The Kuna Society

The Kuna are a tightly knit indigenous group who live much as they have for centuries. Although three male caciques reign as policy deciders, it is a matriarchal society in which inheritance is passed down through women. Women are also primary breadwinners, considering the income they earn from selling mola panels and other handicrafts to tourists. Still, such modern delving into economics is new for the Kuna, who not very long ago had no word for money, and used coconuts as a "monetary" unit. (As proof of the effects of tourism on society, Kunas use the word "money" instead of dinero.)

When a Kuna girl is born, she is given a nickname but does not receive her official Kuna name until she reaches puberty. Of course, the nickname is what everyone goes back to calling her soon after her traditional puberty ceremony. During this ceremony, a girl is expected to cut her hair short and keep it this way her entire adult life. Kuna women, with their colorful dress, gold jewelry, and mola-making talent, are guardians of Kuna culture. Men, on the other hand, wear western clothing and rely on coconut-collecting and fishing to make a living. Kunas are monogamous and consider adultery a crime.

Squat with broad shoulders and disproportionately large heads, the Kuna are the second-smallest people in the world (African pygmies are the smallest). Although scientists still have no idea why, the rate of albinism here is the highest in the world. Albinos are called "Moon Children" and are considered to hold special powers and possess a high intelligence.

Molas are brightly colored reverse-appliqué panels and the principal artistic expression of the Kuna. Molas are made by sewing together layers of fabric and cutting down through the layers to form imaginative designs and figures. Kuna women wear molas sewn onto their blouses. Molas average $20 (£10) per panel, but often the price can be negotiated, especially when buying several.

The Kuna Revolution

The Kuna are the only indigenous group in Panama to gain their autonomy through violent rebellion. After Panama gained its independence from Colombia, the Kuna felt that the new Panamanian state was attempting to suppress their culture, customs, and lands. A determined people, they believed the only way they could protect their culture and guarantee their survival was through violence.

On February 21, 1925, the Kuna took advantage of the February Carnavales and attacked the national Panamanian police. The police had been drinking heavily, and the Kuna caught them off-guard. An armed battle ensued through February 27, resulting in 27 casualties between the two sides.

On March 4, 1925, a peace act was signed between the Kuna and the Panamanian government that resulted in the creation of the Autonomous Kuna Comarca, encompassing the Caribbean Coastal region and over 350 islands near the Colombian Border. The government also promised to respect the customs of the Kuna, to establish schools in their lands, and to guarantee them the same rights and privileges enjoyed by other Panamanians. In return, the Kunas agreed to disarm, renounce their call for independence, and obey Panamanian law.

Today, the Comarca Kuna Yala is, for the most part, autonomous from the Panamanian Government, and they consider themselves their own country. The Kuna continue to abide by their own rules and laws, and in fact, the only time the National Police is allowed to make decisions in the Comarca is when narco-trafficking is involved; otherwise, police only enter the Comarca if they are called upon to do so by the caciques (policy makers) of the Comarca.

Every year, on February 25, the Kuna reenact the events that lead to their autonomy. This is an interesting time to visit the islands, as you'll have the opportunity to see reenactments as well as enjoy the accompanying festivities.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.