June 15, 2006
Ustupu, Kuna Yala, Panama
09º 07.55 North
077º 55.72 West

Ustupu Celebrates The Kuna Revolution

By Douglas Bernon

Every year in Kuna Yala, in major villages across the region, there are community-wide, stop-everything celebrations to mark the anniversary of a successful Kuna uprising in 1925, in which the Panamanian police and military got themselves booted right out. The reasons for the revolt were economic and political, but also, just as significantly, they were cultural. The Panamanians had opened up farming, foresting, fishing, and turtling to non-Kunas, and were essentially selling off the Indians’ land and resources. They had also burned Kuna villages that had not accepted the imposition of their new regulations. Increasingly, the government was trying to homogenize the Kuna as Panamanians, stripping away their cultural identity, instituting dress codes that banned time-honored attire, and outlawing traditional healing methods and religious ceremonies.

A number of serendipitous events aligned to make the revolt possible and then successful, including the presence in the islands of several U.S. citizens, who lobbied the U.S. government to send a nearby warship, the Cleveland, to hover off the San Blas Islands, convincing the Panamanian government that they ought to lighten their grip or the U.S. might do to them what Teddy Roosevelt did to the Colombians decades earlier – make off with the entire region that became Panama.

Young girls dressed in traditional outfits, carrying maracas and dancing in the second day of festivities.

Every year there’s a re-enactment of this Kuna revolt. Kids dance and sing. Men and women dress up as their historical leaders and re-enact scenes from the conflict, and from the negotiated resolution. Teenage boys wear military uniforms and carry wood guns to imitate the enemy soldiers. And perhaps of equal importance, on the last day of the event, the community celebrates a women’s puberty ceremony, called an “Inna,” for those girls who are experiencing their first menses and coming of age. It is at this ceremony that the girls get their hair cut, indicating that they’re now women, and officially of age to be married. Starting early in the morning and going on well past dark there are re-enactments, running races, dances, dramas, parades, and community events of all kinds.

A young girl getting her puberty haircut before the Chicha festival.
(Photograph courtesy of Lisa Harris.)

We knew we wanted to attend one of these celebrations and decided the best place to do so was probably Ustupu, a not-particularly attractive island in its own right, but the largest in the San Blas, with a population of nearly 3,800 people. Ustupu is known for its festival because one of the great heroes of the revolution, Nele Kantule, the Saihla who negotiated the peace agreement with the Panamanians, hailed from here. There are actually two villages on the island, one at each end, and gradually, like burgeoning cities everywhere, they’re slowly, inevitably, and noticeably growing together, identities being colored, subsumed and merged.

Located only half a mile from the mountainous mainland, where there’s an airstrip that’s busy three times a day, Ustupu has become a happening place. Most huts are still made of bamboo and thatch, and the labyrinth of two-foot wide walkways between them would require Ariadne’s string to find one’s starting point. On the other hand, the school has two computers, there’s a modest tourist hotel, the Saihlas speak a little English, and hovering above the huts is a spider’s web of electric lines strung precariously on bamboo poles.

We met Andre Deleon Kantuli, the eager welcomer of all yachts here, and the great-grandson of the revered Nele Kantule. An unusual man who speaks some Russian, Japanese, Italian, French, and English, as well as his native Spanish and Kuna, he was, a number of years ago, sent by his village for a tour of Europe, to be the Kuna representative at various conferences focusing on the rights of indigenous people. He returned to Ustupu after three years. How well does he fit here now? How well does he like his arranged marriage? I don’t know, but I suspect he is a man between two worlds. When asked what part of his travels he liked best, he hesitated not a second and grinned. “Ah, Geneva. I love Geneva.” Here is a man whose favorite city is one of the most elegant and expensive in the world, and today he lives in a thatched hut with his wife and children, across from his sisters’, parents’, and grandparents’ huts. We also met his father, sitting barefoot out in front of his hut, who’d just returned from a five-month sojourn in the United States, including two months visiting his granddaughter, a banker who lives in Las Vegas.

Andre and his mother at the Chicha ceremony.

Ustupu, clearly, is not an island village out at the reef. This is the changing face of Kuna Yala, a series of jangling contrasts. Almost all the women were wearing traditional mola outfits for the month of the celebration, as decreed by the Saihla, but they were also chewing gum and blowing bubbles. Other than this month, we’re told that the mola is worn here only by the older generation. We saw some teenage girls wobbling along in platform shoes, no easy accomplishment on these dirt alleyways. Relative to most of Kuna Yala, there’s some prosperity here. We met a number of older men who are retired from their years of work for the Panama Canal Commission. They enjoyed coming up to talk to us in English, and telling us about their work in “the olden days.” Now, they receive a retirement check and live like kings, spending part of many days hanging out in the local casa de jubliados y pensionados (home of retired and pensioners) drinking beer and avoiding their wives. It’s like a “No Girls Allowed Club.” As I watched the older men and women here, many rocky in their gait, I realized that despite this village’s movement into the modern world, there are still many men and women with the bow-legged stance of rickets, a disease of the undernourished. Women who can afford it wear elaborate gold earrings and necklaces – flattened gold in Kuna designs -- and some babies have gold stud earrings. Coke and Pepsi are for sale in the tiendas. But there’s an underbelly is well, a class of have-nots. Men wearing nothing but skivvies, generally pretty dirty skivvies, paddle their ulus up to Ithaka and offer to sell four avocados for a dollar, grateful for each sale.

We also chose Ustupu to watch the ceremonies because we were assured a warm welcome there. The year before, Sand Dollar, Mesque Ukee, Sea Camp and Queen Mary had all been here for the celebration. The boats had volunteered their labor in various building projects, and during two nights of the celebrations Gene and Brenda on Queen Mary had brought their electric bass and keyboard ashore, plugged into local power and gave concerts that drew massive crowds and were much appreciated. I wish I could’ve been there in person to see the Kunas led in a sing-along of “Blue Bayou” – which we heard from Gene and Brenda was the favorite song. They’d been asked to sing it three times.

The town did in fact lay out the red carpet for us. Many people remembered Cade and Lisa. One man made a point of showing us the new rafters in his tienda, made from boards Cade had helped cut and haul from the jungle. And Andre adopted us, paving the way, as he does all cruisers. He squired us here and there, making sure we saw all we wanted to see. Plus, he was happy to sell us supplies in his tienda.

Because this is a large village, there are numerous shops, all seemingly selling identical products at identical prices, and several modest restaurants that serve fried chicken, salad, French fries, and cold beer. Many Colombian and Panamanian supply boats stop here to sell their goods, and we were able to restock with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, red peppers, gasoline, oil, and diesel.

The three-day festival was a mixture of nothing happening for long periods of time and enthusiastic crowds living to the fullest. Even boys and girls of five and six were dressed in traditional Kuna outfits, playing the bamboo flutes and gourd-maracas. The re-enactment of the historical scenes was wildly popular, especially when the Panamanian bad guys got their comeuppance.

Bernadette awarding the race winners their new ulu sail, complete with BoatUS pennant.

On the morning of the second day there was an “island marathon,” a running race of three times around the community. Through Andre, Cade suggested an ulu sail he and Lisa had made would be a fine trophy for the winner of the race. The Saihlas were consulted and were glad to give that as a prize. The winners turned out to be two boys from the nearby island of Alligandi, who had sailed there for the celebration. They were thrilled to have a new main to hoist for the trip home. Lisa affixed a BoatUS pennant to the sail and Bernadette did the honors of awarding it to los campeons de la contesta, Rusilio Compos and Hernaldo Morris.

Keeping the rhythm for the crowd

On the night before the main event, which is the Chicha (Inna) festival, the women of the town dressed in their finest molas, many carrying high the flag of Kuna Yala, and danced with each other in an undulating celebration of joy. The beat for the dance was provided by one especially energetic soul who wailed away on an oversized harmonica. It was a spectacle both magnificently joyful—you can see it in the women’s faces—but also emotionally jarring because even though the Kuna flags long pre-date the Nazis, one trembles to see so many swastikas flying everywhere.

For some weeks before the Chicha event, the town’s Chicha maker — a man of considerable spiritual and practical importance — was hard at work preparing the grog according to specific traditions. According to Joel Sherzer, whose book Stories, Myths, Chants and Songs of the Kuna Nation, is the best available information in English about all things celebratory in Kuna Yala, during the preparation period (as much as two weeks for everything to ferment just right) the Chicha specialist chants to the spirits of all the plants he is fermenting, to the spirits of the participants of the upcoming festival, to their clothing, jewelry, make up, and ritual objects: hammocks, drinking cups, and musical instruments. Deliciously, his chanting is known as “gathering heart.” Because the making of Chicha is more art and religion than science, there’s no guarantee of precisely when the brew will be ready, and it’s one of the specialist’s duties to periodically sample his product so he can announce exactly when it’s ripe.

Photo #6: Kuna woman drinking chicha on BoatUS-58

Some women drank from unpainted gourds. Others, like this woman, had painted celebratory vessels with the Kuna symbol.

On day three of the festivities, the town gathered just after dawn for the start of a parade that wound through town and led to the Chicha hut (an enormous bamboo and thatch building—it holds hundreds of people—constructed specifically for Chicha events and Innas. The Chicha had been declared ready, and that meant the Inna is to begin. The puberty festival is one of the most important in Kuna Yala, and the girls who are being feted were hidden behind curtains. Meanwhile, the rest of the community began a serious consumption of the brew. Despite the reverential aspects of the Chicha preparation, despite its spiritual importance, despite everything noble that is attributed to it, I cannot idealize its taste. It was the foulest swill I’d ever swallowed, and I checked several times just to make sure I hadn’t been given an idiosyncratically bad batch.

Not everyone loves the taste of Chicha.

As the girls entered womanhood, a parallel ritual took place in the Chicha hut. First, men and women solemnly queued up to have tobacco smoke blown at them. Like college kids shot-gunning weed, one person took the lighted end in his mouth and blew the smoke into the mouth and nostrils of the person standing directly across. Then, by gender, six to eight-person lines of men and women faced each other, one side holding up half gourds filled with Chicha. En mass they danced toward each other, hopping, whooping, and before too long barking, too. Everyone on one side of this conga line presented the sloshing bowls to everyone on the opposite side, each of whom downed it quickly in one, mind-numbing gulp. Then the lines receded and new recipients replaced the previous ones.

Some folks, for sure, came back for seconds, thirds, fourths, and who knows how many more. If I spoke Kuna I might have gained more from this, but as an outsider, it looked wild and I have no idea the significance of various moves. Sherzer maintains that the singing and drinking pay tribute to the spirits who “are believed to drink Chicha, get drunk, and enjoy verbal art and verbal play and humor.” He explains that this is the only occasion when the Kuna are supposed to get plastered and that one can think of the activities in part as competitive drinking, in which “the goal is to finish up one’s cup first, before the others. Meanwhile, women as well as men, all very drunk, perform various kinds of ceremonial dances.”

With everyone pretty well lubed by 8:30 a.m., the ritual seemed to break apart, and groups of people hopped alone, not waiting to be served, just taking their gourds for fill-ups directly from the Chicha pots. The organized line-dancing morphed into a mosh pit where men were hopping with men and women are hopping with women, banging into each other, hooting, laughing, and getting progressively more snockered. As an adolescent I was subjected to several years of terribly polite training at the Florence Shapiro School of Dance in Cleveland. Miss Shapiro taught us none of these steps. She frowned on quirky, jerky, hop-lurch-shimmies from one foot to another and would’ve been appalled that none of the females wore white gloves. These Kunas had a lot more fun that we did.

Bernadette sitting among the Kuna women who were resting from the festival.

The Chicha celebration was a community license to drink wildly in a controlled environment where well-sloshed neighbors encouraged each other to travel over the edge and still be safe. I don’t know if the Chicha had enjoyable hallucinatory properties; I stopped shy of finding out. By noon, the party was pretty well over. The less hearty were either crashed out against the bamboo walls — some in collective heaps — or being assisted to their homes.


The net result of too much Chicha

Bernadette and I will likely never see another Chicha festival, but I suspect I won’t forget this one quickly. We include here, for ourselves and for those of you who also won’t see one anytime soon, Joel Sherzer’s translation of the beautiful Chicha song — addressed to the spirit world — which he recorded in 1970, and translated from Kuna into English.

The Chicha Song

And the pretty woman goes to the Chicha house.

She sits herself down
And the short woman is there she is.
And the short woman sits down.
Inside the stronghold next to the pretty walls of the stronghold

Now until what day will the festival last.
Whatever will the pretty woman say?
And for God I the woman am working I am I am.
Now the woman sees this she does she does.
The woman until what day.
“The Pretty woman came,”
The woman says.

When the pretty woman comes, she sits watching over the live cups she does.
The chicha’s the libations’ earthen vessels, are in line in front of me they are.
Now she sits watching over them.
With the earthen cups, the woman competes at drinking she does.
The pretty woman is seated there.

And the woman is here.
If the woman is not present it is said it is.
“If the aunts do not come to dry up the earthen vessels.”
The woman says she does
And the woman is drying them up she is.

And the woman is all drunk with the libation beside the earthen vessels.
The woman sat down there she did.
The woman lowered herself down there she did.

The sacred earthen vessels, will be all dried up.
And they were standing drying up all the cups.
Beside the chicha’s earthen vessels they were.

Now the libation’s earthen vessels it is said.
She dried them all she did.

Now there are various tole flutes being played.
She is next to the sacred live house pole she is.
She is next to the sacred principal house pole next to the sacred principal tole flute she is.
The various sacred tole flutes are playing they are.
The relatives are whirling themselves around it is said.
The woman was standing lowering herself down she was.
Beside the relatives.

The woman lowered herself down there she did.
Beside the relatives.
“The woman is now whirling herself around she is she is.”
The woman says she does.
Now she is whirling herself around now she was she is.
Now the woman feels happy, she feels happy doing various things now she did she does.
Beside the relatives, the woman is.

Now the various sacred tole flutes are sounding out they are.
Beside the various sacred tole flutes she is bouncing herself.
The woman is.

Beside the various flutes she is bounding herself she is.
And she is watching over the golden benches she is.

Beside the various sacred tole flutes.

My winkwa necklaces.
Golden fruits (beads) are sounding out.

My various golden fruits (beads) are sounding out they are.
The pretty girl is there she is.
We will dry up the golden paseli cups we will.
The relatives are standing feeling happy they are.
They are standing, drying up the sacred sikki cups, the golden sikki cups they are.
Each of the relatives, one by one after her.
They finished drying they did.
The pretty woman is there she is.

The pretty woman sits down she does.

She is sitting waiting again for the golden sikki cups.
She forgot the little ones, the children.
“The woman completely lost consciousness of her little ones.
The woman says she does.

Now the woman says she does, “Now I am sitting drying up the golden paseli cups again.”

Golden nitinkitili she is.
The golden jars are sitting lined up to me.

The pretty woman is sitting there.
“Together with all the relatives sitting competing to see who can drink more chicha.”
The woman does she says she does.
They felt happy.
They are sitting feeling happy.

Two of the beautiful women of Ustupu.

For More Info

To read more from Professor Sherzer, here’s information regarding the book from which this chant has been quoted:

Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs of the Kuna Indians ( Compiled, edited and translated by Joel Sherzer, Illustrated by Olokwagdi de Akwanusadup, University of Texas Press, 2003, ISBN: 0-292-70237-

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Bernadette Gulliver Bernon towers among the Liliputian urchins of Ustupu.