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ETHNONYMS: Cuna, Tule, Tulemala


Identification. The Kuna are one of Panama's three major groups of indigenous peoples. Most of the Kuna live in the comarca (district) of San Blas, or Kuna Yala, along Panama's northern coast. Literally "Kuna Yala" means Kuna Land. The comarca of San Blas is the legal name of the region, but the Congreso General Kuna has petitioned the Panamanian government to have the name of the region officially changed to Kuna Yala. "Cuna" and "Kuna" are Spanish designations; the ethnonyms "Tule" and "Tulemala" are in the Kuna language.

Location. The comarca of San Blas lies along the north-eastern coast of Panama. It is comprised of a long, narrow strip of mainland jungle extending 200 kilometers along the coast and 15 to 20 kilometers inland and an archipelago of 365 small islands. A single road links San Blas to the Pan-American Highway and to the rest of Panama. The road is only passable in a four-wheel drive vehicle and, as of 1985, had not been used for regular transport of people or agricultural produce. Because of road conditions, most travel in and out of the region is by plane or boat.

Demography. According to the 1980 Panamanian national census, the total population of San Blas was 28,567. There are fifty-four communities ranging in size from 70 to over 2,000 inhabitants each. Forty-two of these communities are located on small islands, ten are situated on the mainland coast, and two are inland, on the riverbanks. All the inhabited islands are no farther than about 1.5 kilometers from the mainland coast and the mouth of a freshwater river. Proximity to the coast makes daily travel possible from the islands to the Kuna's agricultural field on the mainland. Freshwater mainland rivers provide an easily accessible source of water for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes.

In addition to the San Blas Kuna, or the Island Kuna, as they are called, there are Kuna who live outside the comarca. Approximately 10,000 Kuna live in Panama City and Colón, the two largest cities in Panama. Many of these individuals retain close ties with San Blas and consider the region their home. About ten other small villages, with a combined population of fewer than 2,000, are located in the Darién jungle.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kuna, or Tule Kaya, is the primary language spoken in San Blas. Many Kuna also speak Spanish, Panama's official language. A considerable number of Kuna speak some English, especially those who have traveled internationally on trade boats in the Canal Zone. A few individuals know other languages such as French, Russian, or Chocó (spoken by the Chocó Indians who inhabit the Darién).

History and Cultural Relations

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.


Today most Kuna villages are located in four distinct areas. Most are situated in the comarca of San Blas. Three others are near the headwaters of the Río Bayano, and seven are located along the Río Chucunaque near a hydroelectric dam; all ten are in the Darién jungle. A few small communities can be found in Colombia. Kuna also live in Panama City and Colón and a few live abroad.

In San Blas, island communities are crowded; there is scant space between the houses, which are constructed of locally produced materials. The Kuna live in large matrilocal households composed of senior couples, their married daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and in-married, subordinate sons-in-law. Households usually span three or four generations. Generally, the compound includes a kitchen and one or more sleeping houses. Most Kuna sleep in hammocks, which are strung from the supporting beams of the house. Clothes are draped over bamboo poles suspended from the rafters or are stored in wooden or cardboard boxes. Most houses have bamboo walls and thatched roofs, but some Kuna have built two-story cement houses with corrugated-metal roofs. These structures often house a store, in addition to providing living space.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kuna practice slash-and-burn agriculture and use intercropping techniques. Although plantains are now their primary subsistence crop, they also grow rice, maize, yucca (manioc), sugarcane, coconuts, fruits (such as mangoes, pineapples, lemons, limes, and oranges), and hot peppers. Fishing, hunting, and gathering supplement the Kunal diet. Some households keep a pig to slaughter for a special occasion.

The most common source of cash income is the export of coconuts to Colombia and molas (multilayered panels of cloth cut away to reveal intricate patterns and then carefully hand stitched) to the United States, Europe, and Japan. Coconuts have been exchanged with Colombian traders for goods or cash since the late 1800s. Molas were commercialized in a major way starting in the 1960s. Kuna women sew mola panels into their blouses (also called molas), and sew panels and other items (e.g., small mola patches, animal pillows, pockets, purses, Christmastree ornaments) specifically for sale. Mola commercialization occurred concurrently with an increase in Kuna male migration in search of wage labor and a consequent decrease in subsistence-agriculture production. Lobsters and, to a lesser extent, crabs and octopuses began to be harvested for export starting in the 1960s; however, because diving for and preserving the catch require special equipment, and because only young men dive, the impact of this commercial activity has not been as widespread as that of the production of molas.

Kuna men seek wage labor opportunities especially in the Canal Zone, Panama City, Colón, and on Changuinolaa banana plantation. Outside San Blas, few job opportunities are available for Kuna women, but within the region, wage-labor opportunities are equally accessible to Kuna men and women. Such salaried government positions as those of teacher and health worker are filled by both sexes. A few positions, such as air-traffic controller, national guardsman, and agricultural-extension worker, are occupied only by men, but either men or women can be airport attendants, accountants, or store clerks within the community.

Tourism, primarily concentrated in the western third of San Blas, increased dramatically during the 1960s. Most tourists visit the region in luxury cruise ships. Some visit one of several Kuna- or foreign-owned small hotel resorts.

Industrial Arts. Sewing molas is the primary art form for Kuna women and for omekits (Kuna men who are socially defined as women). Some women have special gifts for creating and cutting mola designs and for fashioning wini, strings of tiny colored beads worn wrapped around the forearms and lower legs of Kuna women to form geometric designs. Wini, mola blouses, wraparound skirts, head scarves made from imported cloth, and a gold nose ring are considered "traditional dress" for women. Most women in San Blas dress "traditionally." A few elderly women still make hammocks and ceramic vessels, but these traditional crafts are rapidly disappearing as commercial goods become increasingly available. Kuna men make baskets, ladles, wooden stools, and fans that women use to keep the fires burning. Some men make their own clothing: a solid-colored shirt with pleats in the front and a pair of pants, also without designs. Most Kuna men, however, wear Western clothing. Men who live in the area frequented by tourists carve small model boats and balsawood Kuna doll heads to sell to visitors. Dugout wooden canoes are handcrafted by men who have learned this special skill.

Trade. Starting in the 1600s, the Kuna engaged in lucrative trade with the Scots, the French, and with the British colony of Jamaica. Kuna chiefs learned European languages and traveled throughout the Caribbean. The Kuna also traded with pirates as early as the 1600s. A Scottish colony was established in the area in 1698. Alliances and trade relations with Kuna communities were developed and maintained until the 1700s, when the Spanish expelled the Scots.

In the 1700s the French began to trade with the Kuna and to forge military alliances that protected both parties from the Spanish and British. Relations were sufficiently amicable to allow intermarriage. In the 1740s, however, the French began to cultivate cacao for export and, soon thereafter, to use Kuna labor. Relations between the two groups deteriorated; the Kuna rebelled, attacking the French settlers and driving them from the region. Taking over the production of cacao (about 100,000 trees on an estimated seventy-three properties), the Kuna began to trade with the British for guns, ammunition, tools, and cloth. By the 1850s, maritime trade with pirates and merchants was well developed, and trade continues to provide the Kuna with a steady source of goods.

Nowadays the Kuna are actively engaged in commerce with Colombians on boats; they trade coconuts for sugar, rice, cocoa, or cash. Trade boats, most of which are collectively owned by Kuna villages, travel to Colón (an international trade zone), returning to San Blas with a wide range of goods. Kuna storekeepers and itinerant traders acquire their merchandise either directly from Panama City or from the trade boats. Interregional trading of agricultural produce is minimal; plantains and roof thatch, abundant in the east, are mostly sold to communities in the west, where they are needed. Molas, coconuts, and lobsters are the region's primary exports. Although the Kuna still produce much of the goods they consume, they import a wide range of consumer goods including boat motors, cookware, clothing, shoes, certain staples (cocoa, rice, sugar), cement, guns, harpoons, lanterns, tape decks, and radios.

Division of Labor. Concurrent with commercialization of coconuts and relocation of many mainland villages to the islands, Kuna men increasingly took over subsistence-agricultural production as women turned their attention to the coconut trade. This shift did not occur in all Kuna communities, nor did it happen all at once. Despite the variations, however, men generally took increased responsibility for plantain, maize, rice, yucca, fruit, and sugarcane production. Both men and women still planted, weeded, and harvested coconuts, but the women from each household were usually the ones to exchange them for goods or cash.

Women continue to be responsible for child care; food gathering, preparation, and preservation; hauling water; and other tasks related to household maintenance. They also sew molas for themselves, their daughters, and elderly mothers. Men continue to engage in agricultural production and to hunt, fish, build houses, and craft many necessary household items. Women in the eastern region of San Blas and older women throughout the region are active in agricultural production. Women who spend most of their time sewing molas for sale are the least involved in agricultural and household-maintenance activities. Omekids usually work alongside women but may also participate in men's activities. Many omekids in the region are known as outstanding sewers of molas.

Land Tenure. Private property did not exist among the Kuna until the mid-to late nineteenth century. Increased population pressure and the cash cropping of coconuts are factors that precipitated this change. Since 1938, all lands located within the comarca of San Blas have been owned collectively by the San Blas Kuna, although they do not own subsoil rights. The Kuna recognize individuals' rights to land. According to Kuna law, whoever first clears a plot may pass the land to his heirs. Because only men clear land, women generally inherit easily accessible, already producing fields. Women's brothers are expected to clear unclaimed land and often inherit fallow plots. Heirs retain their rights to land even if it has not been cultivated for many years.


The Kuna kinship system is bilateral. Age and sex are reflected in kin terms. Cross and parallel cousins are not terminologically distinguished. Kinship terms are often used in place of personal names.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the past, young people did not choose their own partners. A girl's father and mother chose a young man, based on his ability to work, and made arrangements for the marriage, usually without the knowledge of either young person. Today young people usually choose their own partners. Couples may "marry in the hammock"a short ritual that is considered the "traditional" form of marriage. Alternatively, they may present themselves to the congreso (a politico-religious community gathering) and state their intention to marry. Unmarried men who move in with women are considered "married," and such couples are expected to notify the congreso. Some of the younger women who meet their future husbands in Panama City marry there according to civil law. Religious ceremonies either in San Blas or in Panama City are another possibility. Children take their biological father's surname unless he refuses to recognize his baby, in which case the child uses the mother's name. No apparent stigma is attached to the mother or to children bearing her name. Women retain their own names. No money, food, land, or other goods are exchanged between households before, during, or after the marriage. Island endogamy prevails, and interracial marriages are frowned upon.

Once married, a man is expected to reside in his mother-in-law's household and to work under the direction of his father-in-law. Any fish caught, game hunted, or produce harvested (even from fields to which he owns the rights) must be given to his mother-in-law to distribute.

Domestic Unit. The prototypical Kuna household is comprised of a senior couple, one or more married daughters with their husbands and children, and any unmarried children. Households may reorganize any number of times within the life span of any given generation. For example, a woman may return to her mother's household each time her husband goes to Panama City to work. Kin, unrelated children, visitors, teachers, or other government-paid employees working in the villageeven an anthropologistmay join any given household for several days, months, or even years.

Inheritance. Inheritance of land is bilateral. Although Kuna sons and daughters inherit approximately equal amounts of land, men have greater possibilites for acquiring land than do women. Women inherit but do not lay claim to new plots of land. Only men clear uncultivated land. For example, virgin jungle may be claimed by clearing and cultivating a plot. Whoever clears the land retains usufruct rights, which are passed to his children. Spouses do not inherit land from one another. Husband and wife each retain rights to his or her own property and other resources. If one spouse dies, his or her property is distributed among his or her offspring.

Coconut groves, located on the mainland coast or on uninhabited islands, may be inherited by an individual or by groups (descended from a male or female ancestor) that collectively own and exploit coconut groves and, sometimes, agricultural lands.

Socialization. Infants are raised primarily by their mothers and grandmothers with the help of other female relatives. At around the age of 5, boys start accompanying their fathers and other male relatives to the fields and on hunting and fishing trips. Girls stay with their female relatives. Adolescent girls help with the care of their younger siblings. Since about the 1960s, Kuna boys and girls have been required to attend primary school. Many youths go on to secondary school and high school; a few attend the university.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Kuna are known for their egalitarian forms of social organization. Most agricultural labor in San Blas is organized at the community and household levels or through small collective entrepreneurial groups called sociedades (voluntary associations). All males and females of appropriate age are required to participate in community work projects and are fined if they do not. The senior male and female of each household are responsible for the organization of its labor. Sociedades, which are prevalent, consist of aggregates of friends, relatives, and neighbors. They are organized around specific activities such as selling gasoline, operating a retail store, or engaging in subsistence-agricultural production or coconut cultivation.

Kuna households and/or individuals may have different amounts of land or money. Factors affecting socioeconomic differentiation include the amount of land a household controls, ancestors' level of industriousness in planting coconuts, the extent to which current household members have planted coconuts, opportunities for paid employment, and income from mola sales. Age is another key variable in determining differences in wealth. Older men and women hold most of the land, whereas young migrant laborers obtain consumer goods and cash. Wealthier households in San Blas do not automatically accrue political power, nor do they usually appropriate the labor of poorer ones. Inheritance patterns tend to prevent the accumulation of wealth and ensure the redistribution of rights to land and to coconut trees among households across the generations.

Political Organization. Each Kuna village has a local congreso (community meeting house). Every village in San Blas has four to six traditional or administrative saklas. Traditional saklas are considered political as well as religious leaders. Ranks and strata are absent, and very little social distance separates leaders and followers. Leaders are chosen for their wisdom and morality; leadership is not hereditary. After the 1925 Kuna uprising known as "La Revolución Tule," a Congreso General Kuna, comprised of local authorities representing each village, was established. The Congreso General Kuna created a unified political entity that can negotiate with the Panamanian government. Today it meets approximately every six months; emergency sessions are called if a crisis occurs. The region has three caciques (chiefs), each responsible for a particular subregion, and a regionwide intendente (administrator). Caciques are selected from Kuna leaders at the local level, whereas the intendente, until the 1990s always a non-Kuna, is named by Panama's president.

In 1968 new political boundaries were drawn throughout Panama. San Blas became politically and administratively separate from the province of Colón. Government ministries, previously administered through Colón, opened regional offices in San Blas. The comarca of San Blas was divided into four subareas called corregimientos. Each area elects one representative to the Asamblea Nacional de Representantes de Corregimientos. Local chapters of a wide range of political parties were organized within their communities. In most villages, women organized their own chapters and activities separately from the men's, even within the same political party. Women have become increasingly active in politics at the national level. In 1980 the Kuna elected a Kuna representative to the national legislature.

Social Control. Within a household, the eldest man and woman exercise the most authority. He is responsible for organizing the labor of the men, she that of the women. At the village level, the local congresos are the loci for social control. In the past, public shamings were sufficient control mechanisms. Today congresos levy fines and require community labor in addition to public shaming. The region has several jails. Serious cases are referred to the Panamanian judicial system.

Conflict. Disputes that cannot be resolved within a household are taken to the local congreso. There is ongoing conflict both with the Panamanian national government and with outsiders (non-Kuna Panamanians or U.S. citizens) trying to establish businesses (usually hotels, tourist resorts, or stores) in the region or to convert the Kuna to a particular religion. There are also occasional confrontations with colonos (settlers) from the interior who encroach upon Kuna land. The Kuna have developed the Project for the Study of the Management of Wildland Areas of Kuna Yala (PEMASKY) to help firmly establish the comarca's borders and to stop the deforestation of their rain forest. This project has received substantial support from international funding sources.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. The Kuna creation myth includes references to both Pab Dummat (Big Father) and Nan Dummat (Big Mother). The Kuna religion is now called the "Father's Way." Communities alternate political meetings in the local congresos with singing gatherings where saklas and caciques chant religious and historical songs full of symbolism and myth, and the arkar (vocero, or chief's spokesman) interprets the meaning of the chants. Many Kuna attend Catholic and Protestant churches, in addition to the singing gatherings.

Ceremonies. Kuna ceremonies include an ikko inna (needle ceremony), in which a baby girl's nose is pierced for a gold nose ring; an inna tunsikkalet (short ceremony), a puberty rite that usually lasts one or two days; and an inna suit (long ceremony), a ritual cutting of the hair that usually lasts three or more days. Once a young girl's hair is ritually cut short, she becomes available for marriage. Sometimes an inna suit is held for a very young girl even though she will not be ready for marriage for many years. There are no similar ceremonies for Kuna boys. Special chants exist for birth, death, and the healing of the sick.

Arts. The Kuna are known internationally for their molas. Kuna verbal arts include three different types of chants: pab ikar, historical, religious and political material sung by Kuna leaders; songs sung by kantules (ritualists) during female puberty rites; chants used in curing ceremonies. Kuna women sing lullabies. Kuna dance groups are becoming increasingly popular among Kuna youth. Rattles and reed panpipes are used by the dancers.

Medicine. Kuna medicinal healers are called inatulets or neles (a nele is a seer). They use a combination of herbs and chants to heal their patients. Family, friends, and elderly women play an important role by sitting with patients while healers chant. Beginning in the 1970s, health centers staffed by a nurse or a Western-trained health paraprofessional were established on many islands. The region has one hospital. Many Kuna combine Western and Kuna approaches to healing when they are ill.

Death and Afterlife. Kuna women and children prepare the body for burial. Women are responsible for wailing and mourning; they review the deceased's life and character and refer to punishments or rewards that will be his or hers in the afterworld. To guide the deceased, a death chanter (masartulet ) may be employed to sing a long narrative song describing the soul's journey through the underworld to heaven. Kuna cemeteries are located on the mainland. Small houses, many furnished with a table, dishes, and other everyday objects, are often constructed over the graves. These articles are for the deceased to use in the afterworld and to take as gifts to previously departed relatives. Kuna women (usually the elders) are responsible for visiting the dead, bringing them food, and keeping their houses clean.


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