Kuna Indians

The Kuna Indians are one of the most fiercely independent indigenous peoples in the world. The Kuna Yala, or ‘Land of the Kuna’, is the San Blas archipelago, a string of islands along the Caribbean coast of Panama. Just a twenty-minute plane ride from Panama City, the archipelago is a series of 378 islands whose white sand shores and clear waters create a perfect backdrop for this fascinating culture.

The Kuna tribe originated thousands of years ago in the Darien jungle, located on the border between Columbia and Panama. A peaceful people, they were repeatedly attacked first by Amerindians armed with poison darts and arrows, then later by Spanish conquistadors. They gradually migrated to the coastal area and the San Blas archipelago where they live today. When Panama separated from Columbia in 1903, the Panamanian government refused to recognize the autonomy of the Kuna people and insisted that they relinquish their native tongue, dress and culture. In 1925 the Kuna people rebelled; they attacked police stations and killed policemen and mixed-race residents. The standoff was resolved and bloodshed halted when the Kuna requested intervention from the United States; by 1938 Kuna autonomy had been officially recognized by the Panamanian government. The Kuna Congress was formed, and today the Kuna continue to wear their native garb, speak their native language, and maintain their lifestyle much as it was 500 years ago. They have two representatives within the Panamanian legislature representing their 76,000 constituents.

The Kuna system of government is a reflection of the culture’s history. Each community has its own leader, called a Sahila. This chief is elected by the married members of his community, and serves for life. His responsibilities are both spiritual and political; he holds two types of meetings, chanting and talking. The chanting meetings serve the tribe’s need for cultural reinforcement; they keep their oral tradition alive by repeating ancient tribal stories. The talking meetings serve the community’s needs for settling disputes and establishing laws. These meetings are held in congress houses and are attended by the entire community; the tribal elders sit astride hammocks while younger men, women and children sit on the dirt floor and settle community issues through consensus based on centuries of tradition and custom.

Today’s Kuna continue to preserve their tribal identity. They continue their traditional life of agriculture and fishing, with coconuts and lobster making up the primary natural resources used for trade, though the majority of their income today comes from eco-tourism and the sale of ‘molas’. These traditional tapestries have been made by the women of the tribe for centuries. They are created by layering multiple sheets of fabric, then cutting slots through the layers to form figures and scenes of great variety and beauty. The molas take several weeks to create, and are prized for their variety and beauty. They are very popular with tourists, who buy them for an average of between $10 and $50. It is very common to see Kuna women, dressed in traditional mola garb and bejeweled with nose rings, earrings and traditional arm and leg bands, selling molas on the mainland.

The Kuna’s political status and autonomy has allowed them to retain full control over their islands. They are fiercely protective, not only of their culture but also of their land. This has allowed them to control the kind of tourism allowed on their islands. Kuna-operated eco-lodges welcome visitors in a controlled way, and are designed to minimize tourists’ impact on the land. Though some cruise ships dock in their waters, tours are limited. Visitors who manage a glimpse of this simple culture will be charmed by the sight of this indigenous people who has fought so hard to maintain their identity.