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The fascinating history of... Panama's Guna Yala

Lying adjacent to the notoriously dangerous swampland of the Darien Gap are the idyllic Guna Yala islands. Dotted along the eastern coast of Panama, the 365 islands are inhabited by the last indigenous Indian tribe of the Caribbean.

Gaining Independence

Originally living in the northwest of the Antioquia region in Colombia and the Darien Province in Panama, the Kuna moved west to the Guna Yala due to conflict with the Spanish and other indigenous tribes. Their necessity to move to the islands came from the excessive mosquitos and malaria that plagued the mainland. Once Panama gained independence in 1920, the police tried to regulate the Guna Yala, oppressing the Kuna and trying to stop them from wearing their traditional dress. 

In 1925, a revolution was organised within the communities during their carnival. With the help of the most beautiful Kuna women and chicha fuerte – a strong alcoholic drink made from fermented corn and coffee – the Panamanian police got extremely drunk. The Kuna then murdered them with machetes, bows and arrows and sent the bloodied bodies back to the mainland as a message not to come to the islands. The Panamanian police tried to retaliate but were stopped by US warships with representatives from across the world. A treaty was then reached, resulting in the Kuna becoming the first indigenous group in Latin America to gain political autonomy. Since then, they have asked the Panamanian government for financial help for schools and solar power and tourists are able to visit.

Kuna cultures, mythology & traditions

While I was slightly alarmed that the flag of the revolution is a backwards swastika, it in fact represents the four elements. The red stripes are for the blood spilt, the yellow represents prosperity and the black of the cross is for the pain of those that were mistreated during the revolution.

Another surprising aspect of the Kuna is the acceptance of gender equality and fluidity. The women are the main food distributors, make all domestic decisions, and also own the houses and cayucos –canoes. The men hunt, fish and are sailas – political and religious members of the community. There is no hierarchy of the value of work, and unlike the western world, the women’s role of cooking and looking after children is not seen as less important. There is also a third gender, called Omeggid that dates back to Guna mythology. One of the original leaders, called Wigudun, was of the ‘third gender’ meaning both woman and man. For the Kuna, it’s an accepted custom that men dress and act like women, even learning to sew.

Women and Omeggid wear traditional dress that incorporates intricately hand-sewn and designed cotton molas and shakiras or winis – wrist and ankle beads with geometric patterns. Once the women are married, their hair is cut short, they wear red headscarves and a gold ring in their nose, which is thought to be treasure, showing how valuable they are.

Each February, a week-long carnival is held, called chicha fuerte, named after the drink. Chicha fuerte is also drunk when celebrating a birth, puberty or a marriage, three of the most important dates for every girl. Girls tend to get married at the age of 13 or 14, once they have reached puberty. In the past, marriages were arranged, but there is more choice now. Men then have to show the family what they can provide, travelling to the mainland to collect as much wood as they can. The quantity will need to be sufficient enough to have permission to marry the daughter.

In Kuna mythology, albinos are thought to be the product of incest and are considered sacred. The first family had seven members, one of which was Venus. She was raped at night and asked pachamama – the goddess of the Andes – for help. Pachamama suggested keeping ink under the bed so that Venus could slap the culprit and see the markings the next day. Venus was distraught when she realised that it was her favourite brother, who then ran to the highest mountain on the Guna Yala. Venus searched for her brother to forgive him, but he never appeared. She believed that he turned into the moon, and so albinos are considered the children of the moon. During an eclipse, the albinos go out and play with sticks and balls as they are thought to save the Kuna.

It is also thought that the Kuna can thank cocoa beans for their longevity. This is also complimented by a healthy diet of fresh seafood, typically red snapper with coconut rice and lentils and tule masi – a soup of plantain and fish. Visitors can pay more for freshly caught crab, lobster or octopus. There are plenty of coconuts for dessert too.

The future of the Kuna

With the rising sea levels, islands are being submerged and the future of the Guna Yala islands is uncertain. There is a possibility that in the next 10-20 years, there won’t be many islands left. In which case, the Kuna will have to retreat back to the mainland within the Darien Gap that is rife with violence and mosquitoes. Even the Scottish settlers couldn’t make use of the land in the Gulf of Darien in the late 1960s, leading them to bankruptcy and the necessity for the 1706 Act of Union with England.

Those that want to bring tourists to the islands have to meet with the Guna General Congress, led by three saila dummagan – political leaders. Tourism here has to be responsible, to protect this endangered community and to directly impact and support the communities.

San Blas Adventures offer a 4-day trip between Colombia and Panama, during which you can stay on Caledonia, and meet the Kuna people.