The Kuna Indians of Panama are a remarkable people. They have had ongoing contact with Europeans since Columbus first visited them in the early 1500’s. Despite nearly 500 years of dealing with everyone from Conquistadores, to pirates, buccaneers, empire builders, dictators, and drug smugglers they are self governing in their own semi-autonomous region and they have kept their land, culture, language, beliefs and even their gold which is still worn conspicuously by the women.
The Kuna mainly dwell in numerous small villages on the coral reef islands of the San Blas Archipelago. Their territory, Kuna Yala, stretches for about 140 miles along the north coast of Panama from just east of the Panama Canal to the border with Columbia. It includes the reefs and islands of the San Blas and the adjacent mainland coast. They number about 40,000. The sea supplies most of their protein and mainland gardens are used for vegetables. Garden areas belong to families and are passed down through the generations. In these areas what appears to be mostly wild rainforest there are many mature trees planted over the generations to supply fruits, nuts, medicines and other useful materials.
The Kuna are a matrilineal society with descent and land being passed down through the female side. When a young man marries he goes to live with his wife’s family and in the rare event of a divorce he simply moves out. Kuna women seldom if ever marry outsiders. Oratory and communal politics are important elements in Kuna society and a major male activity but women hold real power.
Why the Kuna have been so apparently immune to the disasters that have been the otherwise universal lot of the native peoples of the Americas is a question that seems strangely unrecognized. Could it be a consequence of the influence their women or might it be related to some deeper psycho-spiritual quality? We not only don’t know we aren’t even interested.
About a hundred years ago Kuna women began making mola blouses elaborately decorated with appliqué panels. These are hand sewn out of multiple layers of different colored cloth using microscopic stitching. Molas are everyday wear for Kuna women and their cast-offs form the basis for a lucrative business with art collectors. The subject matter of mola designs is highly varied. This includes marine and terrestrial life, mythological beings, abstract designs, commercial brand and logos, even news items.
The molas shown here are from the author’s collection.