Lehigh Valley, La Plena - Many of us are still
looking for the truth. Puerto Ricans on the island and in the states
have been researching, interviewing and doing whatever possible to reclaim--or
to declare for the first time -- the true story of our people. We
are not idly sitting by and allowing the further distortion of our struggle.
Puerto Rican writers, activists and scholars are deeply involved in this
One person who fits these categories is Sis-Obed Torres Cordero, Executive Director of the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations of the Lehigh Valley, Inc. and publisher of La Plena. Latinos across the state of Pennsylvania are familiar with him as either an activist, attorney, publisher and writer. With his "discovery" at the Carlisle Indian school, he can add the title of "historian."
In September of 1997, Sis-Obed uncovered a piece of Puerto Rican history that had been buried for 100 years. This came as a result of a visit to the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, which then led him to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. His "find" or "revelation" (and the research he is doing) is expected to have a significant impact on the Puerto Rican people and perhaps other Caribbean islanders who claim their Taino heritage.
In this article, Sis-Obed tells his story for the first time in his words. He did not want to go public until the research was complete, but after 18 months, the time has come to break the story. The answers to the following questions will take you on a historical trip that is sure to generate interest in the Taino nation and the Puerto Rican people.
Q: How did you first learn about the "Porto Rican Indians?"
"Two summers ago, the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations collaborated on a project with Touchstone Theater (in Bethlehem) that took me and several students to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. The goal of the project was to use the arts as a means of expression and create a "multi-cultural" experience for Latino and Mescalero students. As part of the preparation for our visit to Mescalero, I did a workshop on Puerto Rican history with a strong emphasis on our Taino roots. In effect, we wanted to teach our young people about Taino roots, learn about the Mescaleros and teach one another about ourselves. I did not know that this trip would reveal that the paths of our peoples had crossed more than once."
"In Mescalero, I made my presentation about our people. In general, most people do not know that we were the first people to invite Columbus into our homes (the Tainos of Quisqueya were first in 1492). After my presentation, I visited the Mescalero Indian Museum. On the Museum wall, I recognized pictures that I have at home of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apaches."
"The picture had been taken at the Castillo de San Marcos, in St. Augustine, Florida. Today, this fort is known as Fort Marion. The Castillo looks a lot like El Morro in Puerto Rico. It was built by the Spaniards. In one of the pictures, there was a reference to General Nelson Miles. I had visited Fort Marion about six years ago, but I did not remember seeing anything about the Apaches."
"As I stood there, I began to compare our Taino history with Apache history. "Our" first Spanish Governor, Ponce de Leon, was the first documented white man to set foot on North America in 1513. History tells us that it was our people, the Taino, who led Ponce to the mainland. It was Ponce who claimed North America for Spain (named it Florida) and "founded' St. Augustine. He had been the first appointed Spanish Governor (1508) of San Juan Bautista which would later be known as Puerto Rico."
"Then, there was General Nelson Miles. Because of him, Geronimo and the Chiricahuas finally surrendered. Miles had led the US Army in the "Great Indian Wars" of the West and Southwest. General Miles also led the US ground forces in Puerto Rico when the United States invaded in 1898. When Geronimo surrendered, his "band" of people were divided up and separated. The men were imprisoned and sent to Fort Marion, the women were sent to the Hampton Institute (a school for women of African descent in Virginia) and the children were sent to the Carlisle Indian School. Upon their release, most of the Chiricahuas joined the Mescaleros in New Mexico."
"As I stood there, the idea came to me to plan a visit to the Carlisle School for the Mescalero students (they were coming in October) and our students. I shared this idea with Mark McKenna, from Touchstone, and Joey Padilla, one of the religious leaders of the Mescaleros. They liked the idea, so we agreed to do it."
"In September, I headed for Carlisle to set up the October visit. Instead of finding the school, I found the Cumberland County Historical Society. When I asked for information about the school, I was introduced to Barbara Landis, the Carlisle Indian School Research Specialist."
"I told her about the Mescalero trip and what we wanted to do. I mentioned my experience at the Mescalero Museum and the irony that General Miles had led the US forces out west and in Puerto Rico. She suddenly stopped and said that she believed that there had been "Porto Rican" Indians sent to Carlisle, but "no one knew why, when or how this had happened."
"She showed me a book with some "Spanish names" and the words "Porto Rican" and I froze. At that moment, I got real excited. Deep in my heart, I knew that I had found a missing link in our history. I said to her that if we were to look in the achives, we would find that the "Porto Rican Indians" would have started to arrive at Carlisle sometime after July 25, 1898, the day the US invaded Puerto Rico. In the book, I found 16 names. The list would eventually grow to more than 60."
"A few days later, Barbara called and told me that I was right. She started to look through some records and began to find the names of "Porto Rican" children after the war began. My immediate reaction was, "I have found evidence that our kids were prisoners of war, too." I was very excited and wanted to tell everyone, but instead I decided to research the information. The more I looked at the information, more and more questions kept popping up."
"Could all the children have been captives? What if none were captives? What if parents had "consented" to send their children? Given the language differences, would the consent have been "willing" or "coerced?" All of these scenarios are possible since the same thing happened to many North American tribes."
"Several weeks ago, I received an E-mail from Mr. Jorge Esteves, from the Smithsonian American Indian Museum in New York. He wanted to know if it was true that I had information about the Taino children at Carlisle and if I was writing a book. I told him that what he heard was true. I told him the book was still in the research and "notes" stage and that I had not wanted to go public until the research has been thoroughly done and corroborated. I verbally shared what is written here. We agreed to meet sometime in the near future to discuss this and his work at the Museum in New York."
"When I returned to Carlisle to do some more research a week ago, I was surprised to find a long time friend from law school, Naniki Reyes Ocasio. Naniki had heard about the story and was following it up. After not seeing each other for 12 years, we found our meeting at Carlisle to be one of those "this is meant to be kind of things." I asked Naniki to join me in the project and she agreed."
Q. Was General Miles chosen specifically for his role in the invasion of Puerto Rico because of his days as an "Indian fighter"?
"We do not know the hard answer to this question. General Miles had established a mean reputation as an "Indian fighter." At the very least, it seems that the United States expected a lot of resistance. What do know that Miles saw the Spanish American war as an "extension of the Indian Wars." This raises many questions about America's intent when it came to people of color and land acquisition through war."
Q: What does this tell us about the U.S. attitude towards Puerto Rico and the entire Caribbean?
"I have heard stories (that need to be corroborated), that the United States had been interested in acquiring Cuba and Puerto Rico since the 1830s. Spain did not want to sell. Another problem was slavery. Both islands were slave colonies of Spain. If Spain would agree to sell, the southern states wanted Puerto Rico and Cuba to come in as "slave" states. The North did not want this because it would change the balance of power between the states. The strategic importance of our islands was clear to Spain 500 years ago and the US wanted these lands for the same reasons. Spain was the United States of America in terms of power and prestige in the early 1500s. As one imperial power lost its power and influence, a rising imperial power wanted more. After the Civil War ended, America pursued its imperial interests and went to war to get what could not be bought."
Q: Was there an explicit policy that guided these actions?
"We expect to uncover the "explicit" policies as the research continues. We have known for some time that the War Department had jurisdiction over Puerto Rico until 1900 and then the Department of the Interior. I think that we may not have paid enough attention to the fact that these two Departments had jurisdiction over the "Indian Wars" and the other "First nations" at that time and what this meant to all of us. Puerto Rico was not exactly invited to become a part of the United States. It was invaded and annexed. Our children were not exactly sent to "American" schools with the purpose of making us equal citizens. Our education was designed to make us subservient."
"There are a many "historical facts" that we need to reconsider. For example, it is interesting to note that Admiral Rickover, the "Father" of the US Nuclear Navy, did a life-long study of how the USS Maine "mysteriously blew up" in Havana harbor. Admiral Rickover's study concludes that the ship was blown up from within; the charges were set off from inside the ship and noted in passing that the Cubans did not have access to the ship. This event led to the Spanish-American War."
"In comparing this to the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which led to the Vietnam war), it is hard not to reach early conclusions. Keep in mind that the US went all the way to the Philippines to wage war "against Spain," but never attacked Spain. Since distance does not appear to have been a factor, why attack the colonies, if the conflict was with Spain?"
Q: How were these folks categorized by the authorities?
"Our people were categorized as "Porto Rican Indians." People who know me well know that I had always wanted to do a picture comparison of our children and children from other "First nation" people, side by side, without identifying who was who. This does not have to be done. The pictures at Carlisle did that 100 years ago."
Q: When did you start becoming interested in the history of the Tainos?
"It started on the streets of Brooklyn at the age of 6 (1956). Mami had let me and my sister, Maria, go out to play in the front of the house. We had lived there for 3 years and this was the first time she did this. Sure enough, we turned the corner and she could not see us. About 5 or 6 older boys came up to us. My sister had long, jet black hair that my mother had braided. The boys surrounded us and started to circle us and make sounds like, "woo, wooo,wooo,wooo." Then they started to pull her hair. I tried to stop them. Instead, they knocked me down. One of them sat across my chest. From somewhere, they found a dead rat and tried to get me to open my mouth. My sister ran to get help and came back with a friend named "Tribilin" who was older than both of us. He got the kids off of me with a stick ball bat. We went home crying. We had never heard the word "spick" or knew what it meant. We were taught that we were "different" on that day. Since then, I wanted to know what made us different."
"By the way, a Sioux friend told me that the sounds, "wooo, wooo, wooo" were made up in Hollywood."
Q: Do you have any Taino ancestors?
"Yes. I believe we all do even if we don't know it or claim it. My grandmother on my father's side was very "India." Many people today do not know our history and so much of it has been distorted. History is generally written by the winners of wars or conquest. Our Taino history was based on oral tradition. This is very hard to maintain when you are invaded by others. While we have a lot to learn about ourselves from our own perspective, a good start is to look in the mirror. We are a multiracial people and pictures do not lie. The myth of our Taino extinction is nothing more than a documented myth. Think about it. If you report to the King and Queen that all the "Indians" are now extinct, you don't have to go look for them. In the 1500s, the Spaniards did not want to go into the mountains wearing heavy armor in 90 degree heat in search of "Indians." The easy way out was to report that the "Indians are extinct." The King and Queen did not have faxes, phones or E-mail. They relied on what they were told just as we have been forced to rely on what has been written in the past. If we were extinct, why do so many of our people look Apache, Sioux or Cheyenne, instead of European? This is why so many people have been doing research for so many years."
Q: Have you been in touch with any of the people involved in the contemporary Taino Restoration movement?
Yes. "Naniki Reyes Ocasio, my research partner, claims her Taino ancestry one hundred percent and is part of the movement. I have spoken with Jorge Esteves at the Smithsonian Indian Museum and I have received a few calls and e-mails from others. I am looking forward toward working with our people and making this information available as soon as possible. Research is time-consuming and expensive, but we are going to get to the bottom of this, however long it takes."
Q: Any final comments?
"Listen to what Columbus had to say about our people in 1493: "They are artless and generous in what they give....with 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." John C. Calhoun, the US Secretary of War (1818) said, " Our views of their (the Indians) interests, and not there own, ought to govern them." Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle School, said, "....Transfer the savage - born infant to the surroundings of civilization and he will grow up to possess a civilized language and habit."
"In view of our 500 year history, the words of these men have come to govern our lives today. Whatever happened at Carlisle did not happen by coincidence or by mistake. Their words are reflective of their initial intent; extinction, domination and control of our people. These words led to thoughts which led to the creation of plans that were then implemented."
"Hopefully, our work will help clarify how this all took place.
We must continue to challenge the past and redefine ourselves as a people."