Kuna Yala (Guna Yala)

The Kuna Yala archipelago off Panama’s northeastern coast and the associated coastal strip form an autonomous region within the national territory, which is administered by the Kuna themselves.

+++ Current note: Due to the Corona pandemic, the accommodations in the San Blas Archipelago, which have always been quite rustic and simple, are in such poor condition that we do not recommend or book a stay here at this time. +++

This independence was won in the twenties of the last century by an insurrection called “Dule Revolution” against the subjugation policy of the Panamanian government and confidently defended until today. Thus, for example, the Council of Elders prohibits the sale of land to foreigners. If you look at the white sandy islands with their coconut palms, it is not difficult to imagine the development of tourism under different political conditions… You can get an impression of it by looking at the scenes that take place when cruise tourists on shore excursions visit the Kuna Territory. According to most Kuna, shamelessly dressed people attack the island world and begin to photograph the traditionally dressed Kuna women without being asked.

In recent years, accommodation for tourists has been created on selected islands, which are owned by the municipalities. “Entrance fees” are charged for visits to villages that often completely cover small islands, as well as for visits to uninhabited “bathing islands”. The accommodation of the Kuna Yala Archipelago, which can be reached first by small plane to one of the landing strips in the region and then by Cayuco (dugout canoe) with outboard engine, does not meet the standards of the tourism industry. Nevertheless, the hosts know quite exactly what the visitors expect. Thus, the price also includes the daily meals, tours to uninhabited islands and the visit of one of the settlements.

An important part of the programme is also the sale of the Molas, those textile marvels that are not only part of traditional women’s clothing, but have also become an essential source of income for families. The art of making mola and the costumes of Kuna women is relatively young. In their present form they were created between 1940 and 1960. Early sources from the 17th century describe the Kuna as little dressed, but emphasize their art of body painting. The motifs of this painting are regarded today as precursors of the Molas. Textile clothing was later adopted by missionaries. Access to European merchandise such as cotton fabrics, sewing needles, thread, scissors, etc. was essential for the development of specific costumes. The economic importance of the Molas for the Kuna, who traditionally lived from fishing, gardening and gathering, developed in the second half of the 20th century.

In the first half of the century, the commercial use of coconut palms played an increasingly important role. The harvesting rights for the palm trees on the more than 365 Robinson Islands were divided among the indigenous Kuna families. Coconuts became commodities that were exchanged for industrially manufactured consumer goods. Then, between 1950 and 1960, a disease destroyed about 80% of the coconut palm stock and caused an economic crisis. On the one hand many Kuna men became temporary migrant workers in other parts of the country, on the other hand the women tried to contribute to their livelihood by selling handicraft products. The blouses with appliqués proved to be particularly successful. Initially, they were only brought to Panama City infrequently, where they were sold in souvenir shops. With increasing tourism the demand increased, but not for whole blouses, instead only for the small parts of fabric decorated with appliqués on the chest and back, which are called Molas today. When in 1970 so-called ethno-art found a broad interest in the USA and Europe, museums, galleries, fashion designers and furniture stores began to buy Molas. This production is partly organized in cooperatives in cooperation with international non-governmental organizations.

Their joint financial investments are used to finance not only the needs of the families but also community and charitable projects in the villages. Molas from particularly talented female artists obtain top prices today. The traditional motifs are based on myths reserved for women, but industrial logos or political commentaries are also commonplace today.

Traditional Kuna villages can be found above all on the coastal islands of the archipelago, which comprises 365 islands, some of them tiny islets. Initially called San Blas in Spanish, the region was later called Kuna Yala and since 2010 Guna Yala. The flag of Kuna Yala (1925 to 2010) depicts a swastika (not to be confused with the Nazi symbol) symbolizing an octopus that, according to local tradition, created the world. The Kuna flag, introduced in 2010, represents two crossed arms with arrows and bows.

A special feature of the Kuna population is the high albinism rate, which is considered the highest in the world. Within the Kuna community, albinos are considered to have special abilities and talents, they are highly regarded and they also play a special role in ritual contexts.