Visiting the Kuna *Video*

One of my favorite aspects of traveling is learning about new cultures – so I was super psyched to visit the Kuna people of the San Blas islands, located off Panama’s Caribbean coast. The Kuna are a population of about 50,000.

A Fighting Heritage

The Kuna, originally from Colombia, migrated north to the islands and Panamanian coastline in the 16th century. They migrated for several reasons, including conflicts with both the Spanish conquerors and native peoples, as well as to escape the mosquitos on the mainland.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Panamanian government tried to assimilate the Kuna, who fiercely resisted. The Kuna revolted and were granted an autonomous state, the Kuna Yala, in 1925. Today they have the largest degree of autonomy of any South American indigenous people.

A Matriarchic Society

Traditionally, Kuna families are matrilinear. The groom takes the last name of the bride, and he moves in with the bride’s family after marriage.

The Kuna are a highly private people and dislike having their photos taken. It was surprising then that this young mother let me take a video of her singing a lullaby to her baby. I think it was because I sat with the family for a while talking to the women, gave the children stickers, and brought books for the school (basically ingratiating myself).

Have a listen:

Can’t see the video? Click on this link: Kuna Lullaby

A Colorful Culture

The Kuna women are especially proud of their handicrafts, including the colorful molas that they embroider. The molas use the techniques of appliqué and reverse appliqué. You see the molas as textile art in the form of wall hangings and pillow cases, as well as panels on the women’s dresses. In fact the word “mola,” means “clothing” in the Kuna language.

I purchased 2 molas for my friend Lucca. He’s turning 1 year old soon and has a jungle motif in his bedroom. I think these molas of a fish and parrot will go perfectly!

The Kuna are also known for the elaborate beadwork adorning their ankles and forearms. The bead pattern is held in place by a string that is wrapped around each individual line of beads. I bought an anklet and promptly lost the pattern for good. In the end, I simply knotted the strings on both ends and now wear the beads as a necklace. Nice, but some of the significance is lost for sure.

Pigs & Dragons

We finished up our island visit with a lunch prepared by the Kuna. We were served coconut rice, fried chicken, lentils, and a salad. It was freshly prepared, but the cleanliness standards were a tad below what we’re used to. For instance, I learned that the spoon used to serve the rice was first washed in a bucket from which the pigs were drinking. Eyck.

No doubt, they made this lunch especially for us tourists, since the Kuna diet is mainly fresh fish. In fact, the Kuna have relatively few incidents of high blood pressure, heart disease or cancer. Scientists believe their good health is not only attributed to diet, but also to the 2-3 cups of coca that they drink per day.

Interestingly, the Kuna have a very high incidence of albinism in their society. The Kuna consider albinos to be a separate race of people and are given a revered place in Kuna society. They are believed to have special powers in which to defend the moon against dragons and are only permitted outside during a lunar eclipse.

During my visit, I saw several albino people, including a small child, as well as an albino woman and her young daughter inside one of the huts. The little girl with white pigtails was one of the only children who wasn’t running around outside. Luckily, I was allowed in the hut to give her a coloring book and box of crayons.

Stickers & School Supplies

I knew that we’d be visiting the islands, so I came prepared with school supplies for the older children, and stickers and coloring books and crayons for the younger ones. One of the teachers passed out the exercise books to his students in a very orderly manner. Nice!

The stickers were all forms of Smurfs and the kids seemed to love them. In fact, at times I was literally mobbed. With a little help from my shipmates, we were able to form a line and allow each child to pick a sticker or two. Most wanted them placed directly on their chests, although a few goofballs fashioned Papa Smurf eye patches. Cute!

Kuna Appreciation

I spent only a morning visiting the Kuna, but even in this short time, I was able to gain a better understanding of their culture and get a glimpse at how they live. I was also able to make one small friend, a little girl named Caroline.

She would color a picture, then show it to me. I would then point to a butterfly or some Smurf shoes and name a color and she would go away and return, coloring book in hand, with the picture completed. It never ceases to amaze me how even though we come from vastly different cultures, we can still share a meaningful experience. I thank the Smurfs for that.


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 31st, 2012 and is filed under South America.

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