ALTERNATE NAMES: Cuna-Cueva
LOCATION: San Blas Islands (or Mulatas Archipelago), along the Gulf of Darien from Panama to the Colombian border
LANGUAGE: Cuna (Chibchan group of languages)
RELIGION: Indigenous spirit-based beliefs
1 • INTRODUCTION
The Cuna Indians are the original inhabitants of what is now Panama. Like other Amerindian peoples, they are believed to be descended from Central Asians who migrated across the Bering Strait (separating Siberia and Alaska) some 20,000 years ago and moved southward. The Spanish began exploring the Panamanian coastline early in the sixteenth century AD . They intended to establish a colony (settlement of Spanish people). Three Spanish explorers, including Christopher Columbus (on his fourth voyage to America), came in the first decade of the 1500s. All failed to establish a colony, in part because the native Amerindians were hostile to foreign takeover. Eventually Martín Fernández de Enciso succeeded in founding the settlement of Santa María.
Panama was part of Colombia until it became an independent nation in 1903. The Cunas live in an area that includes part of Panama and part of Colombia.
2 • LOCATION
The Cuna Indians inhabit thirty or forty islands in an archipelago (group or chain) of some 400 islands strung along the Gulf of Darien from Panama to the Colombian border. Some Cunas also live on Colombia's Pacific coast near the Panamanian border. The archipelago is sometimes referred to as the San Blas Islands or the Mulatas Archipelago. Its inhabitants also farm along the shores of the Panamanian coastline proper, which is very close to the islands. The hinterland (back country) is jungle and has very few roads. The relative isolation of the Cuna settlements has helped them preserve their traditional way of life.
3 • LANGUAGE
The language of the Cunas belongs to the Chibchan group of languages. The original inhabitants of the great plateaus of the Andean highlands in central Colombia were known as Chibchas. They are now extinct, but their descendants mixed with the Spanish and now form a significant part of the mestizo (mixed) population of Colombia.
Names are sacred, and naming ceremonies take place when girls and boys become teenagers. These ceremonies have an unusual feature: there is a special chanting of all available names. The parents of a child listen closely, and when they hear a name they like they interrupt the ceremony and the choice of the name is made immediately.
Many Cunas also have Spanish names. Because the United States has been prominent in the Panama Canal Zone, some have also taken English names.
4 • FOLKLORE
Since the time of the Spanish explorers, the Cuna have had a small population (estimated to be less than 1 percent of the total population) of albinos (people with no pigmentation, causing them to have white skin, white hair, and pink or blue eyes), most of whom lived on one island. They were somewhat of an outcast group in the Cuna society, and many folktales grew up around them. Here is a Cuna legend reflecting the historic Cuna practice of Sun worship, which is no longer carried out today:
The Cunas, decendants of the Sun, lived in the fertile Darien region since the beginning of time. They were blessed by the gods with a beautiful homeland, including magical lakes, rushing rivers, rich jungles filled with strange and beautiful animals and plants, and mountains where gold was stored.
Once upon a time, the Sun wanted to reward the tribe's shaman (holy man), called the nele, for his wisdom, goodness, and generosity. Appearing before the nele one afternoon at the hour of the sacrifice, the Sun offered to grant him anything he desired. Although the shaman's humility at first prevented him from making a request, the Sun repeated his offer. The shaman was old and did not have long to live. He resolved to ask for something that would benefit the entire tribe after he was gone.
He asked the Sun to send his own son to the Cunas, to serve as their leader. Although this was a difficult request, the Sun agreed. After three days two beautiful blond children–a boy and a girl–appeared in the sky at dawn, surrounded by golden light, and came down to earth. The people were overjoyed and gave thanks to the Sun for this miraculous event. The children were raised in a golden palace with huge gardens. When grown, they were married in a festive ceremony.
Eventually, however, they were unfaithful, both to each other and to their divine origins. As punishment, the Sun turned them from divine beings into mere mortals, condemned to suffer like other human beings. However, from their first union came the albinos. With their blue eyes and nearly white hair, they are still considered children of the Sun. It is said that they cannot bear the light of day. The rest of the Cunas, believed to be descended from the later unions of the two original children of the Sun, still consider themselves to be descendents of a god.
Although the albinos comprise a small percentage of the Cuna population, their existence caused early explorers to label the Cuna the "white Indians."
5 • RELIGION
The Cunas have a close connection with nature and see themselves as a part of it. Every living thing has a spirit counterpart–animals, men, bodies of water, rocks, trees, and plants. The Cuna believe that what is taken from nature must be replaced in some way.
Becoming a shaman is regarded as an important vocation. Shamans may be men or women. They perform three types of functions: curing illness in individuals, believed to be caused in most cases by the loss of one's soul; curing villages of epidemic illness; and establishing a good relationship with spirits, leading to the ability to predict the future. The shaman who serves the latter function is typically born into the role but also receives training, usually requiring a period of jungle isolation.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Most Cunas are Panamanian or Colombian citizens. Many continue to resist assimilation (incorporation into the surrounding culture) and do not celebrate their respective country's major national holidays. However, some Cunas have allowed and even encouraged their young people to receive a Western-style education. After education, most return to the islands. These Cunas speak Spanish, and in a few cases some have even learned English. While living among non-Cuna people, Cunas take part in the celebration of national holidays. These include Independence Day, celebrated in both Panama (November 5) and Colombia (July 20).
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
The Cunas are fond of their children. Although respect for elders is expected, they are not harsh in the upbringing of young children. Parents decide on a husband for their daughter when she is young. As she approaches adulthood, parents cut their daughter's hair, and there is a special celebration in honor of this occasion.
When a person dies, he or she is wrapped in a hammock and buried in a lonely place in the jungle on the mainland. The husband or wife chants a song of praise and lamentation (mourning).
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
The Cunas respect the different positions that family members hold, and greet each other accordingly. Greetings are different when the Cunas are working or are engaged in trade. On these occasions, the men are in the background and the women are the dominant partners. They can be very forward and even fierce. When entertaining visitors, the men again stay in the background and the women play a more forthright role.
Modern Cuna women appear to have no difficulty in being assertive. The Cuna culture is matrilineal (tracing descent through the maternal line). Traditionally, women have held a powerful position in their culture.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Cuna houses are quite long and have enough room for extended family (relatives other than mother, father, and children). The thatched roofs are made out of palm fronds, and the walls out of bamboo or cane. The houses of some villages are very close together.
The Cuna are excellent sailors. They use canoes known as cayucas made from a single, hollowed-out tree trunk. The canoes are often fitted out with sails and are well suited for navigating the waters of the Darien between the Panamanian coast and the islands. In the forests beyond the coast, the men go hunting on foot.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
Many aspects of Cuna family life indicate a matriarchal society in which women play a leading role. Among the Cunas, women own almost everything. A man cannot trade or sell any article without first seeking his wife's permission. On the other hand, it is her right to sell the perfumed berry beads she has made into necklaces, or garments she has made. She does not have to get permission from anyone.
Women give birth in a special hut set aside for this purpose and which men are not permitted to enter. If a girl is born, there is a joyous response on the father's part. He is then allowed to leave the matrilineal household of his wife's family and set up his home independently with his wife and daughter. If a son is born, the father has to remain in his father-in-law's home. A father is not permitted full authority over his sons in the beginning. The father-in-law has that privilege and duty, until he considers that the young father has learned his parenting skills adequately.
The Cunas keep dogs as pets.
11 • CLOTHING
The Cunas are famous for their techniques in preparing layer upon layer of cloth, cutting out patterns, and sewing pieces on top of each other. The patterns are geometric and include vivid colors such as red, yellow, and black. Cunas prepare blouses for women using this technique; these are widely admired in both Colombia and Panama. Women wear long, narrow skirts that are tightly wrapped. They use ankle bands as well as arm bands of many beaded strands. They also wear striking earrings that are large, thin gold disks, rather like flaming suns. The men wear dark trousers, bright shirts, and straw hats. In many areas, Cunas wear these traditional articles of handcrafted clothing and jewelry in addition to a Western-style wardrobe.
12 • FOOD
The Cunas grow yams, corn, and sugarcane in jungle clearings along the coastline. Their diet also includes a variety of fruits such as plantains, bananas, and mangoes. They also drink chicha, a fermented drink prepared from sugarcane mixed with plantains, corn, and water. In Cuna family homes there are big jars where the chicha is stored. A refreshing drink, called coco de agua, is provided by the green coconut.
The Cunas also eat fish and a species of iguana. They stew sea turtle and eat rice boiled in coconut milk. Their traditional hunting weapons were spears and blow guns.
13 • EDUCATION
The men teach their sons hunting and fishing skills, as well as how to sew their own simple garments. The women teach their daughters how to prepare and cook food, and basic farming skills. They also teach them the elaborate sewing techniques to make the decorations, known as molas , that adorn their beautiful blouses.
Some Cuna men have received a Western-style education on the Panamanian mainland. Generally, the Cunas expect young men who have been educated to return to their island and mainland settlements.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Music and dance are important for the Cuna. They preserve their strong cultural identity by passing down to their children accounts of their background, history, and values through stories, myths, and legends.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Work is divided in very specific ways among the Cunas. The men hunt and fish and also make their own clothes. The women make their own distinctive clothes, cook, weave, sew, and make hammocks. The women also work as sailors and traders.
Cuna women sail in their canoes to meet tourist and trading boats to sell their goods. They are accompanied by men who do not participate in the actual trading.
The coconut palm is important in this region. It was once used as a form of currency (money). For the modern Cuna, it provides fibers for making clothing, brooms, threads for sewing and weaving, lamp wicks, rope, and hammocks. It provides sweet coconut water for drinking and coconut milk for cooking. The coconut palm is also a source of fuel, and dishes are made from coconut shells.
16 • SPORTS
Cunas are skillful sailors and fishers, but do not consider these activities sports in the Western sense. They engage in these activities for their livelihood.
17 • RECREATION
Important occasions are celebrated with feasts. It is considered appropriate to mark these occasions with generous amounts of food and drink.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
The Cunas are noted for their skills with textiles. They dye fabric in a variety of bright colors, sew several layers together, and then cut and stitch geometric designs. Each cut allows the colorful fabric from the layer below to show through. Black or deep red are often used as the top fabric layer to accentuate the strong designs. The fabric ornaments, known as molas , adorn the blouses of the Cuna women. The molas are prized outside the Cuna community in Panama and neighboring Colombia. Molas have found their way into exhibitions of Amerindian art. Molas may also be framed and hung as works of art, or used to make cushions, but this is not the way the Cuna women use them. These practices are generally found outside the Cuna communities. The Cunas also make beaded necklaces and woodcarvings.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
The Cunas have tried to defend their way of life for centuries, and have strongly resisted assimilation. In the 1920s, the Panamanian government decided that the Cunas were too autonomous (independent). They sent a troop of officers to police the islands of San Blas and the surrounding coastal area in the Gulf of Darien. The police officers were all killed by the Cunas.
Since that disastrous interaction, a more peaceful climate of coexistence has generally prevailed. There is now a Panamanian governor for the archipelago. The governor's residence is in El Porvenir, a small, clean, whitewashed town on the mainland. A few markets have been established there, where the Cuna women sell their wares to visitors. Visitors may only come to El Porvenir for the day.
On the Pacific coast of the Colombian mainland near the Panamanian border where some Cunas live, there are real worries that development may threaten the way of life of the Cunas there.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cobb, Charles E. Jr. "Panama: Ever at the Crossroads." National Geographic Magazine (April 1986).
Marden, Luis. "The Land that Links the Americas." National Geographic Magazine (November 1941).
Mining Company. Molas. [Online] Available http://quilting.miningco.com/library/weekly/aa072297.htm , 1997.
World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/pa/gen.html , 1998.