Decolonizing the Archive: Indigenous People and Survivance

“Survivance is an active resistance and repudiation of dominance, obtrusive themes of tragedy, nihilism, and victimry. The practices of survivance create an active presence...Native stories are the sources of survivance”
- Gerald Vizenor

“Most writers and theorists tell us that blacks had to be brought into the Caribbean because its Indigenous peoples disappeared or were too weak to work on plantations. This uncritical argument, that the disappearance of Indigenous peoples was the reason for the introduction of black, and later indentured labor, hinders us from seeing how these two causalities are in fact irrevocably yoked.”

Shona Jackson, “Humanity beyond the Regime of Labor: Antiblackness, Indigeneity, and the Legacies of Colonialism in the Caribbean”,

Indigenous Representaiton and Decolonizing the Archive

In the first voyage to the Caribbean, Columbus, the now famous sea pirate and pilager of the West Indies, depicts the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean as beastial and ignorant. He writes, "They all go completely naked, even the women, though I saw but one girl. All whom I saw were young, not above thirty years of age, well made, with fine shapes and faces; their hair short, and coarse like that of a horse's tail...I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance" (October 11th, 1492).

Five decades later, during the height of Spanish colonialism, Oviedo de Valdez describes the demenour of "Indios" as "Childlike"

And in the 1800's Richard Ligon depicts the Indigneous as "Savage."

If stories such as these are the dominant representation of indigenous people in the ECDA’s collection, then a central question for the project is: how can we narrate instead the stories of native survivance and of resistance to colonizers like Sloane? If, as Gerald Vizenor explains, native stories are the sources of survivance, where can we locate these stories in the colonial Caribbean archive?

Here at the ECDA, we seek to make use of the affordances of the digital archive to remix the texts of the conquered to extract stories of survivances. An example comes from Hatuey's narratives in Bartolome de las Casas text. In it, Hautey says, "I'd rather go to hell than be in heaven if that's where christians go." By taking Hatuey's narrative and extracting it from its embedded context, we attempt to show differing perspectives of history. Visit our Embedded Indigenous narratives exhibit to learn more about how the ECDA seeks to decolinze the archive.

[how does remix disrupt this colonial lens, re-contextualize it]

[possible landing page question: how are native peoples represented in the colonial archive?”

Image Depicts an indigenous figure pouring gold down the throat of a Spaniard.
Girolamo Benzoni, La historia del mondo nuovo, 1565. Image sourced from the John Carter Brown library.

Engraving the “Savage”

In addtion to the myriad textual representations of indigneous peoples in the archive, many extant images also attempt to represent the indigneous peoples of the Caribbean as brutal, forieng, and sometimes alien.

The images to the left were taken from an ECDA visit to the John Carter Brown Archive in Providence, Rhode Island. Many of these images attempt to depict child reading, hunting pratices, subsistence farming methods, and even religious practices. Of all the images in the Archive, perhaps one of the most telling is an attempt to capture an Indigneous god. This depiction is entirely imagined, and based in the Engravers imagination. Visit our partners at the JCB Archive to see digital editions of these texts for yourself.

The Colonial Gaze

This history of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, as told by European colonial authors such as Hans Sloane, Bryan Edwards, and John Gabriel Stedman, is a story of absence and erasure, of enslavement and violence. See, for example, the passage to the right taken from the introduction to A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (1707) by Hans Sloane, a colonizing naturalist and physician, whose avid natural history collecting led to the founding of the British Museum. His wife, Elizabeth Langley Rose, came from a family of sugar planters in Jamaica, and she supported his naturalist and medical research—meaning, in short, that the British museum was founded on money from the Caribbean slave economy. Sloane’s history of the indigenous Caribbean is one in which native peoples commit acts of violence against Spanish colonizers, and in which indigenous women are important commodities in this violent exchange.

Works Cited

Secondary Bibliography