semantic power of the words native and American is a subtle but powerful act, something we can do in our own educational, creative, and social spaces. History, science, and storytelling have always held the power to illuminate the way out of the caverns of ignorance and fear.

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Take action today:

Please join me in amplifying the Taíno story. Begin by visiting the Smithsonian’s Taíno exhibit before it closes in October 2019. Contact your school district to ask that they include the Taíno in their in U.S. history curriculum, and make them aware of this symposium, “Transforming Teaching and Learning about American Indians.” The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute offers a complete Taíno curriculum unit plan that can be used as a springboard for creative work as well as teaching, and includes book recommendations. Or visit the United Confederation of Taíno People.

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Sandra Rodriguez Barron is the author of the novels The Heiress of Water and Stay with Me.