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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 as they learn about the indigenous people who lived on the island before Christopher Columbus.
The children in four towns in the island's southeast corner 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, which 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 hope to expand the Taino education program to other public schools around the U.S. territory in an effort 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, 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.
But even though that's just a little more than 1 percent, Puerto Rico's legislature is considering a proposal to 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, and expand the program 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 to 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, and 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 by infectious diseases, such as smallpox, brought from Europe.
Today, many towns in Puerto Rico bear Taino names, but 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 resistance from parents suspicious of an unfamiliar language and culture. Melendez said some parents in the program here 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 — because of his musical skills. He gets to blow a conch shell known as a fotuto while other students gather around him and beat on their mayoacanes — 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.