SHERRY THORUP. . . the KUNA INDIANS


Photograph from: MOLAS Folk Art Of The Cuna Indians by Ann Parker & Avon Neal
(1977) Barre Publishing, Barre, Massachusetts

The Kuna Indians are a strongly-knit tribal society living on a chain of islands called San Blas Archipelago, on the Atlantic side of the Republic of Panama. Believed to be descendants of the Caribs, the Kuna Indians still live in much the same manner as their ancestors. The San Blas people have cleverly managed to retain their tribal identity and contentedly lead a moral balanced life, free from the complexities of modern, highly-organized societies.


The Kuna have a matriarchal society in which the line of inheritance passes through the women. A young man, after marriage, must live in his mother-in-law's house and work for several years under apprenticeship to his father-in-law. Divorce is uncommon, although it requires no more than the husband to gather his clothes and move out of the house. The daughters of the Kuna people are prized because they will eventually bring additional manpower into the family.


For some unknown reason, there is a high rate of albinism in the Kuna men. Because of the intensity of the sun in Central America, the albino men are not able to do the work expected of a Kuna man. In order to contribute to their community, they assume duties traditionally assigned to the women, including Mola-making. Although encouraged not to marry, the albino men are accepted in the community and their work is respected by their peers.


There is a traditional division of labor within the families. The husband gathers coconuts, cultivates the food, provides firewood, repairs the house, makes his and his son's clothes, weaves baskets and carves wooden utensils. The wife prepares the food, collects fresh water from the Mainland Rivers, unloads the boats, sews female garments, washes the clothes and cleans the house.


The Kuna have a custom for every event and happening in their life and these customs are passed on to their children through dances and chants. These events are also documented in their Molas.


The Kuna language (until recently, unwritten) is spoken throughout the community, however, Spanish is fast becoming the second language. Due to the United States influence since the building of the Panama Canal and with the influx of tourists frequenting the San Blas Archipelago, English is being spoken more and more by the Indians.


The traditional dress of the women in the San Blas is spectacular. The gold nose rings, beaded arm and leg bands, head scarves, blue sarongs and the colorful "Mola" blouses worn in combination are a work of art in itself. The Kuna men have adopted a clothing style more traditional to the men of the western world and appear drab beside the Kuna women.


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Copyright 1996-2009.  Sherry Thorup. All rights resreved.

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