From Cemis and Zonbi to Mama Juana: Indigenous Traces in Popular Sorcery in Hispaniola

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:10 PM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Lauren (Robin) Derby, University of California, Los Angeles
As a corporate community, the Taíno population on Hispaniola was wiped out within decades after conquest in the greater Antilles. Yet due to the social prestige of Native Americans, indigenous healing practices or “technologies” (Norton, 2017) were incorporated into slave and creole practices becoming core activating components of Haitian and Dominican sorcery from demonic animal spirits that generate illness, to cemis and botellas or medicinal bottles used to remove it. This essay examines evidence of indigenous elements within popular medicine from the 1780s to the present. Starting with the ethnobotanical collecting of Michel Étienne Descourtilz whose compendiary Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles demonstrates the continued salience of “indian” as a social category among former slaves into the late eighteenth century in Saint Domingue; and continuing with British nineteenth century travelers to the Dominican Republic Robert Schomburgkt and William Walton who documented the popular use of cemis, or Taino talismanic stones. I also draw upon contemporary interviews with vodou priests in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This paper forms part of a larger project on demonic animal spirits in Haiti and the Dominican Republic entitled, “Werewolves and other Bêtes Noires: Sorcery as History in the Haitian-Dominican Borderlands" I am currently writing up on an NEH grant.
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