In 1925, the Kuna people won their sovereignty from Panama . Today, there are approximately 40,000 Kunas. The San Blas Archipelago includes 100s of beautiful untouched islands, but the Kunas spend most of their time on just a handful of the 365 San Blas Islands … only about 40 islands are inhabited. None is very large.
Kuna ancestors came from Central America to modern Panama as part of the migratory movement of the Chibcha Culture from Colombia .
We don’t know how the Chibcha and Kuna cultures influenced each other. When Spain colonized the area, the Chibchas disappeared.but the Kunas isolated themselves from the colonization, preserving their culture. They really had no western influence until the 20 th century.
Today’s Kuna religion is based on 2 creators, Pab Dummat (The Big Father) and Nan Dummat (The Big Mother). They are seen as inseparable higher beings (not parents), explainable only in Kuna logic … which is difficult for outsiders to understand. The Saila (Kuna Chief) runs political meetings in the local congress, which has a near-religious nature.
Today, you can visit Kuna communities like Playón Chico, Malatupu, Ustupu and Ogobsucun. In San Blas, no visitor is ever a stranger. The island of Ustupu for example, crisscrossed by canals, is a Kuna-and-tourist-magnet, with ulus, sailboats & cruisers everywhere. Visitors discover that the Kunas are great hosts. You get first-hand experience of 1000-years-old traditions, dances, music, & food. One day you may witness the local “congreso”, a political ritual on many islands. The next day features songs of symbolism and myth, interpreted by the chief’s spokesman.
The Kuna sometimes seem to be a singing society, with several different types of chants. Historical, religious & political chants are sung by Kuna leaders. Kantules (ritualists) sing songs during female puberty rites. Curing ceremonies have their own chants. Kuna women lullaby their babies. And group dancing is gaining popularity with the Kuna youth. The dancers keep rhythm with rattles and reed panpipes.
Kuna Yala is a matriarchal society. A woman chooses a husband, who then moves in with her whole family. Many Kuna women spend their days making Molas to sell to the tourists. The Mola, a reverse-applique, intricately-designed, perfectly stitched blouse, is the traditional Kuna ladies’ fashion.
The Kuna are terrific sailors, running from island to island in their ulus – similar to a little kayak. Kuna kids take out their ulus to play pirate.
While some Kunas live in Colombia , most live on the San Blas islands. But they actually farm on mainland Panama in the autonomous regions of Kuna Yala, Wargandí and Madugandi. The Kunas grow avocados, coconut, bananas, mangoes, limes, and various other produce.
If you visit the mainland, you can see the Kuna Yala virgin rainforest, the clean and clear natural waterfalls, and the flora and fauna that are endangered species in other parts of Panama .
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