views updated May 23 2018


ETHNONYMS: Cerracuna, Cuna-Cuna, Cuna Tule, Palatola, Tule, Walatola, Yalatola


Identification. The Cuna call themselves "Tule" (real people), but they regard the name "Cuna" as reflecting their origin from the cultural hero Ibeorkuna. "Tule" is used in opposition to "Waga" (Whites) or to the name for any other Indian group.

Location. The Cuna are localized on about thirty islands in the archipelago of San Blas in the Panamanian Caribbean Sea; in the upper courses of the Bayano, Chucunaque, and Tuira rivers; and in small communities around the Gulf of Urabá in Colombia. The majority inhabit the San Blas Islands. Originally, they occupied the mainlandthe Gulf of Urabá and the Darién regionbut since 1850 have moved to the islands. The climate is tropical, with high temperatures, intensive humidity, and heavy rains. Vast areas of wild vegetation surround the communities.

Demography. The Cuna population is approximately 35,000. Only 500 live in Colombia.

linguistic Affiliation. The Cuna language belongs to the Chibcha Family. There is a ceremonial dialect that is spoken by political leaders and shamans in special contexts such as congresses and medicine sessions.

History and Cultural Relations

Historic information suggests that in the sixteenth century the Cuna lived at the low course of the Río Atrato. In colonial times they fought for land with the Emberá-Catío, who were their southern neighbors. As a consequence of this warfare, the Cuna moved north to the Atlantic coast. It is now known that the Cuna were not the people of the chiefdoms of Darién, as Julian Steward suggested. The Cuna, apparently, have never been organized above the segmentary tribal level. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Cuna faced French and Scottish colonizers who traded for cacao and other products such as quina (Peruvian cinchona bark) and gave them clothes, guns, powder, and metal tools. The Indians allied temporarily either with the French or the Scottish and fought against the other or against the Spaniards. The alliances depended upon economic advantages. Nevertheless, in general terms, the Cuna-French alliance was more successful, and ethnic mixture between the two is quite evident.

The Cuna supported a large trade activity during the nineteenth century with Colombians, North Americans, and people from yet other countries. The Indians moved to the islands beginning in 1850, in search of new lands. In 1915 the Republic of Panama created the intendencia (administrative area) at San Blas and stationed Black and mixed-blood guards there, both of whom exploited the Indians continuously. This led to the Cuna Revolution of 1925, the claimed independence from Panama, and the possibility of annexation to Colombian territory. The revolt was cruelly repressed.

Today, the Indians of San Blas have a high degree of representation in the political bodies of Panama, and the cultural changes are evident in education and material technology. There are a considerable number of Cuna professionals. The Colombian Indians, in contrast, are more traditional and preserve many of the ancient ways of life in technology, political organization, and so forth.


In the communities of the mainland the traditional pattern of settlement is along the rivers. The dwellings are not clustered, but separated. Generally, there is a short path between the house and the river. The settlements are surrounded by clear-cut jungle; agricultural fields are distant from the houses. In the islands of San Blas, communities are physically organized like towns, cut by streets, and the dwellings of the Indians are adjacent. The towns of the San Blas Islands have schools, stores, health posts, and one or more congress houses, where the Cuna hold political and ceremonial meetings. These congress houses also exist in mainland communities. The difference in settlement patterns corresponds to diverse trends of intensity in the process of modernization. The mainland localities are not situated near main thoroughfares as in the islands, and they are far from large cities. Arquia and Caimán, in Darién, for example, are surrounded by jungle; however, a road from Turbo to Necocli crosses the community of Caimán.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Cuna have traditionally been horticulturists and hunters who also practice fishing. They cultivate maize, rice, sweet manioc, cacao, ñame (yams), certain tropical fruits, and sugarcane. They work the land by slash-and-burn techniques, which imply rotation of fields and a fallow period that has tended to become shorter in recent times as a consequence of the arrival of outsiders on their land.

Hunting is an important subsistence activity that is practiced by men. Bows and arrows have been replaced by shotguns that the Cuna get in San Blas, Panamá, and other cities. Today, the Cuna of Darién only make small, flat-pointed arrows, used for frightening the birds that pick in the maize and rice fields and as a toy for children. Traps are constructed with poles and sticks; if small animals fall in them, they are freed. This contrasts with the White approach, which makes no distinction in the size of catches. Men may fish individually or as an extended-family pattern of production; the Indians utilize nets, fishhooks, and barbasco, a vegetal poison obtained from different plants. Barbasco is used only when the families need a great quantity of fish for ceremonial meetings. Modern Indians of San Blas work for wages as sailors, land workers, and at other jobs. Many Cuna are professionals, including medical doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Nowadays, Indians from Colombian and Panamanian communities have additional incomes from selling handicrafts, such as baskets and molas (multicolored blouse-dresses with intricate appliqué designs), to tourists.

Industrial Arts. Basketry and molas are important handicrafts made by Cuna Indians. In the San Blas Islands women make pottery for burning chili and trade them to Colombian Indians for shamanistic sessions. The Cuna from Darién are famous canoe makers and they sell them in San Blas to other Cuna men.

Trade. Trading activity has been undertaken by the Cuna since pre-Hispanic times. Postcontact trade with Europeans included gold, coconuts, cacao, and other products. In San Blas coconut is an important commercial commodity that is smuggled to Colombia. Commercial activity is greater on the islands than on the mainland. The mainland economy continues along traditional lines despite the White and Black settlers, except in the community of Caimán, where a road crosses the territory and where many Whites have settled. In general, however, mainland Indians have no markets and trade is sporadic. They trade canoes, cacao, maize, and game for shotguns, fuel oil, canned foods, and other goods. In San Blas there are some native commercial agents who store modern merchandise.

Division of Labor. Hunting, sailoring, fishing, and clearing the agricultural fields are male activities. In mainland communities, baskets are also made by men. Planting, harvesting, cooking, and transportation of water from the rivers are female work. Both sexes sew molas.

Land Tenure. Land is passed from parents to sons and daughters; if parents die, the land is shared among siblings. Husbands work the land possessed by their wives, and, as the traditional pattern of residence is matrilocal, the father-in-law of the man keeps watch over it. Therefore, a husband may work both the land he inherits and that inherited by his wife. Generally, on the islands and on the mainland, people may take land for cultivation and clear new fields; in some cases, they announce it to the saila (community leader). No individual or family property taxes exist for wild land used as hunting territory. In San Blas, private property is the result of the modernization process.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is bilateral. The Cuna recognize double affiliation and rights of inheritance. The rule of residence is matrilocal. In San Blas, neolocal residence is a recent development, resulting from wage labor and migration. Kin groups are dispersed over the territory, and no localization of descent groups is reported.

Kinship Terminology. The terminological system is descriptive and bilateral with variations based on sex and age. Frequently, the kinship terms replace personal names, and teknonymy is intensely used.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In aboriginal times polygyny existed and was practiced generally. In the late seventeenth century residence was independent or neolocal, but since the nineteenth century the tendency has been toward matrilocality. Nevertheless, in most acculturated communities, neolocal residence has reappeared. In the 1990s monogamy and polygyny both occur; there is a strong rejection to ethnic exogamy, and cousins and their descendants cannot marry. Bride-service, in which the man must work approximately one year for his father-in-law, may be aborginal. Divorce can be initiated by a man or a woman. The choice of a spouse is a matter for the families rather than a personal choice, but recently, and under the influence of missionaries, the individual's wishes have become more important.

Domestic Unit. Household size in aborginial and colonial times was larger than it is today. Each house could lodge twenty or twenty-five people. Currently, there are two kinds of households, the traditional and the modern. The first type is composed of several conjugal families related by blood ties. The unit contains a couple, with the man (sakka ) as head of the group, their single sons, married daughters and their husbands and children, and single daughters. Married sons live in their wives' households (i.e., residence is matrilocal). The modern type is the conjugal family and is very common on the San Blas Islands.

Inheritance. Personal property and land are passed from parents to children. Sometimes land is shared among siblings. The land received by daughters may be worked by their husbands, but spouses do not inherit from one another; nor, as a general rule, do step- or adopted children receive lands from their parents, but they may work the land inherited by biological sons and daughters. In traditional conditions, no land titles exist.

Socialization. Boys and girls were traditionally raised in a permissive environment, and this is still the case today; physical punishments are rare, and parents are very affable and affectionate with children. Approximately at the age of 2 years, girls have their noses perforated for the implantation of a gold ring, which is bought in Panamá or in the Colombian cities of Medellín or Turbo. This ornament is worn by women throughout life and is a symbol of ethnic identification. Boys and girls must attend council house or religious instruction, but this custom is disappearing; the tendency is toward informal learning of myths and ritual practices in the family circle.

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.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Aboriginal religion emphasized animal souls. Ibelel, or Ibeorgun, was and is today the most important culture hero, the one who introduced social life and material culture to the first Cuna Indians. Besides Ibelelwho lives in the sun observing human behaviorthe twelve nele are important personages who helped the Indians. The Cuna know the particular life history of each nele, and it is passed on during the onmaket sessions. Contact with missionaries has led to belief in a big god (Paptumat) and a little god (Papmachi) corresponding to the Christian Father and Son. Paptumat is thought of today as a Supreme Being, but probably it is not a native belief. He created the universe and left it; afterwards, he sent Ibelel to educate the Cuna people and to teach cultural norms. In addition, there are animal owners and animal souls: the latter are called purba. Generally, each animal possesses several purba that may be transmitted to men and their families through hunting. The animal owners live in kalu (mountain refuges), and they decide about the population of its species.

Religious Practitioners. Aboriginally and today, shamans have been religious, medical, and political officers. In the past, the most prestigious sailas were shamans. There are three kinds of shaman: nele, inatuledi, and absogedi. The nele have the highest position, obtained by ascription; one cannot become a nele voluntarily. They are truly experts in myths, history of the ethnic group, and curing of illness. Commonly, they have the capacity of taking political decisions above civil sailas and sakka. Inatuledi provide medical care; generally they must learn their skills. Absogedi apparently prevent illness by magical ways. Curing frequently means a struggle between two inatuledi.

Ceremonies. The Cuna have traditionally celebrated, since pre-Columbian times, the female condition and her puberty. At the age of 2, the shaman or other man who knows the oral tradition, inserts a golden ring in the girl's nose. This is the first ritual ceremony for her. Inna, a drink made from sugarcane, is offered by the parents to relatives and friends who may come from other communities. At about the age of 12, the girl is confined to a small hut and her hair is cut. Her menstrual blood is gathered in a hole and during some months, her mother teaches her the duties of an adult woman. At the end of confinement, a second inna (feast) is offered. For the following three years she must cover her head with a red-and-gold-decorated cloth. Finally, the third ceremony is conducted. The kantule, or ceremonial singer and ritual flute players, narrate the tradition of the ceremony. Other men smoke ritual cigars, and the girl is painted with saptur or genipa on her face. On some occasions, picture writings on a board or on paper relate the stages of the ceremony. In San Blas, a native festival that memoralizes the Cuna Revolution of 1925 is performed, which somewhat resembles the Panama City carnival, except that the Cuna express certain traditional traits, like shamanistic exorcism, to expel, symbolically, the strangers and government rulers.

Arts. Wood carving of mythical personages and picture writing of historical and ceremonial events are very important artistic expressions.

Medicine. In the traditional medicine of the Cuna, the ponis, or spirits of illness, enter the body and the inatuledi, or medicine man, must expel them with the help of nuchu or good spirits, represented in wood carvings. The Cuna are known for their magical cure of difficult childbirth, practiced by the inatuledi or by a nele.

Death and Afterlife. Aboriginally, the Cuna buried the dead under the place where they slept, with their hammock. Nowadays, they have cemeteries as a result of missionary influence. The afterworld is regarded as a modern city with urban commodities, all of them of gold, a primal symbol One reaches this golden and modern paradise if one works actively at traditional tasks. If not, one goes to a type of hell, surrounded by a putrid river and many ponis.


Herrera, Leonor (1969). "Arquía, la organización social de una communidad indígena cuna, Bogotá." Ph.D. dissertation, University of the Andes.

Howe, James (1978). "How the Cuna Keep Their Chiefs in Line." Man 13(4): 537-553.

Moore, Alexander (1983). "Lore and Life: Cuna Indian Pageants, Exorcism, and Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century." Ethnohistory 30:93-106.

Nordenskiöld, Erland (1938). "An Historical and Ethnographical Survey of the Cuna Indians." Comparative Ethnographical Studies (Göteborg Ethnographic Museum), no. 10:686 pp.

Stout, David (1947). San Blas Cuna Acculturation: An Introduction. New York: Viking Fund.



views updated May 21 2018

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