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The Kuna Indians Maintaining Traditional Culture in Panama

The Kuna Indians fight to shun interference from outside influences and succeed. They live in the jungle of the Panama coast and in the archipelago of the San Blas Islands. They are amongst the most organized and sophisticated indigenous groups in the world. There are 400 islands in the San Blas archipelago and sources agree that a person could island hop all the way to Columbia without a cayuro (dug out canoe.)

The Kuna place their roots in Columbia at about 4,000BC. They are the native South American group of the Chibchan language family. Kuna history shows a pattern of resentments toward the Spanish. In 1492, Columbus discovered Panama and the European influence on the indigenous people began. In 1514, a brutal leader Pedrarias killed thousands in his greed for gold.

The Kuna joined the Columbians and declared independence from Spain in 1821. They migrated north onto the coast of Panama and the islands. Fifty -three years later Panama parted with Columbia yet the Kuna people retained faithfulness to Columbia. This sparked a conflict between Columbia and Panama and the period became marked with violence.

The Kuna Indians call themselves Tule. Nene Kantule proclaimed the Republic of Tule angering Panama in 1925. Panama prepared to send troops into Kuna settlements to stop this rebellion. The U.S.S. Cleveland arrived to promote mediation at the Kuna request for help from the U.S. government. Panama granted them a constitution and by 1999 a Kuna was elected as president of The General Assembly of Panama.

Kuna society is matriarchal in the sense that the women handle most monetary affairs and keep the oral traditions of the society alive through their Mola craftsmanship. Political structure ensures Kuna interests are met in villages, larger regions, and concerning outsiders. The Kuna are strict in keeping outsiders from infiltrating their societies.

The Kuna territories (Kuna Yala) include three regions. One leader (Caciques) is chosen for life from each region and the three meet twice a year. Each village likewise chooses a chief (Sanila) for life. He heads nightly meetings in the Congress hut to discuss community matters. All of these leaders can be displaced if they fail to properly represent the people. A hereditary oddity leaves the Kuna with a high rate of albinism. These individuals are revered as moon children and often obtain high status in the community.

Three times each week, men and woman come together in meeting houses to sing and promote their oral traditions. The Kuna live communally. While property is owned on the mainland by individual families, on the San Blas islands the entire community owns the land. The fruit of everyone’s labor combines for the benefit of all. If a Kuna earns money through sales or trade, he must pay taxes to the community.

Kuna economy centers on agriculture, fishing, and tourism. Their diet consists of plantains, coconuts, fish, and pigs. The men work in the forests tending to agriculture; women fish and create Mola. They are bright appliqu creations that attach to women’s blouses. The tradition began in the mid-eighteenth century perhaps from French Huguenot influence. The beads, commercial fabric, scissors, and thread are acquired through trade. Mola are an important part of Kuna culture. Traditions, everyday life, and a reverence for the environment are themes for the Mola. Brightly colored they are the daily costume of Kuna women. Men wear the western clothing of t-shirt and pants. Puberty ceremonies for boys mean he can wear his first pair of long pants. The girl’s puberty rituals take more time and expense to plan. The Kuna eat, drink, and smoke in a great celebration.

Examples of Mola motifs include golden beetles, hummingbirds, coconut, morning glories, green iguanas, roots, and spices. They display depictions of their life and their surroundings on the Mola, helping to promote oral tradition.

Kuna people are very short and they create Molas to match their statures. Interestingly, Kuna women spend two-nine months making a Kuna Mola, while the appliqu for sale to tourists in all sizes takes them only a week. Tourists are charged a fee to enter the San Blas Islands and are treated kindly but not invited to stay.

The Kuna maintain a sustainable relationship with the environment. Concern from experts over their over-exploitation of the sea suggests a struggle to balance their respect for ecology and meeting their survival needs. Peace Corp workers teach them about environmental awareness.

The Kuna have succeeded in guarding their way of life. They are fiercely independent in worldly matters. They deal with foreigners only when they have to for survival. As victims of historical colonialism, war, and even genocide at the hands of the Spanish, it is understandable that the Kuna are firm in their rejection of outsiders.