The Indigenous Influence of Modern Dominican Culture

Posted on Mar 10, 2017 in Costa Rica Surf Trips

Founded in 1493, The Dominican Republic is located in the Caribbean on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti and is part of the Greater Antilles archipelago.

Indigenous people of the Dominican Republic were mostly Taíno, or Classic Taíno as they are referred to in Hispaniola. However, the country also has predominant European roots. These European cultural influences were built by settlers from southern Spain when they landed in the Dominican Republic toward the end of the 15th century.

By the turn of the 16th century, west and central African people, most from Kongo, were being imported to the Dominican Republic to serve in agricultural slave labor, such as the production sugar cane. African influences, along with indigenous Taíno people and settlers from southern Spain have blended together to form what we know today as the Dominican culture.

Dominican Spanish, The Modern Day Dominican Republic Language

Spanish is the primary language spoken in the Dominican Republic today. The local dialect is Dominican Spanish which was derived from southern Spain, specifically Andalusia and the Canary Islands. However, there are also many influences and words adapted from African and indigenous Taíno peoples that have been incorporated into the modern Dominican Spanish dialect.

Dominican Spanish is also used in American communities that are densely populated with Dominican peoples. Common areas outside of the Dominican Republic where this type of Spanish is used include large metro cities located in the United States, such as Miami, Boston, and New York City.

Education in the Dominican Republic is based on a Spanish schooling model, with French and English languages being taught in both public and private schools as secondary languages.
Religion Found in the Dominican Republic

As of 2016, it is estimated that over 80% of the current population in the Dominican republic are Catholic. Historically, this small country has been dominated by Catholic religion but, in modern times that has begun to give way to other religious groups such as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhism. There has been an increase of Jehovah’s Witnesses migrating to the Dominican Republic, specifically in the last decade.

However, since the Dominican Republic is full of African heritage, there has thankfully been some preservation of African religions and aspects of them. Some Evangelical traditions have chosen to incorporate varying aspects of Afro-Caribbean religions into their practice, either in whole or in part, such as Vudú.

Vudú, or Voodoo as American’s tend to spell it, is still widely practiced throughout the entire island, especially in Haiti, which inhabits 1/3 of the island. In the Dominican Republic, this is called Dominican Vudú and it is not as strict as Haitian Vodou; lacking structure, ceremonies, temples, and fixed doctrine. This is in part due to blending modern age Evangelic religions with the Vudú practices of the indigenous Taíno peoples.

Dominican Vudú is composed of three separate Divisions; Indigenous, African, and European.
Each of these Divisions draws upon spirits from the corresponding region to use in their spiritual practice. The Indigenous American Division has deep roots in the Taíno culture and is what distinguishes Dominican Vudú from others, such as Haitian Vodou.

Initiation to obtain the title of houngan asogwe (male) or manbo asogwe (female), which are the highest clergy spiritual leaders within the religious practice of both Dominican Vudú and Haitian Vodou, can take between 3 to 9 full nights and days.

Adopted practices of both Dominican Vudú and Haitian Vodou can be found in the United States of America today, specifically in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Dominican Republic Music and Dance

Music is an important cultural aspect worldwide and especially so in the Dominican Republic. West African traditions have heavily influenced music in the Dominican Republic, although there can be some native Taíno and European influences found within it.

The most popular type of musical style in the Dominican Republic is merengue, a fast-paced tempo made up of a 120 – 160 beats per minute which is intended to be danced to. The dance is carried out with partners who hold each other at the waist and lead with their other hands held at head level. The dance steps consist of precise leg and hip movements while the upper half of the body is kept composed.

Merengue usually consists of African and Latin percussion, along with brass and corded instruments, piano, and accordion. The merengue style of dance and song has become increasingly popular worldwide, especially in American Hispanic communities.

Bachata is another form of music and dance with African, Taíno, and European elements that is mostly comprised of varying guitars, bongos, and the guira, which is a metal scraper instrument of percussion. Bachata is a Latin American music genre that originated in the Dominican Republic during the early to mid-1900’s. Battling some political and social controversy in the late 20th century, bachata has been modernized to become a very popular form of Latin music, sometimes even preferred over the more popular merengue and salsa dance movements.
Cuisine of the Dominican Republic

Many Middle-Eastern dish variations have been adopted by the Dominican Republic due to the use of similar ingredients, but the most prominent influences that remain are Spanish, Taíno, and west African.

Most cuisine in the Dominican Republic is similar to those found on other Caribbean islands in Latin America, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, and use ingredients that are locally grown and readily available such as rice, fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, and herbs and spices.

While the Dominican Republic uses almost all of the different food groups, much like America, the main focus is on meat and rice starches with fewer dairy products than what is typically consumed in the USA. Common ingredients and staples used in the Dominican Republic cuisine include empanadas, sweet potatoes, chicharron, and ripened and fried plantains.

Bouillon cubes and sofrito, a mixture of herbs and spices, are also frequently used to add flavor to Dominican cuisine, as well as less spicy ingredients such as garlic, onions, oregano, and cilantro. Pork, often stewed or cooked well-done, is the most commonly used meat in Dominican cuisine because of heavy pig farming on the island.

“Los Tres Golpes”, is the official and traditional breakfast dish of the Dominican Republic that hails from west Africa. The dish consists of mangú, a paste made from boiled and mashed green plantains that is then topped with cheese, salami, and eggs, all fried, along with avocado.

Some Taíno inspired cuisine include “Casabe de yuca”, a bread made from yuca roots. This is one of the oldest food staples in the Dominican Republic, with deep indigenous Taíno roots. The yuca root plant is peeled, washed, grated, then dried and heated to make bread. Alone, the Casabe de yuca does not taste very good at all, with a rather bland cardboard taste. However, the Casabe de yuca is used more as a vessel to eat other ingredients, such as dips and soup.

One of the most popular and native alcoholic drinks found in the Dominican Republic is “Mama Juana”, which is both an alcoholic beverage and a cure-all type of tonic. Mama Juana is carefully crafted by soaking rum, red wine, and honey in a bottle with herbs and tree bark. The end result is a deep red liquid with the taste of port wine. Indigenous Taíno roots can be found in this alcoholic drink starting with the herbs, which Taíno people brewed by themselves as a stand-alone tea.

It wasn’t until after Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola in the late 1400’s that alcohol was eventually added to the beverage. The Mama Juana drink is often served as a single shot to be used as a medicinal remedy. The indigenous Taíno people noted the aphrodisiac properties in the drink, as well as the healing power for ailments such as the flu, digestion problems, and a liver and kidney tonic.

Festivals and Carnivals, Celebrations of the Dominican Republic

Festivals contribute to a large part of the culture in the Dominican Republic as the people like to party and keep their history alive. They are celebrated all over the country frequently throughout the year, with many of them having miniature events during the nine days proceeding the festival, which is referred to as novena.

Starting in February, multiple street parties happen throughout the entire country every Sunday leading up to the final all-day, all-night massive Carnaval in Santo Domingo. This is to honor Juan Pablo Duarte, the man who conquered independence for the Dominican Republic from Haiti, only to later end up jailed by Santana who had seized the Republic for himself in Santo Domingo on July 12, 1844.

Semana Santa, or The Christian Holy Week, occurs during the week leading up to Easter Sunday and is a very important holiday to celebrate. The Dominican Republic holds festivities throughout the country consisting of music, food, parades, and street dancing. You’ll find citizens celebrating by dressing as the Devil with whips that they jokingly taunt people with on the streets at the infamous Carnival Cimarron, held in Cabral.

Similar to other Independence Days, Restoration Day or “Día de la Restauración”, is the celebration of gaining independence from Spain in 1863 after a 2-year long war. Festivities begin on August 16th and can be found in Santiago and Santo Domingo, the countries capital.

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