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The Kuna Indians

Panama’s Kuna people have successfully straddled two different worlds. They fought for autonomy and won against almost overwhelming odds, then created a society based on their traditional beliefs and values. At the same time, they participate in Panama’s legislative process and have built up lively trade and tourist industries.

Kuna oral tradition indicates that their original home was in Colombia. By about 500 BC, they had migrated into the general area of Panama’s Darien province, with a population estimated at over half a million people. The remains of pottery, stone carvings, and jewelry found in the area indicate that the Kuna people of that day were a creative and versatile people.

When the Spanish moved into the area after 1492, Vasco Nunez de Balboa was appointed as the first governor of Panama. Balboa established good relations with the Kuna people, even marrying a Kuna princess, and the Kuna people helped him in his historic crossing of the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean. But his successor, Arias, moved his government to the Pacific coast and massacred many of the Kuna living there. The survivors fled to the mountains in the north, where they successfully resisted Spanish attempts at domination.

By 1850, the Kuna had begun to settle on the Caribbean coast and occupied some of the 370 islands of the San Blas Islands. They lived there in relative peace until Panama separated from Colombia in 1903. Kuna loyalties lay with Colombia, and they actively resisted the presence of policemen sent to the area by Panama’s president. In 1925, the Kunas declared their independence as the Republic of Tule and asked for mediation by the United States, resulting in a grant of semi-autonomy in 1930. In 1953, Panama created a constitution recognizing the Kuna’s legal and administrative status. In 1971, the Kuna sent elected representatives to Panama’s General Assembly.

Kuna government is organized along traditional lines. Each of the approximately 49 villages in the San Blas Archipelago is led by a chief known as a sahila. Every evening the sahila meets with the married men of his village to discuss problems affecting the community. Three “caciques,” each representing one of the regions of the “Kuna Yala” or The Comarca of San Blas, meet twice a year to discuss and resolve problems experienced by the communities and their members. Both sahilas and caciques are appointed for life.

Most of the San Blas islands are uninhabited, although some families maintain coconut plantations on otherwise uninhabited islands. The land surrounding the villages belongs to the community and each man is expected to do his part in maintaining the plantations and rivers. Rarely, an island is owned by an individual or family, but most belong to the community inhabiting it. Most communities do not have electricity or running water, depending instead on water from nearby rivers to meet their needs.

The people support themselves primarily by farming and fishing. The Kuna diet consists of coconuts, plantains and fish but they also raise domestic animals and hunt wild game. They also export fish, coconuts, lobsters and crabs. The communities charge a small fee to tourists arriving on their island, and operate charter services. A number of international associations and United Nation programs also help support the Kuna in their traditional way of life.

Kuna men still build traditional dugout canoes, and the community joins together to build new houses of logs or bamboo with palm roofs. The best-known of all Kuna handcrafts are the famous molas made and worn by the women of the villages. The mola is made in a reverse applique technique using anywhere from two to five individual layers of cloth. Outlines of motifs are cut from each layer to show the color of the cloth below. Some of these designs are very intricate, and the tiny hemming stitches that hold the layers together show off the fine skills of the seamstresses. While traditional molas are made to fit the blouses of the women, others are made specifically for sale to tourists and for export.

In 1983, the Kunas gained international recognition when they created a nature reserve. Setting aside a massive area of rain forest and attracting funding from several international agencies, they initiated a project known as The Study Project for the Management of the Forested Area of the Kuna Territory. After receiving assistance from outside advisors in setting up their new park, the Kuna eventually began to manage the project themselves, combining both traditional Kuna practices and Western scientific knowledge to create a unique and valuable research and conservation reserve.

The Kuna have proven their ability to adapt to change while maintaining their traditional lifestyle throughout their long history. There is much to admire about this unique people, and perhaps much to be learned from them.