Cuna - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Aboriginal religion emphasized animal souls. Ibelel, or Ibeorgun, was and is today the most important culture hero, the one who introduced social life and material culture to the first Cuna Indians. Besides Ibelel—who lives in the sun observing human behavior—the twelve nele are important personages who helped the Indians. The Cuna know the particular life history of each nele, and it is passed on during the onmaket sessions. Contact with missionaries has led to belief in a big god (Paptumat) and a little god (Papmachi) corresponding to the Christian Father and Son. Paptumat is thought of today as a Supreme Being, but probably it is not a native belief. He created the universe and left it; afterwards, he sent Ibelel to educate the Cuna people and to teach cultural norms. In addition, there are animal owners and animal souls: the latter are called purba. Generally, each animal possesses several purba that may be transmitted to men and their families through hunting. The animal owners live in kalu (mountain refuges), and they decide about the population of its species.

Religious Practitioners. Aboriginally and today, shamans have been religious, medical, and political officers. In the past, the most prestigious sailas were shamans. There are three kinds of shaman: nele, inatuledi, and absogedi. The nele have the highest position, obtained by ascription; one cannot become a nele voluntarily. They are truly experts in myths, history of the ethnic group, and curing of illness. Commonly, they have the capacity of taking political decisions above civil sailas and sakka. Inatuledi provide medical care; generally they must learn their skills. Absogedi apparently prevent illness by magical ways. Curing frequently means a struggle between two inatuledi.

Ceremonies. The Cuna have traditionally celebrated, since pre-Columbian times, the female condition and her puberty. At the age of 2, the shaman or other man who knows the oral tradition, inserts a golden ring in the girl's nose. This is the first ritual ceremony for her. Inna , a drink made from sugarcane, is offered by the parents to relatives and friends who may come from other communities. At about the age of 12, the girl is confined to a small hut and her hair is cut. Her menstrual blood is gathered in a hole and during some months, her mother teaches her the duties of an adult woman. At the end of confinement, a second inna (feast) is offered. For the following three years she must cover her head with a red-and-gold-decorated cloth. Finally, the third ceremony is conducted. The kantule , or ceremonial singer and ritual flute players, narrate the tradition of the ceremony. Other men smoke ritual cigars, and the girl is painted with saptur or genipa on her face. On some occasions, picture writings on a board or on paper relate the stages of the ceremony. In San Blas, a native festival that memoralizes the Cuna Revolution of 1925 is performed, which somewhat resembles the Panama City carnival, except that the Cuna express certain traditional traits, like shamanistic exorcism, to expel, symbolically, the strangers and government rulers.

Arts. Wood carving of mythical personages and picture writing of historical and ceremonial events are very important artistic expressions.

Medicine. In the traditional medicine of the Cuna, the ponis , or spirits of illness, enter the body and the inatuledi, or medicine man, must expel them with the help of nuchu or good spirits, represented in wood carvings. The Cuna are known for their magical cure of difficult childbirth, practiced by the inatuledi or by a nele.

Death and Afterlife. Aboriginally, the Cuna buried the dead under the place where they slept, with their hammock. Nowadays, they have cemeteries as a result of missionary influence. The afterworld is regarded as a modern city with urban commodities, all of them of gold, a primal symbol One reaches this golden and modern paradise if one works actively at traditional tasks. If not, one goes to a type of hell, surrounded by a putrid river and many ponis.

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Gary Frantz
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Jan 14, 2012 @ 10:22 pm
From my experience living with the Cuna (also often spelled Kuna) in Nalunega near the western end of the islands, there is only one inna ceremony and that is when the girl enters puberty. At it they cut her hair and paint her black. It may be more intricate as in having 3 ceremonies farther east in the islands, or may have involved that many ceremonies in the past, but there is only one where I have visited over the last 20 years for periods of 1 to 3 months at a time approximately once a year.

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