In Puerto Rico, a push to save culture from long ago Wanda Ivette Diaz enunciates the Arawakan word for, "touch" during a language class for children, in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico (AP photo / Thinkstock)
In Puerto Rico, a push to save culture from long ago
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In Puerto Rico's misty, bamboo-studded mountains, elementary school students are studying a nearly extinct language. They beat on drums and grow native crops like cassava and sweet potato. They do this as they learn about the indigenous people who lived on the island before Christopher Columbus.

The children live in four towns on the island's southeast corner. They play a ceremonial ball game that was called batey by the native Tainos, who were all but wiped out during colonial times. The boys and girls also learn words from the local Arawak language. It was in part rebuilt with help from linguists and still exists in varying forms among other native groups in the hemisphere.

Now, a group of academics and educators hopes to expand the Taino education program to other public schools around the U.S. territory. The goal is to teach children this little known part of the territory's history.

"If you don't know your roots, you don't know yourself," said anthropologist Carlalynne Yarey Melendez. She is the director of the Taino cultural organization that runs the educational program. "There are so many communities and schools that want the classes. But I can't keep up with the demand."

Puerto Ricans' interest in the territory's indigenous past has grown in recent years. About 42,000 of the 3.7 million people living on the island identified themselves as at least partially Taino in the 2010 Census.

Even though that's just a little more than 1 percent, Puerto Rico's legislature is considering a proposal. It would declare Melendez's Naguake organization to be the island's first indigenous-based community. The designation would allow it to receive federal funds under a program that aids native groups. The program could be expanded to other towns.

"As one of our elders said at one time, 'Just as they wrote us off the books, we will write ourselves back in,'" said Tai Pelli, a liaison officer for the New York-based United Confederation of Taino People.

Melendez has lobbied legislators to pass the proposed measure. She has also worked with U.S. researchers on several recent DNA studies sponsored by the National Geographic Society. The studies explore the lineage of people living in certain regions of Puerto Rico.

Before Europeans came to the New World, the Tainos also lived in the nearby islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. They spoke the Arawak language. The Tainos are a subgroup of the Arawak Indians.

Historians and anthropologists believe that up to 60,000 Tainos lived in Puerto Rico when Columbus arrived in 1493. But their ranks were soon decimated. Illnesses brought from Europe, such as smallpox, killed many.

Today, many towns in Puerto Rico bear Taino names. There are few remaining traces of the culture except for several well-known landmarks. There's a massive river boulder carved with petroglyphs in the central town of Jayuya. The Caguana indigenous park in the central town of Utuado also features petroglyphs, along with artifacts and ceremonial plazas.

The program has met some resistance. A few parents are suspicious of an unfamiliar language and culture. Melendez said some parents in the program were skeptical until their children shared what they had learned.

Maribel Rodriguez said her 9-year-old Brayan Lopez is enthralled by the classes.

Brayan is a fourth grader and one of the designated caciques or chieftains. That is because of his musical skills. He gets to blow a conch shell known as a fotuto. Meanwhile, other students gather around him and beat on their mayoacanes. Those are small, elongated wooden drums that the Tainos used.

"He wakes up in the morning and it's all, 'The Tainos, the Tainos, the Tainos,'" Rodriguez said with a laugh.

Critical thinking challenge: How does a language become extinct?

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