The Kuna Indians

The Kuna Indians inhabit the 'Comarca de San Blas or, Kuna Yala'. This is an autonomous region that comprises the Archipelago de San Blas and a thin strip of the coast of eastern Panama, 226 km long, from Colon in the west to Colombia in the east. The Comarca is bounded to the south, on the mainland, by two mountain ranges - the Serrania de San Blas and the Serrania del Darien, which are both densely covered with tropical forest. The Kuna Indians have lived in this area for the last two hundred years. Their actual origins are disputed, but according to oral tradition the tribe emigrated from Colombia at the end of the 16th century, after their tribe was repeatedly attacked by Amerindians armed with poison darts and arrows. They fled and settled in the Darien Mountains. Under pressure from other tribes, or possibly with the coming of the Spanish conquistadors, the majority of the Kunas moved to the coast and later to the offshore islands. 

The Kuna Indians have governed the 2360km2 region since the 1920's, although its evolution was not without problems and even periods of violence. After once more suffering violent attacks at the hands of outsiders, the Kuna rebelled in 1925 killing Panamanian policemen and many children of mixed blood living on the Islands. Intervention by the US prevented further bloodshed, and in 1938 the region was officially recognised by the government of Panama and autonomous rule was granted. Today the Kuna have 2 representatives in the Panamanian legislature and can also vote in general elections. 

There are an estimated 76,000 Kuna Indians, about 50,000 live on the islands or keys, the rest are scatted along the mainland coast or live out of the region. The island-dwelling Kuna are so communal that they only inhabit about 40 of the 400 Islands, leaving the rest to nature. The two islands that we visited - Natunega and Wichub-Wala - are typical of the inhabited islands, where palm thatched dwellings are crammed together, cheek-by-jowl, with barely space to manoeuvre between them. They are rather overcrowded and not particularly attractive when compared to the idyllic, almost classic 'sand and palm tree' views of the uninhabited islands.

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Kuna woman selling her embroidered wares

That said, the Kuna people themselves are both friendly and welcoming. Although some people have reported the Kuna as unfriendly and money grasping, our experiences were all positive and extremely rewarding. This was perhaps aided by the fact that we had our guide 'Mr. Blue' with us, and by the fact that we women particularly were dressed respectably, with not too much bare flesh showing. Possibly another plus point in our favour was that we began our tour of the Island at the school. Each populated island has its own school, attended by all the children of that particular community up to the sixth grade. After that they go to a communal school on one of the larger islands, and some even go on to further studies in Panama City. The Kuna are especially proud of their children who crowd around visitors shouting 'ola' (Hello) and posing for photographs. Since they are the pride and joy of the family no one disciplines them for their exuberant behavior. 

Photographing the women is a more touchy business, many cover their faces, or if not, pose and then immediately ask for the 1 dollar fee, however thanks to Mr. Blue's patient explanations, none became angry with us. The only people we were asked not to photograph were the members of a family whose father had died the day before. This turned out to be Mr. Blues cousin; in fact we met two more of his cousins during our short trip around the village - which really leads me on to the next subject. Most of the Kuna are related to each other in form or another. This tradition of intermarriage is left over from the time when tribal laws restricted movements between different villages. It had also more unfortunate effects, resulting in a number of albino children, one of whom were saw at the village school. These poor children suffer from many infirmities when they are young - particularly of the eyes and skin, however I am happy to report that the dreadful custom of eliminating them at birth has all but disappeared in most places. Nowadays, with increased medical care and sun protection agents, they do not suffer as badly from sunburn as in the past. 

The Kuna also adhere to several other customs that seem incredibly archaic. For example, a Kuna woman is not given a name until she has had her first menstrual period. She then has her hair cut short and a name is selected with the help of the local medicine man. This may sound as if the society is one in which women have a very reduced role, however it is just the opposite. The society is in fact matrilineal and a newly married husband is required to move into his wife's compound. Both Mr Blue and Luis Burgos, the owner of the hotel, told us that they had moved from their respective islands 5 and 7km away to live on their wife's island. The Kuna marry very young, the women are usually 15 years old and the men 17. The women play an important part in providing for the family, embroidering intricately designed and sewn panels called "mola" which are usually incorporated into their blouses. These are already quite famous worldwide and this enforces their already central role in Kuna society.

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Kuna woman embroidering a ‘mola’

The traditional hierarchy of tribal leaders is also a custom intrinsic to the Kuna culture. Each populated island has a chief or 'sahila' who holds the highest position in the village. He has two or three deputy sahilas to help him, and an 'arkar', who acts as the chiefs interpreter passing on his pronouncements to the people. Below them come the 'sualipetmar' who are the equivalent of our police, and maintain order in the village. Given the traditionalism and structure of the Kuna hierarchy, one would expect to meet a chief decked out in loincloth, beads and feathers, with a bone through his nose, perhaps. Not so. Chief Miguel Rodriguez, of Wichub-Wala, who we were introduced to, was quite disappointingly dressed in T-shirt and shorts, and his only tribal headgear was a baseball cap! He was however an extremely genial chief, happy to give us an interview, and to tell us a little about his 'job'. The village Sahila is elected by the island community, although only married men and women can vote. The chief does not have to born on his particular island - in fact Chief Rodriguez had also moved from another island to join his wife's family - but he does have to be married. Once elected, he is chief for life, provided he does not misbehave. Chief Rodriguez told us he was 67 years old and had been chief since 1963, and since he is a 'good' chief, he will remain so until his death. The chief's main job is to take care of his community and to ensure their well-being. He mediates in disputes and deals out penalties to those who commit crimes, these range from fines to expulsion or ostracism. The Sahila holds court on an almost daily basis in the 'congresso'. He took us along to see this. It was the largest hut on the island, dark inside, but pleasantly cool. Chief Rodriguez showed us his hammock, and those of his deputies. It is traditional for the men of authority to swing in hammocks, while lesser mortals sit on hard benches and the problems of the day are thrashed out. There are also other hammocks for visiting chiefs or dignitaries. Every 15 days the Sahilas meet on successive islands for 4 days of praying for the community, 15 days later they meet on another island, this way the prosperity and well-being of each island is cared for in turn.

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Kuna man paddling native dugout canoe or 'ulu'.

The main form of transportation for the Kuna is a dugout canoe or 'ulu', these are propelled by paddle and sail. We saw one of these canoes in the final stages of being built. Mr. Blue told us that it had cost 500 dollars so far, for the wood and work. The hardwood for these canoes comes from the mainland. Each canoe is made from a single tree trunk, hollowed out by hand, a technique which the forest Kuna specialise in. Both women, men and children are expert handlers and sailors. The universal and abiding use of these canoes has produced a unison between the islanders and their boats, and their law that the land belongs to all Kuna's has prevented a division of the people into those who have, and those who have not, allowing them to live in harmony with each other and their beautiful land. 

Dr. Janet Sumner-Fromeyer