Children's Books

HOW THE SEA BEGAN: A TAINO MYTH, retold and illustrated by George Crespo; Clarion Books, New York: 1993. 30 pages, hardcover, $14.95. ISBN 0-395-63033-9

This book should be in every school library, despite its preparation for grades 1-3.

The Taino were one group of the Arawak people, who had settled the Greater Antilles islands of the Caribbean from the Orinoco river basin of South America, a settlement that began 500 years before Columbus arrived. Arawak population may have numbered many millions (according to the latest estimates; earlier estimates make the population about 500,000). The taino were one group of Arawakian people there. The only Taino cosmology to survive is recorded in Relation acerca de las antiguedades do los Indios, compiled by Fray Ramon Pane, one of the priests accompanying Columbus. This document was "rediscovered" by historians in researches stimulated by the approaching quincentennial in 1992.

It provides almost the only cultural knowledge that survives for the people who were destroyed. Michael Dorris drew heavily on it for Morning Girl, (Hyperion Books, 1992), a young people's novel of daily life of two Arawak teenagers, in the weeks just before Columbus lands, last incident in Dorris's story. Jose Barreirio also makes much use of it, and so do all the native writers in View from the Shore. But these draw on it for background details of stories they themselves are imagining about the lives of contemporary people then. Crespo is the only accessible source of the actual oral literature of those vanished people.

Within 50 years of Columbus's landing, the Native population of Hispaniola had been reduced to 200 Natives. Disease and the extraordinary brutalities, recorded by Bishop Diego de la Landa killed off all the Native people. Similar reductions had depopulated the other islands. African slaves were brought in large numbers to continue work with the mines and plantations for the Spanish. The Relation is the only record of the intellectual and religious life of these first victims of genocide. Crespo is the first to make anything of the Arawak-Taino culture available in an attractive form for children. He is a Puerto Rican artist who draws on his three ethnic heritages: African, Latino, and Caribbean-native.

The story tells of the creation of the sea and its bounty, leaving as 4 peaked islands the largest ones: Borinquen (which we now call Puerto Rico), which once meant "mountain of brave men," Hispaniola (now half Haiti, half Dominican Republic), Cuba and Jamaica. Yayael is a mighty hunter, because he has a charmed bow that only he can use. A hurricane sweeps Yayael away, while the other villagers hide from it in a cave, praying for his safety. When they later search for him, they find the bow but no trace of Yayael. When the villagers rebuild their destroyed village, they put Yayael's bow in a hanging gourd (where bones of ancestors were usually kept), where the bow provides them with fish, which ward off starvation. They go to replant their destroyed fields of corn, cassava, and yams. Four curious and greedy boys get more fish from the gourd, but when trying to rehang it, so their greed won't be discovered, the gourd falls and is broken. The salt sea of tears for Yayael flows from the broken gourd, together with all of the sea's bounty (which in fact was almost the sole source of protein for the Caribbean islanders) surrounds the new high islands. The villagers -- now islanders -- celebrate with a thanksgiving festival of music and dancing for the new bounty. Periodic hurricanes will no longer leave them hungry; they have the bounty of the new sea.

Crespo's paintings have the wit, charm and attractiveness of a trained artist (he studied at Parsons School of Design) who has chosen an apparently naive style that will be as attractive to the artistically-sophisticated as to children. But there is more to it than that. Crespo has obviously carefully researched all the few sources that survive of what was once a flourishing civilization with a large sea-based trading network, tropical agriculture that preserved the islands' soil (Spanish plantations, which were not terraced and planned against runoff from heavy tropical storms had soon destroyed its fertility).

One of these sources is in New York, where Crespo lives, in the Pierpont Morgan Library. This is a manuscript by an artistically talented member of the expedition of Francis Drake, who explored some of the West Indies (as they were called) early in the 1500's, before moving on to sack the rich cities of the west coast of South America. The crew member drew a great many highly detailed colored pictures of many aspects of Arawak life, which were explained in long captions. These provide a far better record than the awkward engravings later made in Europe by engravers working from verbal descriptions.

The colored drawings show furniture, cooking and other implements of daily life, agricultural practices, music (instruments and dancing), hunting and fishing, temples, ball courts (such as those later found in jungle-choked cities of the Maya, with whom the islanders traded), commerce, boats and the very large sailing rafts in the inter-island trading cycle, courtship and family life, and whatever the artist-naturalist could find of the people's daily life, which by this time was under heavy attack by the Spaniards in most areas. Details of clothing and tools were preserved by the unknown artist's colored drawings and archaic-French captions.

Crespo modeled bows, agricultural tools, household items, and the musical instruments played by celebrating villagers from details in these drawings. Especially noteworthy is a stool- chair the boys stand on to reach the hanging gourd. This is carved of wood in smooth modern lines, with a scoop seat, partial backrest. The Arawak (Taino) made many chairs of this beautiful, simple modern appearance (bound to catch the eye of someone who has studied at Parsons). Crespo had to look to more obscure sources for the masks that two male dancers wear. Columbus's diaries record that the paramount cacique of Hispaniola, Guancanagari, gave him a mask, among other gifts including the gold that unleashed the Europeans' furious rapacity. In the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, is found one of the few pieces of surviving art: a stone-carved mask replica of curved stone a few inches thick. It could not have been worn, but must have been a permanent temple object. Though we don't know what ceremonial or dancers' masks actually looked like, Crespo bases his dancers' masks on this stone version.

There is just one item in the illustrations which is (knowingly) inauthentic: Crespo dresses women and girls in minidresses. All contemporary reports, pictures, and engravings show them bare-breasted, but such pix are forbidden in books for children.

This book was published a year too late to cash in on the 1992 "Columbus" publishing boom. It's not on most of the recommended reading lists prepared by educators, nor used in mini-curricula developed by those who thought the Quinquennial a good "hook" for re-thinking American history from a Native viewpoint.

Since older students tend to resist books thy consider "babyish" -- and this one is clearly presented as for young children, though Crespo's prose (smooth, clear and well- written, is not "babyish" and contains quite a few words not in the vocabularies of primary grade kids) teachers may want to discuss his work as an artist, and the research that went into his attractive but actually quite sophisticated illustrations. It use should be a part of any school history that deals with the Columbus event in any way.

--Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Sunday, August 18, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM