The Kuna Indians of Panama

Located just off the coast of Panama on the Caribbean side is an isolated archipelago known as the San Blas Islands. These islands are largely unpopulated and undeveloped though a few have hotels for visitors wanting to take advantage of the opportunity to do some snorkeling among the many reefs in the area. Reachable only by boat or plane, these islands are the domain of the Kuna Indians who, despite occasional tourists, have managed to maintain much of their heritage and traditions intact.

Believed to be the descendants of the Caribs, the Kuna’s settled on the San Blas Islands in the mid-1800s where they lived without incident until they sided with Columbia against Panama and police were sent in to keep the peace in 1915. However, the abuses of power perpetrated by those policemen caused unrest which came to a head in 1925 with a rebellion. After negotiations, the Panamanian government decided to grant complete autonomy to the Kuna Indians and allow them to govern themselves as their traditions dictated.

Today, the Kuna Indians continue to live a very simple life. At its highest level, the Kuna government is conducted by a congress which answers to a chief and an interpreter. Individual villages also have chiefs who manage the daily local business of deciding disagreements and interpreting the laws. They are not paid for their leadership role and are elected for life, usually chosen for their knowledge of Kuna tradition, chants, and laws. Essentially, the laws of the Kuna are the same as they have always been.

The gender roles today among the Kuna are the traditional roles. Since they are a matriarchal society, the Kuna women control the family money and inheritance is passed down through the female line. Men are expected to live and work with their wives’ families. The men work gathering coconuts, fishing, and farming while the women take care of the house, prepare the food, and make the traditional Mola blouses for which the women of the tribe are famous. Though many of the men have abandoned tribal dress, the women still continue to wear colorful handmade Molas and sarongs accented with gold jewelry and nose rings.

The Kuna Economy makes the most of the islands they live on. They sell lobsters and coconuts as they have for decades, but now they also make money selling Molas and charging fees to tourists. Recently, the Kuna tribe has begun welcoming additional income from eco-tourism. Eco-tourism focuses on appreciating the natural wonders of an area while making as little impact as possible on the environment and the indigenous people. This allows the Kuna to benefit from an extra income to help meet growing economic needs of the communities which their simple life would be otherwise unable to provide. They get to keep their traditions and lifestyle while adding to their education and health options with minimal global influence being introduced into their society.

The Kuna Indians have struggled to maintain the integrity of their culture while the rest of the world goes on around them. They have worked very hard to make sure that they will still be living and working in the same way, in the same environment, a hundred years from now as they did a hundred years before.