People of the San Blas, Then and Now


By Liz Tosoni

Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands),Panama

The longer we cruise the area, the more intrigued I become with the history and culture of this lovely land of soft spoken, tolerant, industrious people. On first impression, it seems like a kind of Utopia. Dig deeper and you discover the bigger picture. The panorama must appear much as it did when Vasco Nunez de Balboa first arrived.

Because of the tenacity of the Kuna people, their age old customs and beliefs have remained intact. Oral tradition claims that their ancestors lived in the Darien mountains, and anthropologists estimate they numbered between 500,000 and 750,000 at the time of the Spanish arrival. Under pressure from other tribes and/or from the Spanish invaders, most of the Kunas moved to the coast and later to the offshore islands where the majority reside today. Some communities still survive in the forests of the continental divide.

There were many advantages to living on these idyllic islands- no insects, wild animals or snakes, plenty of food and water, and the isolation gave them better protection from other tribes. The 17th and 18th centuries however brought hardships in the form of invaders like the Spanish “conquistadores” and other tribes, disease, pirates and privateers that used certain of their ports like Portobello and Nombre de Dios as bases.

The usually peace loving Kunas, fed up with suffering violence from intruding settlers, massacred a number of them in 1750. In 1785, the Kunas were allowed to live in peace through a treaty signed by the Spanish authorities of Colombia and the high chief of the Kunas. This is also when the coconut trade began. The Republic of Panama was established in 1903, introducing repressive police posts to Kuna Yala by a dictatorial Latino governor.

Serious clashes between Kuna warriors and the police ensued and on February 21, 1925 the Kunas rebelled, killing many of the Panamanian police officials as well as children of mixed blood that were living in the islands. Independence Day celebrations include re-enactments, as seen here, of that tragic day.

The U.S.S. Cleveland intervened to prevent a bloody retribution by the armed forces of Panama. In 1938 the government of Panama granted the Kuna leaders almost autonomous rule in the officially recognized “Comarca de San Blas” or the preferred “Kuna Yala”, meaning Republic of the Kuna. Their already well established hierarchy of tribal leaders provided the cohesion that makes the nation of approximately 55,000 Kunas one of the strongest among indigenous nations. Since that time, the Kunas have been living in peace and relations with the Panamanian government are good.

Through the turmoil of their history the Kunas developed a socio-political system to rival any of the modern countries. Their constitution sets the governing principles for the three districts of the nation, each headed by an elected “cacique” or high chief. The supreme cacique chairs the semi-annual General Congreso. Villages take turns hosting the event, providing food for representatives of the 49 communities.

The first “saila” or chief, the highest position at the village level, presides over a local daily “congreso”, a sort of town meeting, and has two or three assistant sailas as well as one or more “arkar” or interpreters of the pronouncements of the first saila, who is versed in Kuna traditions and the guardian of Kuna knowledge. Then there are the “sualipetmar”, similar to our police, who maintain order in the village and sometimes carry sticks as status symbols, not as weapons. Each community also has junior sailas in charge of such things as cemeteries, aqueducts, airstrips, hut building, communal projects, garbage disposal, etc. Secretaries in the congreso interpret for the first saila from Spanish into Kuna, maintain records and write out endless permits. The society has plenty of rules. For example, every Kuna has to pay for a permit to go to another village, a distant coconut grove, even another town in Panama.

 An elaborate system of penalties exists too, from fines to expulsion or ostracism, for those who ignore permits or commit other infractions. The daily congreso deals with all of this held in buildings like this one, usually the largest building in the village.

One of the penalties is to collect coral rubble from the sea and deposit it in a barrel to be used as landfill. “There was one case of a Kuna required to fill ten barrels because he had hit his wife. He complained in the congreso saying that his wife had provoked him. Exercising the wisdom of authority, the Saila decided that the wife also had to fill ten barrels for provoking her husband’s aggression.” (The Panama Cruising Guide, Eric Bauhaus)

Everybody in the village has the opportunity to express complaints, introduce ideas or make suggestions. The discussions can be boring and go on and on as town meetings do and in some cases, certain individuals are given the task of letting out ear piercing shrieks to keep people from nodding off! To take care of spiritual, mental or physical well being, Kunas can turn to specialized healers or medicine men, “Nele”, who have important and powerful positions in the community. They are capable of accusing individuals of harmful sorcery and often use natural psychotropic drugs from the forest to give themselves special powers. There are three main branches of Kuna shamanism and each branch is then divided into different specialties. One kind is further broken down into twelve specialty areas that focus on various soul and body ailments.

Historically, the coconut trees have always been individually owned and the nuts provided bartering power and later, including now, cash. Until recently, the coconut was used as cash. One coconut, one dollar.

 Today, the coconut trade is still of major importance and colourful, picturesque Colombian ships of all sizes and shapes, regularly ply San Blas waters seeking this important commodity. Consequently, one of the rules for us cruisers is to never help oneself to any coconuts, even on uninhabited islands.

The talented Kuna women and some men now have another source of cash: the mola, that intricately designed and sewn panel that the Kuna are famous for worldwide. Since the 1700s the mola has evolved in terms of materials used, design, and sophistication. Because of the mola, women have been turned into serious cash earners, reinforcing their already traditional central position in matrilineal Kuna society, where a new husband moves into his wife’s family compound, where the women control the money and often choose the husbands.

From our point of view, it appears that all women and girls and a few men are mola makers.

 Every spare moment seems to be taken up with sewing. Fingers are nimble, never idle. They must have originated the expression “Idle hands are devil’s hands.”

 Every family you meet in every village and every small island seems to have a huge pile of molas for sale. They bring them out individually from a large bin or hang them on clotheslines for easy viewing.

 Dugout canoes regularly come by the anchored boats with mola makers, eager to sell their wares. They use a “soft sell” approach but are by no means shrinking violets. Prices are set and consistent (they use the U.S. dollar) with very little variation from one place to the next depending on size and quality, and little negotiation is possible, unless you buy quantities.

What happens to cruisers when they come to Kuna Yala is funny. Everyone knows about the molas before they arrive and everyone wants to buy at least one. The funny part is that it can become a kind of addiction. After buying a mola I announced to a cruiser friend “I just bought my third mola.” She quickly came back with “Soon you’ll have thirty.” Another friend said that the first year she was in Kuna Yala she said to her husband “How much money should we budget for molas honey, $500?” That $500 went in no time at all!

 When you think you will buy no more molas, you suddenly find yourself needing “just one more.” Husbands somehow just don’t get it. I thought the addiction only affected the female of the species. Jack and Zdenka of the Maine based Kite were visiting aboard Feel Free when Zdenka couldn’t resist yet another mola. Jack is handing the cash over to Zdenka here so she can complete the transaction.

 Later, Jack succumbed to the addiction too, finding he couldn’t stop himself from buying everywhere he went, so, my theory about it being female based is faulty!

 Lisa is the most famous of the master mola makers. Her business card reads: MOLA-LISA, Master Mola Maker, Expert for: Mola Designer, River Tour Guide, Kuna Historian, Rio Sidra Urgandi, Kuna Yala.

Everyone knows about her because her picture is in the cruiser’s “Bible” for the area, The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus. The caption under her picture reads “Lisa, a native of Rio Sidra, master mola maker and infamous transvestite, shows off her merchandise to a visiting yacht.”

Tom and I, along with sis-in-law Jane and Jack and Zdenka, had the pleasure of meeting Lisa and getting to know her on one of her excellent all day river trips. Lisa refers to herself as a lady, comes from a family of 10 children- 8 boys and 2 girls- she being the second girl in the family. She went to Secretary College in Panama City and worked as a secretary there for five years. It is a shame that Bauhaus has given this smart, energetic, talented and knowledgeable gal that label. She is not a transvestite and she is certainly not infamous. During our 10 month stay in Samoa years ago, we learned that in that part of the Pacific, if a family has too many boys, one of the boys will be raised as a girl, dressing as a girl and learning all the skills and duties required of a girl, and it’s a completely accepted part of the culture. Perhaps it’s the same here. It’s a delicate subject so we have yet to find out.

It’s a very different world here in the land of Kuna Yala, so many layers, so much to learn. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to spend time here.