When the Spaniards arrived, the Kuna lived primarily near the Gulf of Urabá in what is today Colombia. Contact with the Spanish, which began in the 1600s, was violent, and trade was limited. Fleeing from the Spaniards, the Kuna traveled up the jungle rivers and settled in the Darién region of what is now Panama. As early as the mid1800s, entire Kuna villages started to relocate gradually to the sandy islands near the mouths of freshwater rivers. Moving to the islands gave the Kuna easier access to trade vessels plying coastal routes and freedom from disease-carrying insects.
When Panama became an independent nation in 1903, the new government attempted to impose by force a "national culture" on the Kuna. In 1925 the Kuna staged a rebellion (La Revolución Tule, or the Kuna Revolution), and with the backing of the U.S. government were able to negotiate a semiautonomous status for their region. In 1938 the region was officially recognized as a Kuna reserve, and their new constitution, known as la carta orgánica de San Blas, was approved in 1945. Legal recognition of San Blas as a territory collectively owned by the Kuna people had implications for the economic organization of the region. The carta orgánica prohibited non-Kuna from purchasing, renting, or otherwise using land within Kuna territory. This law has been used by the Kuna to try to ensure that all enterprise within the San Blas region is owned and operated by Kuna rather than by outsiders. A subsequent law (Ley 16), passed by the Panamanian government in 1953, further delineated the reserve's boundaries, as well as political and economic relations between the Kuna and the national government. Political and economic relationships between San Blas and the rest of Panama continue to be the subject of negotiation.