My Cuba red alert
It’s not a place I would have expected to experience the familiar stirrings of an existential crisis
Drew Haden Taylor
Varadero – Most would consider a trip to a Cuban resort a pleasant distraction – warm sand, rum and a shallow excursion into another culture.
I had been there in 1983 and was eager to see it one more time before more and more Americans start arriving and gradually Kardashianiz-ing the whole island and Golden Arches start popping up beneath every palm tree.
It’s not a place where you’d expect to experience a slight, if annoying, artistic and existential crisis of Aboriginal proportions.
It was a hot sunny day, as is frequently the case in Cuba, and a horde of us resort refugees were swarming the countryside in jeeps on our way to a lovely half-hour trip down an isolated river. Getting out of the jeeps at a little restaurant/bar where our boats were located, we were told something special had been planned for us.
That something was the performance of an Indigenous dance performed by two men and four women in body paint and identical long black wigs. One of the women was lying on the dock, and a male dancer came up to her and did some sort of magical hand movements over her as the rest sang and danced. When she came to life, all six proceeded to thank the gods by doing some more oddly contemporary dancing for the tourists.
We were told the performance was about the power of the river, though our guide seemed vague on its historical origins. It was about then I began to feel the familiar stirrings of a cultural red alert many Indigenous people get when they travel.
I know for a fact there are no longer any Aboriginal people living in Cuba. They were long ago killed off in the fervent hunt for gold, and the growing need to cultivate sugarcane – the chief ingredient of soft drinks and rum – was deemed more important by European standards.
That’s true of most of the Caribbean islands, with the possible exception of Dominica, where the last surviving island Caribs are reputed to live.
The Caribbean archipelago had been the home of tens of thousands of Carib and Arawak Indians before they were sacrificed on the altar of Manifest Destiny. I am sure there is a hotel on the Gulf of Mexico for practically every native person killed to maintain the standard of living of your average conquistador.
I questioned our tour guide about this, and he cheerfully acknowledged that the dancers weren’t native and that the tribal body paint was an approximation, as was the dance.
The language spoken during the performance was not the real local dialect, which has been forgotten. As far as I could tell, some of the words had been copied down by historians and were being spoken randomly out of context during the dockside dance.
I am native (Ojibway to be exact). I am a native in the arts. So I was observing this from two different perspectives, and both were making me uncomfortable.
I should also point out that the four women were topless.
This may once have been authentic Aboriginal practice, as is customary in many hot climates, but (how to put this delicately) the ritual/dance involved a substantial amount of jumping up and down. A lot. To the point that it actually looked painful. The women’s breasts were highlighted with white circles, making the bouncing more attention-grabbing. And while there were plenty of bouncing boobs, my girlfriend doesn’t remember seeing any bouncing penises.
After the dance, the tourists were invited to have their picture taken with the local “natives.” A whack of middle-aged white guys stood proudly beside the lovely young topless women performers. Their wives didn’t seem to have a problem with this, no doubt thinking this was a local Indigenous custom.
I’ve been to more than 140 Aboriginal communities across Canada and the U.S., and a fair number of other Indigenous locations around the world, so trust me when I say there was nothing culturally accurate about the display.
One of the things that bothered me most was the thought that this pseudo-ritual dance performance would be taken, in memory, across the world by my fellow tourists, who came from Germany, Russia, France and Chile. Fellow Canadians in the group considered the spectacle a respected example of Caribbean Indigenous culture – sort of like a Cuban pow wow.
My girlfriend and I wanted to tell them it wasn’t, but most were too busy getting their picture taken.
The rest of our vacation was fabulous – except for the small town we passed named after the massacre of a large number of Indians.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and novelist from Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough.
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