Can you imagine a place where babies don’t cry? Well I got to live for three weeks with the Kuna Indians, the indigenous people of San Blas, and never once heard a baby cry even though there were family huts, full of babies, all around me. Instead I heard mothers singing sweet lullabies in the melodic Tulekaya language. Lullaby singing is a big part of Kuna culture and the messages shape the mindsets of the children and society. Lullabies tell Kuna they are a superior ethnic group given land by their God, Paba Tummat, to live peacefully but in return they must protect their culture and identity against any outside influence.
I first discovered these idyllic islands while sailing to Cartagena, Colombia in 1975 and promised myself I’d go back someday. With more than 370 islands, located in the Northwest of Panama facing the Caribbean Sea, the San Blas archipelago covers an area of about 100 square miles. Most are tiny uninhabited sand covered reefs while others are densely populated with homes and coconut palms. It seems idyllic but they all lack drinking water or farm land – but that doesn’t stop the Kuna.
The islands, and a narrow strip on the Caribbean coast of Panama and Columbia, have formed an autonomous territory since the mid 19th century. In 1925 the Kuna Indians rebelled to resist external control, and fight back against Panamanian authorities. The revolution lasted three to four days and resulted in 27 deaths but they won. The 35,000 island inhabitants are now a semi-autonomous tight community of proud people with their own laws and values supporting their culture, which is totally different from the traditional Panamanian mainland culture.
Kuna living in the traditional island communities are still engaged in agriculture, fishing, and trading with coconuts. They are a rare example of an indigenous people continuing to flourish and practice their age old customs surrounded by the modern world. I discovered how friendly and welcoming they are when I arrived alone, by inter-island trading boat, in 1986. I was lucky to meet Nele Kantule. Like me he spoke a little bad Spanish but was good at miming. He found me a straw/cane hut and his family provided me with meals. In return I paid his wife a few dollars, taught juggling to the kids and gave a show to the whole island community.
Nele was typically short, since Kuna are the worlds second smallest people, after the pygmies of Africa. He took me on trips in his dugout sailing canoe visiting other islands and the nearby mainland to gather food from his farm. As a sprightly 56 year old he was very agile and blew me away climbing mango and coconut trees, like a teenager, inspiring me to set that as one of my own life challenges. He showed me an ancient Kuna cemetery where tiny huts were built for each deceased person and contained a few of their most valued items, like guitars and rocking chairs, to accompany them to the next life.
Thanks to Nele I was able to explore islands where the calm waters are pristine sparking turquoise and provide great fishing grounds. I saw when harvests exceed the needs of a fishermans family they give fish away to neighbours and only then if there’s any left does he sell them. Nele explained that surplus income accumulated by the most successful traders is spent on the puberty ceremony of the young girls. This is the most important social event in each community and everyone attends the feast and celebration.
The Kuna are most well known for the bright mola panels which decorate the blouses of the women’s national dress that they wear daily. This colourful textile art is a form of appliqué and reverse appliqué. They are also adorned by multicoloured beaded bracelets, known as winnis, which keep unwanted evil spirits away. However they are most unique for being a matriarchal society where most of the financial power belongs to the Kuna women. Belongings and property are always handed down from mother to daughter while husbands have to move in with their parents-in-law and take the last name of the bride. Could this be the reason they are such a peaceful community of people?
Kuna have managed to keep many western traditions and modern conveniences at bay. They have very limited electric power, with just a few homes occasionally operating generators, and only some use gas burners for cooking. After dark, the moon and stars and candles provide the only light on the islands, so it is amazingly calm and very tranquil. This may explain why the Kuna have an exceptionally low average blood pressure and death rates from cardiovascular diseases and cancer are unusually low.
Each island community has its own political organisation and, after I gained his trust, Nele took me to his Congress Hut where I saw men hanging out on hammocks. He introduced me to his ‘saila’ the headman who sings the history, legends, and laws of the Kuna, as well as guiding the day-to-day political, spiritual and social affairs on the island.
Three decades later climate change is having a devastating effect on these low lying islands and it’s predicted most will be uninhabitable by 2060! What a tragedy that will be bringing the end of this wonderful traditional lifestyle. Relocation plans to the mainland farms are already underway, but the Kuna lack any financial resources to develop and are presently at the mercy of the Panamanian Government who are slow to give indigenous people the support they rightly deserve.
Many years have passed since I met the Kuna, and thousands of tourists have visited since, so I hardly imagine any of them remembering me but meeting these renegade islanders is something I’ll never forget – while the molas I obtained remain one of my most valued treasures.
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