The Kunas of the San Blas archipelago of Panama : an autonomous warrior tribe


Gaelle Sevenier

23 Avril 2004

Today, the Indian Kuna tribes of Panama live in 49 communities spread out through the country. The majority live in the archipelago of San Blas, in the semi autonomous Comarca of Kuna Yala, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Warrior tribes for generations, the Kunas have not only managed to keep their ancestral traditions and fascinating culture, but also remain open to modernisation.

In 1925, the Kunas had a revolution and obtained semi-political autonomy in Panama. The Kunas armed only with their arrows and machetes against the weapons of the Panamanian, asked for external help. Lonny Hetman, ex-representative of the island of Ustupu in San Blas, explains that after the Kunas had sent some of their people to Washington, the Americans offered them a ship called the Cleveland, previously grounded in the Mississippi river: "When three Panamanian war ships arrived to San Blas to exterminate us, the Cleveland scared them of and they turned around." After decades of negotiations, in 1952, Panama finally recognized Kuna Yala as self-governing area of Comarca Kuna Yala. Today, no one but a Kuna can own land in the Comarca, and their General Congress is responsible for all administration in accordance with their own constitution.

It would be wrong to contest that this Indian tribe has kept all of it's traditional identity. Mani Stanley, a 28 years old Kuna student, explains that "unlike many other tribes, the Kunas have assimilated other cultures. We have trade relationships with Colombia. We have never forgotten the American help during 1925. We also have had trade relationships with France and Holland." Kunas have also adopted many aspects of the outside world and adapted them to their needs. Today, for example many Kunas live in Panama City, studying in university or working for American companies.

The Kuna men wear traditional t-shirts and paints, while the women wear very colourful dresses and traditional Molas, reverse-appliqué designs on their chest. They also wear all over their arms and legs the traditional bracelets of multi colour beads called Winnis or Chaquiras in Spanish. According to their beliefs, winnis protect them from bad spirits. Women generally have their nose and ears pierced with golden rings, and have a blue vertical line painted on their foreheads made out of Jagua fruit.
Despite many efforts from colonial missionaries and sects, the Kunas have maintained their belief in the Nana Dummad, Mother Hearth, a belief closely associated with respect to their natural environment. While the Sahila represents the community in the Congress, the Nele is their spiritual guide. He is a healer granted with particular powers. "The mother of the Nele knows when she is carrying one" explains the old Lonny. "At birth, his powers are able to kill his parents. If the mother doesn't die immediately, but the child shows specific signs, he is separated from his family. Nobody tells him who his real parents are in order to protect them. Growing up, the Nele has to increase his innate knowledge and accomplishes some rituals." Once an adult, the Nele is helped by a wooden doll called Nucho to diagnose sicknesses and heal his patients.

While the Kuna people have always been a warrior tribe, women play an important role. In the Kuna legends, transmitted orally from one generation to another, there are many examples of Kuna revolts against the Spaniards. Briseida Iglesias, a Kuna mother of 6 children, tells us that during the colonisation, there was a leader called Narascunial, the first women to have fought the conquistadors: "The community was petrified as they were being killed without mercy. This woman of exceptional courage, along with her daughter, went to the jungle to fight the Spaniards. During the night, they prepared their strategy. Narascunial was extremely pretty, with long hair down to her feet. When the colons arrived, she undressed herself. Very impressed by her beauty, the conquistadors came closer and fall into the hole the two women had dig and hidden with herbs. Returning to her community, she accused the men of being cowards and ordered them to react and defend the villages."

Still today the Kunas consider themselves to be a warrior tribe, proud and independent, distrustful to the pratfalls of modernisation. "Right now, the Congress doesn't allow the access to the islands to tourists unless they pay an entrance tax" says Sogui Diaz, a young Kuna student who now lives in the capital city. "It is because we need to pay for many things in our community in order to survive. I recognise that we are a bit closed to tourists."
Sogui has a life very similar to many other girls in the capital. She admits that there is a sort of "contagion" from the occidental world. "There is no way for us to escape. We are in a permanent fight to preserve our culture."
Sogui speaks fluent Kuna and Spanish. She belongs to a traditional dance group, is involved into the politics of the General Congress and has a collection of Molas. Her mission is to "rescue" the young people of her generation. "They live in the modern world, but they can also combine it with the traditional world, like I do."

Today, the highest percentage of poverty in Panama contains the indigenous tribes. The Comarca Kuna Yala is protected due to it's semi-autonomous status, but the territories of their brothers the Wounaans, Teribe or Emberas among others, grow smaller day after day.
Briseida is revolted: " I want to go to our government and tell them out loud that they do not recognize our culture and valorise our brothers. But when I come into politics, every one applauds because they want my vote. It is what is going on at the moment. "According to her, the Panama government is only interested in the destiny of the Indians during the elections, like the ones organized last week, electing the PRD candidate Martin Torrijo and putting an end to the four year term of Mireya Moscoso.

For more information on how to visit Kuna tribes, contact Michel Puech,

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