The Kuna People of the San Blas Islands

In the Caribbean Sea, a few miles off the east coast of mainland Panama, lies the San Blas Archipelago, a series of exquisite tropical islands. The Archipelago consists of 360 low-lying islands, including sixty that are homeland to the indigenous Kuna people. The Kuna are charming and traditional. They emphasize respect for the land and believe one should maintain a deep, intimate relationship with it. To them, “All things come from Mother Earth. Nothing exists that is more necessary than she is.”

The idea of respecting Mother Nature is the historic, underlying philosophy for why the Kuna tend to lead a lifestyle based on subsistence living. Typically, the Kuna rely on the nearby mainland rainforest to survive, trying to take from the forest only what is needed, including fresh water, specific plants and medicine. Kuna use the mainland rainforest as a resource because the islands they inhibit serve primarily as dwelling areas with no fresh water and minimal vegetation. Although, Kuna fish daily from the island’s shores and use income from the local tourism industry to help them acquire what is necessary for survival.

The Kuna are impressive craftsman. Kuna communities are tidy and homes consist of small thatched, bamboo and palm leaf huts, constructed from nature’s own materials. Kuna living within these communities work together to construct a large gathering hut where village events can take place. Kuna women are especially talented artists and are known for their vibrant hand stitched Molas (also known as elaborate blouses). Molas are cloth pieces of work with depictions of Kuna homeland, animal imagery, politics, legends, and culture illustrated upon them.

Kuna are spirited and vivacious. They have ancient myths and perform exotic dance ceremonies. The dance ceremonies serve as a means of communicating these myths. Kuna take pride in adorning themselves elaborately. Doing so thru vibrant dress and bright jewelry, including tight strings of beads around their legs and forearms as well as gold rings in the bottom of their noses. Kuna tend to have striking, relatively short figures, on top of having the highest rate in the world for albinism. Kuna also speak with a unique dialect known as Kuna.

Officially, the islands are part of Panama, but as of 1925, after the Kuna Revolution, the islands have been administered as a “country within a country”, and lead by the Kuna themselves. Islands even have chief leaders. Thus, the islands lying within San Blas province are rich in tradition, following their own customs, laws, and legislation enabling them to preserve their natural environment and heritage. Dedicated Kuna have managed to start a grassroots movement, known as Project for the Study and Management of Wild Areas of the Kuna Yala (PEMASKY), to help protect endangered species along the Caribbean coast and to prevent outsiders from settling on their land.

The breathtaking scenery and unique indigenous culture encompassing the San Blas Archipelago make it a truely unique place to travel to in Panama. The Kuna have stood up for their beliefs, enabling them to live the life that they believe is best for them. The Kuna and their islands are undoubtedly vibrant, colorful, culturally rich and unforgettably hospitable.