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Puerto Rico Seeks to Preserve Taino History, Revive Culture

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/ Source: NBC News

SAN LORENZO, Puerto Rico _ In Puerto Rico's misty, bamboo-studded mountains, elementary school students are studying a nearly extinct language, beating on drums and growing native crops like cassava and sweet potato to learn about the indigenous people who lived on the island before Christopher Columbus.

The boys and girls also learn words from the local Arawak language and play a ceremonial ball game that was called batey by the native Tainos, believed to have numbered to as many as 60,000 in Puerto Rico when Columbus arrived in 1493. Their ranks were soon decimated by infectious disease, such as smallpox.

A group of academics and educators hope to expand the Taino education program to other public schools around the U.S. territory.

"If you don't know your roots, you don't know yourself," said anthropologist Carlalynne Yarey Melendez, 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, with 42,000 of the 3.7 million people then living on the island identifying themselves as at least partially Taino in the 2010 Census.

Puerto Rico's legislature is considering declaring Melendez's Naguake organization to be the island's first indigenous-based community, a step that brings funding.

"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.

Before Europeans arrived, the Tainos also lived in Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, and spoke the Arawak language. The Tainos are a subgroup of the Arawak Indians.

_ The Associated Press