A panorama of Haitian Indian Civilization

Emmanuel W. VEDRINE
(Prisma, Spring 1990 – University of Massachusetts-Boston)

Cacique henri
Cacique Henri. haitiglobalvillage.com

If we trace the root of Haitian Indians according to the tradition of the natives, we find that the island was populated by Indians from Florida and the Yucatan, and by two large groups migrating from South America.

Historians always have chosen to focus on the two main native tribes: the Arawaks and the Caribs. The Arawaks were also called Arahuacos. In the Marcorix language, once a predominant language of Haiti, the word Arawaks means eater of the yucca flour.

The Arawaks' ancestors, the Galibis, had inhabited the regions of Guyana and the Amazon. The Arawaks, Kaketios, Lucayos, and the Tainos were all descended from the Galibis who had migrated to the Greater and Lesser Antilles.

The national literature consisted of poetry and an oral tradition called “Areyto”. The latter was the more popular form. The Sambas or Troubadours of the island sang their joys and their grief. They sang the beauty of the women, the bravery of their chiefs, the power of the gods, and of war.

Using these types of literature as their media, particular individuals transmitted these traditions from generation to generation. “Bovites” legends are included in this literature. Among them are: “Nonum” (moon), a story of the moon's jealousy of the sun's brightness, and its preference to shine at night. Other legends deal with paradise after death, the creation of the sea, how the woodpecker sculpted the female gender, and why the nightingales sing.

Upon the arrival of Columbus in 1492, the island was divided into six “cacicats” or “territories” governed by an Indian chief, or a “cacique”. The cacicats were: Higuey, Ciguay, Marien, Xaragua, Magua and Maguana. The Caribs populated the first two territories. The Marien and the Xaragua were inhabited by Tainos. The last two were under the control of the famous Caonabo, a man who was the husband of the beautiful Anacaona, queen of the Xaragua.

Though the Haitian Indians were wiped out by Spaniards, traces of their civilization remain in the history and literature of the country. The following text is a translation of an epic poem composed by a famous cacique named Henri. This poem describes his resistance against Spanish forces. Please refer to the glossary of terms provided at the end of this essay.

Strombus gigas
Lambi, Strombus gigas.Photo F.P.


Les Butios1 ont promis la victoire!
O Zémès2 soyez-nous favorable!
Vos visages sont passes aux xagua3
Nous portons la terreur sur nos faces!
Le lambi4 résonne dans les airs!
Nul ne peut nous résister
Tuons! Exterminons! Brûlons!
Leur peau sera le hamac
Où nos enfants dormiront
Aya bombé! Aya bombé5!


The Butios have promised victory
Oh, Zémès! Be on our side.
Our face are colored with xagua
We carry the sign of terror on our faces
The Lambi sounds in the air!
Nothing can stop us.
Let's kill! Exterminate! And burn!
Their skin will serve as a hammock
In which our children will sleep
Aya bombé! Aya bombé!


Nos pères, nos frères, nos parents
Furent naguère aussi nombreux
Que sur nos têtes, les étoiles
Avant l'arrivée, en notre île
Des montres vomis par la mer!
Où sont-ils maintenant?
L'Urucane6 a soufflé sur eux!
Les Chemis7 seuls savant à present
Dans quelles pays ils voyagent
Mais le sang appelle le sang
Aya bombé! Aya bombé!


Our Fathers, our brothers, our parents
Were recently as many
As the stars above our heads
Before the arrival,
The sea has vomited monsters on our island!
Where are they now?
The Urucane has been blowing on them!
The god Chemis are the only ones who know
To what country they have gone
But blood is called blood
Aya bombé! Aya bombé!


Nous mourrons plus en lâches!
Ne vivons plus pour creuser les monts!
Non plus pour fouiller les rivières
A la recherché de l'or!
Nous haïssons la poudre jaune!
Le xagua qui tient nos mains
En rouge pour la bataille,
Le xagua qui crache le sang
Dans son vif écarlate
Est mille fois plus beau
Ne perçons plus la terre.
Aya bombé! Aya bombé!


Die not as cowards!
Live not to pierce the mountains!
Neither to dig the rivers
In search of gold!
We hate this yellow powder
The xagua that holds our red hands
For fighting
The xagua that spits blood
In its red mouth
Is thousand times more beautiful.
Dig not the land anymore.
Aya bombé! Aya bombé!


Pour mourir libres, il faut monter
Très haut, plus haut encore, toujours
Où ils ne peuvent grimper!
Leurs pieds ne sont pas sûrs et lestes!
La plaine nous trahit et nous livre
Bahoruco8 nous reçoit et nous garde
Ô mère sacrée, ô montagne sainte
Ô Mamona9, refuge suprême!
Prends nos os, ô fidèle
Qui osera nous chercher dans tes bras?
Et dans la chevelure de tes lianes?
Aya bombé! Aya bombé!


To die free, one has to climb up
Very high, higher again and always
Where they cannot climb.
Their feet are not secured!
The plain betrays us and leaves us.
Bahoruco receives us and guards us
Oh, sacred Mother! Oh, sacred Mountain!
Oh, Mamona, supreme refuge!
Take our bones, oh faithful
Who would dare look for us in your hands?
And in your wild vine hair?
Aya bombé! Aya bombé!




  • Aya bombé! Aya bombé! : die free instead of being a slave.
  • Bahoruco : name of a mountain.
  • Butios : priest and doctor
  • Chemis : a god
  • Lambi : a conch; a big shell used as horn (to blow in order to signal something).
  • Mamona : a goddess
  • Urucane : hurricane
  • Xagua : a plant that grows on the island. The Indians used it to color their skin when going to war
  • Zémès : a god

* Ref. Jean Fouchard (pre-Colombian Haitian history - series)
* English translation of the poem: E. W. Védrine
(© E W. Védrine)

Emmanuel W. Védrine
P.O.Box 255110
Dorchester, MA 02125-5110 (U.S)
e_vedrine@hotmail.com, e_vedrine@yahoo.com