Written By: Chiara Atoyebi
Gail Tremblay. “It was never about playing cowboys and indians”, 2011 photo courtesy of Fabio Issao.
While pursuing Ancesty.com, I found the genealogy record of one of my ancestors a woman with two sons that was classified as Arawak. It caused me to think back to some of my early childhood visions where I’d often see a woman, sitting by the river with large colorful feathers adorning her head. I don’t know for sure. For now, she simply remains a spirit that has surrounded me since childhood and appears in my dreams from time to time—and I call her beautiful.
The Arawak population continues to exist across the Americas, with many identifying as mestizos, an ethnically diverse group with European, Arawak, and African ancestry. Surviving in various subgroups, the Arawaks include the Taino people, primarily found in the Caribbean and Central America, and the Lokono, residing mostly in South America. Notably, the Arawak were the first Native American tribe to encounter Christopher Columbus upon his arrival in the Americas.
When I study my own family, and the histories of African Diasporic people, I tend to go way back. Western culture tends to posit most of the stories within an oppressive narrative while casually discussing the intricacy of beauty and craft erected from the daily lives of African and Native peoples. When you take a close look at the influence behind Native works of art that were many times doubled as common household items, it speaks to the regal nature and creativity of the artisans.
Public domain photograph related to Puerto Rico
Taino and Lokono
The Taino and Lokono are significant subgroups of this broad indigenous community. Historically, the Arawak population was believed to be in the millions, but their numbers dramatically decreased due to diseases and conflicts following the Spanish invasion.
The subsequent periods saw extensive intermarriage among Arawak individuals, Spanish settlers, and Africans brought to the region through the slave trade. This complex historical intermingling makes it challenging to precisely quantify the current Arawak population. Despite these challenges, the enduring presence of the Arawak and their descendants signifies a rich tapestry of cultural resilience and adaptation.
Photo shows Crow chiefs at the groundbreaking ceremony for the National American Indian Memorial (which was never built), Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, New York. (left to right) White Man Runs Him (ca. 1855-1925), Plenty Coups (1848-1932), and Medicine Crow. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2009
I do not know for sure the significance of this Arawak ancestor to my story, but I do know that the wisdom of the Indigenous peoples resonates with me either by blood or culture. Especially since the hallmarks of their customs and traditions have existed for centuries and continue to influence modern day society. This is why it is important to not only acknowledge the lands that we inhabit that once belonged to Indigenous people, but also look to the future and how their sacred knowledge and wisdom can help us fight climate change today.
According to Amnesty International, “There are 476 million Indigenous people around the world and spread across more than 90 countries. They belong to more than 5,000 different Indigenous peoples and speak more than 4,000 languages. Indigenous people represent about 5% of the world’s population.”
Climate Change and Indigenous Futures
Indigenous people have suffered a near total loss of their lands, in addition to government policies that prevent them from using their native practices to mitigate climate change. Yet like the African story, it does not end here. In the face of catastrophe and setback, a profound transformation is unfolding within Indigenous communities across America. These communities, deeply rooted in a centuries-old relationship with the land, are now at the forefront of a new battle. This struggle is not just about survival. It’s about redefining the future in a rapidly changing world.
The Indigenous Futures Movement is one that confronts the past traumas inflicted on Indigenous communities through colonialism by reclaiming and reshaping their narratives and building a better future.
The Center for Native American Futures in Chicago, was founded in 2020 by Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo and Monica Rickcrt-Bolter (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation). The women wanted a space for Native Americans to showcase their work in their own voice. In a similar outcry by African American counterparts, they wanted to be vision and voice from which their stories were told and not necessarily seen through a White lens.
“Far too often Native narratives have been filled with heartache and are restricted to a place in history. We have a future that no longer needs to be shaped by outside limitations.” Rickert-Bolter said in an interview with Native News Online.
Art and culture are one way of shaping Indigenous futures and narratives but an arguably more sustainable way is with architecture. Architects are looking to Indigenous communties to derive a better understanding of the sustainable practices that have kept their tribes alive and protected for years. Ironically, high-tech design is seeking the knowledge and wisdom of low-tech design in order to mitigate the harmful fallout of industry. When you think of damage to the planet it extends beyond the destruction of plastic bottles in our waters, but the overuse of plastic in general. Our wildfires are out of control and coral reefs are dying—we need help. The solution involves a collaboration of spiritual awareness and mindful land management and listening to and with the previously marginalized and disregarded wisdom of Indigenous people who quite possibly hold the keys to our future.
In honor of Native Heritage Month, it’s nice to see how the last in once again becoming the first and the story is being rewritten in their favor.