The Kunas of the San Blas archipelago of Panama : an autonomous warrior tribe
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.
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."
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.
|For more information on how to visit Kuna tribes, contact Michel Puech, www.panamaexoticsadventures.com|