Priscilla Colón speaks to an audience about the Taíno language and culture on Sunday in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Speaking to a small audience in the Redbank Community Center, Priscilla Colon said she’s fighting history.

History books, even new books, say the Taíno people have perished. But the Indigenous people of the Caribbean encountered by Christopher Columbus have not died away, she said.

“I’m here. We’re thriving.”

Colon, who says she is Taíno, is working to rebuild Taíno language and culture with an organization called Casa Areyto.

A resident of New Hampshire, she speaks several languages and was in Maine on Sunday to mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In 2019, Maine became one of several states to do away with Columbus Day.

While the Taíno people remain unknown to many, Pedro Vazquez, a member of the South Portland’s Human Rights Commission and a Taíno descendant, said “it is essential to highlight this hidden history.”


Columbus first encountered the Taíno in the Bahamas in 1492, according to the Library of Congress. He wrote to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain that “I have taken possession of them” and “no opposition was offered to me.”

Children are taught in school “that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but they don’t tell you what happened after that,” Colon said. “There’s a big silence.”

When the Taíno people are mentioned, students are told they’ve disappeared, Colon said.

A group gathers to listen to Priscilla Colón, a writer, artist, teacher, and self-proscribed “language nerd at heart”, speak about the Taíno language and culture on Sunday in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Actually, she said, some were forced into slavery and some died in wars against the Europeans. Others succumbed to diseases like influenza and smallpox. Colonial governments also stopped counting the Taíno population, Colon said, in what amounts to “a paper genocide.”

Her grandparents and their grandparents were told that the Taíno did not perish and that some hid in the caves and mountains. Some married Europeans and Africans, Colon said. “The Taínos didn’t disappear, it’s just that their language and culture was changing.”

Now, anthropologists are pointing to evidence of cultural continuity, including foods, how crops are harvested and herbal remedies. This shows “the Taíno culture is still there. It’s just hidden,” she said. “One of the biggest pieces of evidence is that Puerto Rican geneticists have finally proved that Taíno Indigenous DNA survived, that 61 percent of modern day Puerto Ricans carry that Indigenous DNA,” she said.


That proves what her grandparents and their grandparents have been telling them all along, Colon said. “That we are here.”

She and others are working to rebuild the remnants of the Taíno language, a new language.

“That is exciting for me having worked in language programs for so long,” Colon said.

Priscilla Colón is a co-founder of Casa Areyto, an organization which promotes the Taíno language and culture. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In 2019 Colon said she didn’t have a connection to her ancestors because she had only read that the Taíno were extinct, but her parents told her she was Taíno. She started researching and discovered her ancestors.

The one message she offered for Indigenous Peoples’ Day is “know that the Taíno Indigenous people, the first people of contact on that very day (in 1492) are still here. We have not vanished.”

Understanding that makes a difference, she said, adding that some common words, like barbecue, hammock, potato, come from the Taíno people, she said.


“Who doesn’t have a barbecue on the fourth of July?” she said. “You’re not only borrowing the word, the very process of barbecuing was brand new to Europeans” when Columbus arrived in the Americas. “When they came they saw people roasting meat on a platform. That was the first time they experienced that.”

Today, the Taíno culture is not taught in schools, but she’s optimistic that history may eventually be corrected.

South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac speaks at the event following the presentation by Priscilla Colón. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Others who have Taíno ancestors have started sharing online videos of the language, and are communicating with each other in Taíno, Colon said. She’s excited to think “that modern technology is being used to text Taíno,” the language their ancestors used in 1492.

And, Colon added, plans are in the works for a first-ever Taíno conference next year in Puerto Rico.

She asked her audience that each tell the Taíno history to one person.

“Then that person will tell another and all of a sudden we’ll have millions of people know that the Taínos are still here and we’re reclaiming our language and culture.”

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