Last June, with little fanfare, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. signed a proclamation recognizing the Guainía Taino Tribe of the Virgin Islands.
The official recognition was the culmination of a nearly 10-year campaign on the part of Maekiaphan Phillips, the tribe’s “kasike” – or chief.
The proclamation allows the tribe to “establish eligibility for federal health benefits, federal education benefits, housing benefits, job training, land use, and the right to engage in traditional religious practices and ceremonies.“
Phillips, who defines herself also as a Christian, is now sending out a call to others who think they might have Taino ancestry to join the tribe. “We’re having open enrollment in the month of June,” said Phillips. “The first step is to have your DNA tested. I don’t care about the percentage of Taino DNA. Some people only have oral stories.”
Anyone who qualifies is welcome to contact Phillips by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 340-514-2019. She is particularly looking for the descendants of Francisca Almestica Delgado, her maternal great-grandmother.
Phillips grew up hearing tales about her great-grandmother, who, as a young woman of Spanish and Taino descent, was kidnapped from Puerto Rico by the “pirate James Abbott” and brought to Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands.
Francisca had six daughters, including Phillip’s grandmother, Bellencita Almestica, who married into the Benjamin family from John’s Folly, St. John. Those six daughters had 43 children by Phillips’ reckoning. Phillips, herself, is one of 20 children. She has 12 children of her own, and 18 grandchildren so far.
The widespread presence of Taino heritage remained officially unrecognized by most scholars until Juan C. Martínez Cruzado, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico, initiated an island-wide genetics study published in 2003.
“Taking samples from 800 randomly selected subjects, Martínez reported that 61.1 percent of those surveyed had mitochondrial DNA of indigenous origin, indicating a persistence in the maternal line that surprised him and his fellow scientists,” according to an an article in the Smithsonian.
Although the language spoken by the Taino people at the time of the European conquest is officially dead, several common words, like “hurricane” and “hammock” remain. Elements of the culture remain strong in parts of the Caribbean.
Phillips, who is part of the Traditional Indians carnival troupe, said she has always felt that she was truly an Indian, not just during carnival season. “I couldn’t live in a house with windows and doors,” –– and didn’t until her husband became ill with chikungunya, a mosquito-borne tropical disease.
Her calling brought her to Kasike Robelto Mukaro in 2012, who recognized her spirit and encouraged her to pursue her vision to gather her tribe.
“This journey is for my children, and their children,” Phillips said. “Our DNA is being wiped out. It’s important that we go back to our roots so that our children know all the hard work our ancestors put in.”
She would like to see an area preserved on St. Thomas where a traditional “batey” or courtyard could be built. “The Taino used to play a game with a rubber ball to settle disputes. It would be a wonderful tourist attraction,” she said. Evidence of these ballcourts have been found throughout the Caribbean.