Taino Clothing

Taino mythology tells of a great cacique who, during a cohoba trance, had a prophetic vision concerning people wearing clothing:

"The lord of the sky warned the Taino to watch out for covered people. Chief Caicihu fasted for a week and was worthy of his words.

“'Brief shall be the enjoyment of life', announced the invisible one, he who has a mother but no beginning. 'Covered ones shall come, dominate, and kill."

Native Americans first encountered Europeans on the island of Guanahani, now known as San Salvador. The two groups of people differed considerably in appearance and in attire. While the Tainos wore nothing, or next to nothing, the bearded, pale skinned Spaniards were covered from head to toe in cloth and metal, a phenomena that must have seemed unnecessary, if not uncomfortable, given the rather warm tropical climate of the Bagua (Caribbean region). The Taino called these newcomers Guamikinas or covered people.

The Guamikinas had apparently gotten lost in the Bagua while seeking a new trade route to China and the East Indies. Their leader, Christopher Columbus, stepped ashore on the beach in Guanahani dressed in scarlet robes and iron armor.

Columbus wrote this description of the Taino:

"On this island, indeed, and on all the others which I have seen, and of which I have knowledge, the inhabitants of both sexes go always naked, just as they came into the world, except some of the women, who use a covering of a leaf or some foliage, or a cotton cloth, which they make themselves for that purpose."

Although the everyday attire of the Taino was minimal, the ceremonial dress of important caciques (chiefs) and nitainos (nobility) could be quite elaborate. The Spanish chroniclers described capes made from the feathers of colorful tropical birds, finely woven cotton garments, intricately beaded belts, ornate headdresses and jewelry such as necklaces, nose and ear rings and pectoral adornments made from shells, bones, gold and semi precious stones.

On certain occasions the Tainos painted themselves with dyes. A black dye, called Jagua, symbolized the after world and was used by shamans during religious rituals and a red dye, called bija, was used for protection against evil spirits and to repel mosquitoes. It was the use of this red bija dye that led Native Americans to be called "Redskins".

When Columbus returned to Spain, he brought six Taino captives along with him. Although they were naked when captured, they were presented to the Spanish royal court in complete ceremonial attire. The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about this incident in the book, Notas de Prensa 1980-1984:

"To begin with, we don't know for certain if [Columbus's diary] actually existed, as the version that we are familiar with was transcribed by Father Las Casas from the original which he was said to have seen. In any case this version is merely a poor reflection of the astonishing manner in which Christopher Columbus resorted to his imagination so that the Queen would believe in the greatness of his discoveries.

Columbus says that the people who came out to greet him on the twelve of October of 1492 "we're as naked as the day they were born". Other chroniclers have also written, that the Taino, as would be natural in a tropical environment, still free from Christian morality, went naked. Nonetheless, the chosen examples, that Columbus brought to the royal palace in Barcelona, were dressed up in painted palm leaves and feathers and necklaces made from the teeth and claws of rare animals. The explanation seems simple: Columbus's first voyage, contrary to his hopes and dreams, was an economic disaster. He hardly found any gold, he had lost a majority of his ships, and he was unable to bring back any tangible proof of the enormous value of his discoveries, nor to justify, in any way, the expenses of this adventure or the advisability of continuing it. To dress his captive in such a way was a convincing publicity stunt. A simple oral testimony would not have been enough."