Brooke Keiahani Rodriguez said that her earliest memories as a child were of her father taking her to pow wows and Native events. In elementary school, her grandfather told Rodriguez of her Taíno background and the harsh experiences he and his parents had faced.
When in Catholic elementary school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a teacher inquired about Native people and how they would dress. Some children said “moccasins” and others “feathers,” but Rodriguez said “gym clothes” because as a Taína that’s what she was wearing at the time. She remembers getting into trouble for her comments and telling her grandfather about the experience. He became upset because Brooke had exposed herself to the same kind of ridicule he had faced as a Taíno in Puerto Rico.
Years later, Rodriguez, who studied anthropology at Hunter College and Brooklyn College, would write and deliver scholarly papers on Native life. She said her grandfather became proud that his granddaughter had pushed him out of the “Taíno closet.”
Two years ago, Rodriguez founded the Eagle and Condor Community Center in Astoria, Queens, which is dedicated to empowering, connecting, and supporting the pan-indigenous community. A volunteer organization, the community center sponsors events and activities promoting a healthy, communal connection to native culture. The organization shares space and partners with Reality House, a drug rehabilitation center that utilizes the White Bison movement’s method to combat drug abuse in Native communities.
Luna Sol, co-director, of the Eagle and Condor Community Center, said that Rodriguez’s role as chief director is to create programming that addresses the needs of Native communities, providing educational programming that covers the reintroduction of indigenous practices into daily life.
“She’s wonderful, very driven, passionate, hardworking, creative and dedicated to the movement. It’s an honor to work by her side,” Luna Sol commented.
Rodriguez refers to her educational outreach work as “re-rooting,” not re-discovering. “When you’re discovering something, it’s like you never had it; re-rooting means working as a community, a re-planting,” she explained.
Rodriguez thinks many people’s ideas of Taíno or Native cultures involve a false romanticism of original people when in fact many times, language, food choices and music that are indigenous in nature are taken for granted. She also rejects mass media and cultural stereotypes that depict Native peoples and people of color as noble savages, negating their innate humanity.
“We’re just regular people living our lives. This is an organic experience,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t romanticize [our]culture. We’re just people living and trying to survive. Our true native experience was going through a period of colonialism and survival. [There are some] who honor a 1492 native that never existed. These concepts dehumanize us.”
Before Rodriguez formed the Eagle and Condor Community Center, she said that she saw great patriarchal tendencies in the various splintered Taíno groups around New York. She couldn’t tolerate that women – who constitute 50 percent of the Taíno community – were being silenced because of ego and machismo, so she decided to create her own Native organization.
Luis Sanakori Ramos, a member of the Naguake Indigenous Community in Boriken and Director of Ceremonies at the Eagle and Condor Community Center, describes Brooke as “a very talented and strong leader in the Native community.”
Ramos praises Rodriguez as an advocate who protects Native young people from all forms of abuse and cultural norms that do not empower them.”
“She fights against stereotypical roles and negative attitudes against women and the formation of misguided male children regarding misogyny and machismo,” he explained.
“She has spent many years guiding youth in the right direction in regards to honoring and respecting themselves. She is very passionate about teaching them how to learn and connect with their indigenous heritage and follow their traditions.”
As an anthropologist, Rodriguez sees no irony in the fact that she’s a native person studying a science that has traditionally studied Native cultures, believing that modern anthropology has moved away from studying native or primitive cultures to a wider more humanistic approach.
“This is a humanist movement,” said Rodriguez on a rainy, October Friday as she prepared to go to an upstate pow wow the next day. “We dictate how we speak about ourselves. [We say]: this is my story.”