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
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."