Kuna (Cuna)

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Kuna (Cuna)

Kuna (Cuna) is the spoken language and common name applied to the Tule peoples of Panama and Colombia. There are four principal groups of the Kuna. The most well-known are those who inhabit the San Blas archipelago off the Caribbean shore of Panama. Other groups include the Kuna Brava, in the center of the Darién jungle; the Bayano Kuna, of the Bayano River region of Panama; and those who live in Colombian villages near the Panamanian border.

The Kuna are descendants of Carib peoples. They are physically short, only slightly taller than pygmies. They have bronze skin and black hair, but also have a high rate of albinism.

The Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa came into contact with the Kuna in the early sixteenth century, but Spanish cruelty under the subsequent rule of Governor Pedrarias Dávila became a highly significant part of Kuna mythology. By the seventeenth century the Kuna, as well as other natives along the eastern coast of Central America, were favoring the English and helping them in their struggles against Spain in this region.

In the nineteenth century the Kuna moved from their mainland villages to the coral islands along Panama's east coast. Of the more than 365 islands of the San Blas archipelago, only about fifty are inhabited, with about a hundred more used for coconut and food production.

Property in Kuna society has traditionally been owned and passed on through the female line. Women are also the ones to choose their mates. The principal wealth in Kuna society is based on coconuts, a business that the women normally own and manage. The Kuna did not intermarry with other peoples and have maintained their own strict standards of morals and conduct. During the building of the Panama Canal, the men were contracted in teams for specific periods of labor, but most returned to their home islands when their contract was up.

After a 1925 skirmish with Panamanian police, the comarca (territory) of San Blas became an autonomous region within Panama. Elected Kuna chiefs called saylas preside over council meetings. The Kunas own the land, but the Panamanian government has established an office on the island of El Porvenir, where a government official supervises the village chiefs, pays their salaries, and is the connecting link between the San Blas Kuna and the government in Panama City.

In the twentieth century the Kuna became notable for their art forms, whose motifs are very similar to those found on gold and ceramics from the Conte archaeological site in Coclé Province, which date from approximately a.d. 500 to 1100. The Kuna have long worn golden ornaments, but according to legend the atrocities of the Spanish conquistadores caused gold working to become taboo and goldsmiths were prohibited from even landing on the islands. Thereafter, the Kuna purchased gold jewelry from merchants who came to the islands in boats.

The practice of colorful body painting has long been a Kuna trait. In 1680, the buccaneer surgeon Lionel Wafer noted the colors of their body painting as being mostly red, yellow, and blue, depicting "figures of birds, beasts, men and trees or the like." Twenty-first-century Kuna are known for their interpretive needlework, used originally on their molas, or blouses. The use of reverse appliqué of Kuna native symbolism, cartoon art, and religious scenes on fine European cottons in solid colors has created an art form sought by major museums and individual collectors. The molas developed from the late nineteenth century forward in imitation of traditional body painting, but the styles and techniques of mola artisans gradually changed. After World War II the colorful molas suddenly burst upon the art scene with unique cartoon images derived from everything from foreign graphic art to domestic political statements, more recently including Christian religious art.

As of the 2000 census, more than 61,000 Kuna lived in Panama. While most continue to live in the San Blas Island region, concentrations of Kuna people can also be found in Panama City, attracted by short-term wage labor opportunities.

See alsoCaribs; República de Tule.


Clyde E. Keeler, Cuna Indian Art: The Culture and the Craft of Panama's San Blas Islanders (1969).

Ann Parker and Avon Neal, Molas: Folk Art of the Cuna Indians (1977).

Mary W. Helms, Ancient Panama: Chiefs in Search of Power (1979).

James Howe, The Kuna Gathering: Contemporary Village Politics in Panama (1986).

Additional Bibliography

Gallup-Diaz, Ignacio. The Door of the Seas and Key to the Universe: Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in the Darién, 1640–1750. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Howe, James. A People Who Would Not Kneel: Panama, the United States, and the San Blas Kuna. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Martínez, Atilio, ed. La migración de los kunas hacia la costa atlántica: Según la historia oral kuna. Translated by Saila Dummad Iguanabiginia. Panama: Editorial Portobelo, Librería El Campus, 1999.

Tice, Karin E. Kuna Crafts, Gender, and the Global Economy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Ventocilla, Jorge, Heraclio Herrera, and Valerio Núñez. Plants and Animals in the Life of the Kuna. Edited by Hans Roeder. Translated by Elisabeth King. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

                                     Sue Dawn McGrady