arawak peoples

I’m constantly fascinated by the ways in which the image of the “Plains Indian” has been brought into Orisha religions and reworked into sacred iconography. Ochosi, or Oxossi, is a hunter symbolized by a bow and arrow who lives in the wild and would fit a lot of “noble savage” stereotypes people in the Americas have about Indigenous peoples. Ochosi is not only a wild warrior, he is also noble in that he is a royal Orisha. As a result, his images both in Cuba and Brazil have been synthesized with the popular 19th Century image of the “Plains Indian” propagated most prolifically by the photography of Edward Curtis.

In Cuba, the “Indio,” a cultural memory of the Arawak, Guanajatabey, and Ciboney peoples whom the colonizers had committed almost total genocide against right before the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, became not only identified with Ochosi but also with a “commission” of spirit guides in espiritismo. These spirits are frequently represented on bóvedas (espiritismo altars) with American or American-influenced wood carvings and plaster statues of Plains Indians and the frequent use of tobacco.

In Brazil, some Indigenous nations had similar feathered headdresses to those worn by the iconic images of Plains Indians. A similar process of identification with both Oxossi and with a group of spirit guides in espiritismo occurred - but on an even greater level. Here they formed a new class of spirits entirely, the Caboclo, who have their own Candomblé-like rituals. As in Cuba, tobacco became a staple of Afro-Diasporic religions in Brazil.

I’ve spent the past three years in University studying Indigenous art and culture in Canada, and my gut-reaction from that perspective is that the images border on or go directly into the realm of appropriation. On the other hand, I’ve been an Olorisha and espiritista for six years now, and from that perspective it all makes sense - I’ve even ‘seen’ Indio spirits ‘on’ people myself in misas (espiritismo séances). I guess while much has been made of the supposed syncretism between the Yoruba diaspora and Catholicism, little has been discussed of the syncretism between the Yoruba and the (memories of, in the case of Cuba) Indigenous peoples of the New World. Anyway, just a few thoughts.

“Roots of the Cotton Tree”….Throughout the Caribbean and in Africa, the silk cotton tree is considered sacred. A place where ancestors and spirits are known to dwell in its roots. This was also a belief held by the Arawak and Taino peoples that inhabited the Islands for thousands of years prior. They referred to this ancient giant as the “God Tree”.