Cuna - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. In precontact times, during Spanish rule, and in modern times, the Cuna have lived like a "tropical forest tribe," without specialists or centralized authority; the communities have been autonomous one from another, but not isolated. Sex and age determine status and occupation. Shamanism is the part-time activity of some elders. Today, modern objects like watches, radios, and urban clothes are elements of prestige that are sought along with the traditional symbols like a good canoe and a large number of necklaces of animal teeth for men or of seeds, fishbones, or coins for women. In modern localities of San Blas, some economic-based stratification has appeared, but the society has traditionally been homogeneous, without status groups such as nobles or slaves. Friendship is institutionalized as a form of alliance between two extended families; the sakka of both units interested in the alliance eat chicken meat in a ritual context and exchange pieces of the food. The alliance is then recognized and implies an obligation of mutual assistance.

Political Organization. The ancient chiefdom of Cueva has been mistakenly regarded as the predecessor of the Cuna ethnic group. The Cuna were never organized beyond the community level. Only prior to and during the Cuna Revolution of 1925 against the Panamanian government was a temporary centralization process achieved around Nele Kantule and other minor chiefs, but after the revolution the communities returned to their autonomous existences.

The sailas have not had great authority owing to the economic decision-making role of extended families. Rather, the sakka is the authority among his affinal and consanguineal relatives who live in the same house. The saila is more of a conciliator and a representative of community interests to other groups, like settlers, Blacks, and Catio Indians. Sailas are elected by men in the onmaket (assembly of the community), where individuals can express their complaints about the behavior of sailas or other persons, or where the saila may express disagreement with the conduct of certain families and persons. The onmaket is an occasion for reiteration of religious and social beliefs and thus is also a socialization setting for adolescents.

Social Control. Besides the onmaket, there are other sources of control such as gossip, fear of witchcraft, and pecuniary penalties. Robberies and forbidden sexual relations are the most controlled deviant behaviors. When an Indian has left the ethnic group for a long time and returned, it is very difficult for him to incorporate himself again into any community. People ignore him (rarely her) and only after a time, during which the man must demonstrate his conformity with the group and its rules, will he be accepted, but often he will be criticized.

Conflict. Frequently, there are disputes because of gossip or suspicion of theft. There are no warlike attacks between communities, although war was common in pre-Conquest times and during colonial rule. The Cuna fought against the Catio-Emberá and the Spaniards. Since colonial times, relations with Blacks have been unfriendly because Indians think that Blacks are thieves. Nevertheless, in the Río Caimán area, some Cuna families accept Blacks as laborers. Religious conflict with missionaries was not rare. In 1938 the Caimán Cuna expelled Mother Laura, the founder of a prestigious Catholic community. More recently, conflict with missionaries has resulted from priests' and nuns' rejection of certain mythic beliefs and because the Indians do not understand the meaning of mass and baptism. The Indians are upset because in the Darién area, missionaries require the children to attend school and compel them to write despite the fact that memory is highly valued by the Indians in their traditional process of socialization.


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