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The Kuna People of the San Blas Islands

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Kuna woman with molas - compliments of Sapibenga lodge
Kuna woman with molas - compliments of Sapibenga lodge

The following article was written by Panama traveler M. Leonard. Thanks for the contribution!

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 and traditional, Kuna people.

The Kuna (also Cuna) Indians of Panama are a fascinating tribal society. In spite of historical pressure to become part of Panama and westernize their culture, they have managed to avoid the stress, bustle and complexities of their neighbors and remained content living much the same way their ancestors did.

Thought to be descendants of the Carib Indians, they lived initially throughout Panama and Columbia. When Panama broke away from Columbia, the Kuna resisted. The Panamanian government and police attempted to control the insurrection, often with violence. Eventually the Kuna staged a revolt and declared their independence and migrated to the coast and to the islands of the San Blas Archipelago. Officially, the islands are part of Panama, but are administered as a “country within a country,” and lead by the Kuna themselves. 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.

Each island has its own chief, called a Sahila, who is elected for life. There are positions of elders who assist the chief in governing matters. At the same time the Kuna Yala area and its inhabitants have two representatives in the Panamanian legislature and they vote in general elections. Wary of the pressure to Westernize, the Kuna have restricted visitors to the area until recently. Some communities have introduced eco-tourism to their islands, and by limiting and regulating have been successful in maintaining a balance between western influences and their traditional culture.

They have their own language called Tule, which is also what the Kunas call themselves. Spanish is a secondary language for many. Their customs and traditions have been passed to the children in song and dance. Until recently the Tule language was unwritten.

The Kuna are a matriarchal society. They marry young, usually in mid-teens. The groom moves into the home of his wife's parents. He may spend several years as an apprentice to his father-in-law. Divorce is rare.

As an agricultural society, they live simply and interact closely with nature. 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 men build and maintain the homes which are simple, thatch-roofed huts. Few on the more remote islands have electricity or running water. The primary crops are plantain, bananas, avocados, corn, rice and harvested coconuts. They add to their diet by catching fish. Men will also weave baskets, carve utensils and sew their own clothing. The women are responsible for bringing water from the mainland rivers, washing and cleaning. They sew the clothes for the females.

It is the women's clothes and dress that is the primary attraction for the restricted eco-tourism allowed on the islands. The ladies wear spectacularly colorful clothes, especially their blouses call molas. Mola is actually the name for the elaborate, colorful panels, which make up the garments. These panels are intricate embroidered pictures done in an applique manner. In addition to the beautiful molas, the women also wear gold nose rings, paint their faces with rouge made from achiote seeds and paint a line down their nose. They complete their dress with bright colored beaded bands on their arms and legs and lovely head scarves. It is thought that the bright colors repel evil spirits. In comparison to the women the men dress plainly in understated shirts, jeans or shorts.

The chief religion is animism. They believe the Creator God is far away and that evil spirits called poni cause disease and illness. In addition to bright clothing, they carry small dolls carved from balsa wood, called nuchus, to protect them from the poni.

The breathtaking scenery and unique indigenous culture encompassing the San Blas Archipelago make it a truly unique place. 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.

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