The Kuna (also Cuna) Indians are fascinating indigenous tribe in Panama. Despite the historical pressure to become part of Panama and by bringing westernizing influences to their culture, they have managed to avoid this pressure and intricacies of their neighboring area and preserved their culture and lifestyle.
Each community elects their own chief called a Sahila, who is elected for life, provided he does not misbehave. There are senior elders’ position who assist the chief in governing the community. At the same time, there were two dedicated seats for Kuna Yala legislators in the Legislative Assembly as representatives in the Panamanian legislature and they vote in general elections. Afraid of the pressure to Westernize, the Kuna have not allow visitors to their area until recently. Today, some communities are open for tourist. Simply by monitoring and limiting the foot load, they have been successful in maintaining the balance of their cultural heritage and the Western cultural influence.
The Kuna exhibit a traditionally matriarchal society, in which the women are typically the breadwinners of the household. They tend to marry young, typically in mid-teens and the groom lives in his wife’s home along with her parents. He may become an apprentice to his father-in-law for several years. Divorce rate is very low.
They live simple and very close to nature, being an agricultural society. They have high respect for the land and believe one must maintain a deep, intimate relationship with it. They strongly believe in this phrase: “All things come from Mother Earth. Nothing exists that is more necessary than she is.” The men are responsible for building and maintaining their simple and thatch-roofed huts. Some of the more remote islands now have electricity or running water. The major crops include plantain, avocados, corn, bananas, rice and coconuts. They also catch fish. Men will also weave baskets, carve utensils and sew their own garments. The responsibilities of women are to bring safe water from the Mainland Rivers, washing clothes and cleaning.
The primary attraction for the islands is the women’s clothes and dress. They wear beautifully colorful clothes and blouses known as molas. Mola is actually the name for the colorful and finely-made panel, which make up the garments. These panels are intricate embroidered pictures made with the techniques of appliqué and reverse appliqué. Aside from the beautiful molas, the women also wear gold rings in their noses, paint their faces with bright red dye made from achiote seeds and draw a line down their nose. They finish their looks with a bright colored beaded bands around their arms and legs and beautiful head scarves. They believe that the bright colors ward off evil spirits. When it comes to men, they dress plainly in understated shirts, jeans or shorts.
The spectacular scenery and unspoiled indigenous culture that make up this tropical paradise is truly unique. The Kuna people live to what they believe in and what they think is best for them. The Kuna and their islands are certainly lively, vibrant, rich in cultural heritage and remarkably hospitable.