Kuna - Orientation



Identification. The Kuna are one of Panama's three major groups of indigenous peoples. Most of the Kuna live in the comarca (district) of San Blas, or Kuna Yala, along Panama's northern coast. Literally "Kuna Yala" means Kuna Land. The comarca of San Blas is the legal name of the region, but the Congreso General Kuna has petitioned the Panamanian government to have the name of the region officially changed to Kuna Yala. "Cuna" and "Kuna" are Spanish designations; the ethnonyms "Tule" and "Tulemala" are in the Kuna language.

Location. The comarca of San Blas lies along the north-eastern coast of Panama. It is comprised of a long, narrow strip of mainland jungle extending 200 kilometers along the coast and 15 to 20 kilometers inland and an archipelago of 365 small islands. A single road links San Blas to the Pan-American Highway and to the rest of Panama. The road is only passable in a four-wheel drive vehicle and, as of 1985, had not been used for regular transport of people or agricultural produce. Because of road conditions, most travel in and out of the region is by plane or boat.

Demography. According to the 1980 Panamanian national census, the total population of San Blas was 28,567. There are fifty-four communities ranging in size from 70 to over 2,000 inhabitants each. Forty-two of these communities are located on small islands, ten are situated on the mainland coast, and two are inland, on the riverbanks. All the inhabited islands are no farther than about 1.5 kilometers from the mainland coast and the mouth of a freshwater river. Proximity to the coast makes daily travel possible from the islands to the Kuna's agricultural field on the mainland. Freshwater mainland rivers provide an easily accessible source of water for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes.

In addition to the San Blas Kuna, or the Island Kuna, as they are called, there are Kuna who live outside the comarca. Approximately 10,000 Kuna live in Panama City and Colón, the two largest cities in Panama. Many of these individuals retain close ties with San Blas and consider the region their home. About ten other small villages, with a combined population of fewer than 2,000, are located in the Darién jungle.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kuna, or Tule Kaya, is the primary language spoken in San Blas. Many Kuna also speak Spanish, Panama's official language. A considerable number of Kuna speak some English, especially those who have traveled internationally on trade boats in the Canal Zone. A few individuals know other languages such as French, Russian, or Chocó (spoken by the Chocó Indians who inhabit the Darién).


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