The Kuna tribe is the largest indigenous group in Panama. Comprising of 60,000 members as of the 1980 census, these traditional Kuna communities engage in agriculture, fishing, trading with coconuts, and making the ever famous Latin American textile, Molas.
The Kuna originally lived in Colombia, but after Spain attacked, they were forced to relocate to Panama. Most of the Kuna live in the district of ‘Kuna Yala’, or “Kuna Land”, on the islands of Panama’s north-east coast. The primary Kuna language is Chibchan, but most also speak Spanish or English.
In 1903, when Panama declared itself its own independent nation, the government tried to force the Kuna to embrace “national culture.” After 22 years, the Kuna rebelled against the Panama government in the “Kuna Revolution.” With the United State’s help, in 1938 the Kuna’s region was officially recognized as a Kuna reserve, and in 1945, their constitution was approved. There is still tension between the Kuna and the Panama government.
Households are usually composed of senior couples, their married daughters, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and sons-in-law. Houses have bamboo walls and thatched roofs. Most Kuna sleep in hammocks.
They practice slash-and-burn agriculture, but most of their income comes from the export of coconuts and molas. Traditionally, women make molas and men are laborers, but some men, called omekits, are socially defined as women usually because of their inability to work as a laborer. Most omekits are albino; albinism is a common mutation among the Kuna. Women are also responsible for household maintenance.
Colombia is the Kuna’s biggest trade partner. Although the Kuna operate in trade as a collective group, their law recognizes individual land ownership.
Kuna government is ruled by congresos comprised of administrative saklas. Saklas are both political and religious leaders elected for their wisdom and morality; leadership is not hereditary.
The Kuna religion, called the “Father’s Way,” is comprised of ceremonies and chants. Kuna ceremonies include the ikko inna, or needle ceremony, where baby girls noses are pierced for a gold nose ring; the inna tunsikkalet for girls beginning puberty; and the inna suit, a ceremony in which a young girl’s hair is cut to prepare her for marriage. There are no similar ceremonies for men. Arranged marriage is no longer accepted in Kuna society. Most couples marry by court or the traditional ritual, “marry in the hammock.” There are special chants for birth, death, and sickness. Many Kuna also practice Christianity along with their tribal religion.
Most men wear Western clothing while the women wear colorful clothes decorated with Molas. Molas are the decorative, colorful fabric panels traditionally made by the Kuna woman.