Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Reviving Roots: Jamaica’s Taino Kasike Speaks Culture, Identity and Advocacy

emancipation-park-jamaica-taino-winter-solstice-ceremony-yucahu-kachi-arietoA post-ceremony photo op with members of the Yamaye Guani community (and their guests) at a Yucahu Kachi Areito —a Taino Winter Solstice Ceremony.

In a world where Indigenous voices are usually silenced, Kasike Kalaan Nibonrix Kaiman (Robert Pairman) stands out as a symbol of cultural rebirth and resistance. As Jamaica’s first Taino Kasike in over 500 years, Kalaan embodies the spirit of his ancestors while navigating the complexities of the modern age. With his customary blend of authority and warmth, he invites us on a journey of discovery, offering insights into how citizens can reconnect with our roots and advocating for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Jamaica. In this exclusive interview with Writes and Kulcha, he sheds light on the challenges facing his community, from reclaiming cultural heritage to battling for land rights. True to form, his narrative is both enlightening and approachable, like a conversation with a knowledgeable, trusted friend. Today, on Yamaye Taino Day of Mourning, Kasike Kalaan shares a glimpse into the history and struggle that defines the Yamaye Guani (Jamaica Hummingbird) community of Taino and Maroon Peoples….

Read more: Reviving Roots: Jamaica’s Taino Kasike Speaks Culture, Identity and Advocacy

How did you come to be Jamaica’s first Taino Kasike in 500 years, and the founder of the Yamaye Guani (Jamaica Hummingbird) community?

My participation initially was as someone trained in a healing modality from the Qero people of Peru. To backtrack, in 2016 I participated in the Peace and Dignity Journeys, which is an Inter-tribal prayer run founded on the Inca prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor. Since 1992, every four years there is a sacred prayer run where Indigenous communities from Alaska and Argentina run the continent to meet somewhere in the centre, with the North representing the Eagle and the South representing the Condor. 

I was aware of the prophecy that brought this initiative about and was asked at an event by the Sankofie Shrine House here in Jamaica if I was interested in participating to honour the Indigenous ancestors of Jamaica. The journey to prepare for this prayer and the Caribbean route, which was from New York to Panama, was healing for myself and my family, and it was through the process of preparing that my grandmother shared with me that I, too, have Indigenous Arawak ancestry. 

Taino Kasike for Yamayeka (Jamaica), Kalaan Nibonrix Kaiman.

My dedication and leadership on the run led to me becoming the Caribbean Region Organizer for this activity, and I was told by Ata Bibi Inaru of the Taino Grandmothers Council to reflect on creating a space specifically for Yamaye Taino in Jamaica. 

She shared the process and approval required, and that I would need the blessing of local grandmothers along with ceremonial preparation. Needless to say, the ancestors guided the rest of the path towards my investiture ceremony in 2019, the creation of our council, and our growing community today; so, in my eyes, the ancestors chose me, tested me, and I was found worthy.

I give thanks for the council and our Kasike-iani (Chieftainess), my wife, for continuing to support this massive task.

Robert Pairman, aka Kalaan Nibonrix Kaiman, being adorned with a cachucha (traditional Taino feather headdress worn by Chiefs/elders) at his investiture ceremony in 2019.

Interesting. Why do you think people, especially Jamaicans, believe the Arawaks/Tainos either didn’t exist or became extinct, and how can that be changed?

The current narrative on the Indigenous People of the Caribbean has been taught to our people in the Caribbean by the colonisers and their education system. There is value to colonists in having no Indigenous People remain, and, sadly, our education system was built upon the colonial drive to educate and prepare a workforce to fund their exploits. 

The paper genocide of Yamaye (Jamaican) Taino and Taino in general is a result of that system. The corrective measure is to invest in the preservation and sharing of Yamaye Taino heritage, starting with the education system, to revise what students are being taught. Especially as modern research and genealogy has confirmed our ancestors’ bloodline in us (Caribbean People) until today.

Gaamang/Paramount Chieftainess of the Maroons, Gloria ‘Mama G’ Simms, (centre), a member of the YCOIL in reflection alongside Kasike Liani (Chieftainess) Ronalda ‘Kaiko Tekina’ Pairman (front, right), breaking bread with her daughter (the Kasike rahuto) Tanama-Areyto, and members of the community.

The Taino community has recently resurfaced publicly in Jamaica. Why now and what do you hope to achieve as a people?

The timing now is ancestral, as since 1992 the Peace and Dignity Journeys started resurfacing with ancient ancestral ceremonies of the Americas. It also aligned with the US seeking to celebrate 500 years since discovery, so the movement started to show that we were never ‘discovered’ and are still here. Leaders from various communities met and all had stories like the Eagle and the Condor prophecy, which says Indigenous Peoples will come together and the world will be healed. 

I believe this is happening now because it is needed. Our ancestors have been here for centuries, and since colonisation, the earth has been revolting. We see it as climate change today, so who better to lead humanity to balance than those who have been tending this region the longest? What has, however, strengthened the movement is the advancement in archiving and access to genealogy and DNA research, which has confirmed many family stories of indigenous ancestry.

A post-ceremony photo op with members of the Yamaye Guani community and their guests at a Yucahu Kachi Areito —a Taino Winter Solstice Ceremony—held annually at Emancipation Park.

Tell us about YCOIL. What exactly is it, and how does it function on behalf of the Indigenous communities in Jamaica?

The Yamaye (Jamaica) Council of Indigenous Leaders was previously the Maroon Secretariat, where they would convene as a body to discuss issues affecting their communities amongst themselves and with the government. They have now formally recognised and accepted the Yamaye Taino and our community into the fold, and having done that, renamed the group as a Council of Leaders, all being equal and sitting together to advocate for Indigenous rights being ratified in Jamaica. 

We support each other’s community activities, have regular meetings and training to develop our capacity. There’s an old Jamaican saying, “if the river head dutty (dirty) then the bottom can’t clean”, so we are actively learning to be better leaders.

With all this happening, why does the Jamaican government openly deny the presence of Tainos, despite having citizens documented in the census who identify as Taino since the 1960s? 

Well, the Jamaican government stated in their report to CERD (the international Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination) in 2022 that there are no Indigenous Peoples in Jamaica. We then wrote to CERD to state that Jamaica does not have disaggregated data, [so] if there are no questions on the census that speak to Indigenous ancestry, there is no way to say how many people identify as Indigenous or Taino. Since then, we’ve met with the Statistical Institute of Jamaica and they’ve advised us on how to have our people counted, which is to write Yamaye Taino, Arawak etc. for the current census, so in the next one, there will be an option to choose Taino.

Kasike Kalaan Nibonrix Kaiman preparing the wanara (altar) items for ceremony.

That sounds great, especially with the global Indigenous community being so much more outspoken in recent years, and the Land Back global movement. Since there are two land rights issues currently facing the Yamaye Taino community —White Marl and the impending CHEC development sites—what will YCOIL do to combat this? 

Our first push is having discussions about constitutional reform to pursue ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with the support of our international allies. We had an audience with the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) on the rights of Indigenous Maroons and Taino in Jamaica. We even shared our understanding that the issues in Jamaica for Indigenous Peoples were inherited from the colonists by the current government, yet sadly, since then, there has been mostly tokenism, providing what we request as if it is a favour, but not concretising our rights. We seek to correct this for future generations. 

As it relates to the White Marl site and Mammee Bay Taino lands, with White Marl, we have two annual celebrations empowering the local community in defence of the space, and demonstrating its cultural heritage and importance. A white paper on White Marl was also recently published by Peter Seigel, Zachary Beir and I as co-authors. For Mammee Bay, we give thanks to the advocacy of Wendy Lee, the daughter of James Lee, who bought White Marl to protect it and donated it to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. Those two sites are more connected than it seems, and we are receiving ancestral and contemporary guidance to manoeuvre these issues for an acceptable outcome for future generations.

With that in mind, why is it important to tap into our indigeneity as Jamaican people? 

The problems facing Jamaica today are connected to identity, to trauma, to imbalance. We’ve heard Marcus Garvey’s quote repeated regularly, “a people without knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” I’d like to share another perspective which we currently face, where the “rootless” become “ruthless”. 

Farmer/drummer Kofi, a member of the Yamaye Guani Indigenous Community of Taino and Maroon Peoples, waits to give an offering to the river at Prim Rock (aka Pum Pum Rock) in St Catherine, for the Apito Kasi Areito/International Day of Action for Rivers celebration.

There are teachings, stories, and cultural practices within our Taino heritage (whether you carry the bloodline or not), which speak to cultivating and maintaining balance with our environment. Stories about the origin of the hog plum tree, the mockingbirds, the guava tree, things we grew up with and have a connection to that help to root and connect us with this island on which we live. The consumption of certain foods pre-dates the colonisers and we have retained it, so with the very food we eat, there is an ancestral legacy which, when valued, allows us to feel pride and belonging to something greater than us. Then there is the work of climate mitigation, held within the teachings of the longest custodians of this space is how best to protect our environment for future generations.

And how can Jamaicans learn about their indigenous heritage? Or for those who already know of their Taino heritage, how can they connect with Yamaye Guani?

A lot of the initial work is around imposter syndrome, validating to Self that you are Indigenous, because the Caribbean has denied us for so long. It’s a delicate process of healing and transformation, best supported by those who have been through it and are greater for it.

Kasike Kalaan Nibonrix Kaiman, adorned in ceremonial regalia, is Jamaica’s first Taino chief in 500 years. He is pictured here leading a Taino ceremony.

To find out about your Indigenous Jamaican heritage, the first thing I’d recommend is to talk with elders in the family, ask the right questions and you will get the right answers. 

Does your family claim to be Indian with an ancestor prior to 1845? That’s a start, the first East Indian indentured workers arrived in 1845, so if your family traces in Jamaica prior to then, that warrants a deeper look. 

Ask your elders about Arawak, Injin or Maroon Coolie family members (that is a term that was used in some families) . 

Understand that due to the extinction narrative, our elders may not identify as Indigenous but will tell you that a relative was… which means they are, and you are. There is also connection with genealogists like our council member, Dianne Golding-Frankson, who can help to make sense of the records that are available online for free and do research at local institutions to look up your family genealogy.

Some people opt to do DNA tests. We do not use or believe in blood quantum measurement, so your DNA test results will never be requested by our community (though you can share if you’d like). Lastly, if you know you are a Yamaye Taino descendant, you can visit our e-mail and social media details are listed there, and for Instagram it’s @yamayeguani.

Send us a message and one of our community members will respond to guide you through the process of reconnecting.

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