Panama Table of Contents

The vast majority of Cuna Indians inhabited the San Blas Islands, with an estimated 3,000 additional Cuna living in small scattered settlements in Darién and in Colombia. The San Blas Islands are clusters of small coral islands, each only a few feet above sea level, along Panama's northeast coast. They contain some fifty densely settled Cuna villages. The density of settlement was one indication of a dramatic increase in population. Official census figures showed a population increase of nearly 60 percent between 1950 and 1980. The 1980 census revealed that village size ranged from 37 to nearly 1,500 inhabitants; half the total population was accounted for in 19 villages ranging in population from 300 to 1,000, with one-third in settlements of more than 1,000. The census seriously undercounted the total Cuna population, however, because it excluded absent workers, whose numbers were significant, given the prevalence of out-migration for wage labor.

Before settling on the San Blas Islands, the Cuna lived in inland settlements concentrated on rivers and streams throughout the Darién. Their contacts with outsiders were confined to trade with pirates and limited interaction with two abortive European colonies attempted in the region in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Then, a 1787 treaty with Spain began roughly a century of profitable trade, and the Cuna specialized in coconut farming, which continues to produce their main cash crop. Pressure from mestizo and Chocó Indians migrating into the Darién from Colombia toward the end of the nineteenth century, gradually pushed the Cuna toward the coast and the villages they still occupied in the late 1980s.

The Cuna's contact with outsiders remained limited and circumscribed until around 1910. Panamanian settlement was focused along the isthmus, and the Colombian government was, in every significant sense, very distant. Although the Cuna themselves traded with passing ships, they did not permit the crews to debark. An individual Cuna might, however, serve a stint as a sailor, and groups would take a large canoe full of trading goods to Colón.

The Cuna were extensively dependent on outside sources for goods--indigenously produced items played little role in farming and fishing. In contrast to many rural mestizos and Indians elsewhere in Panama, the terms on which they bought outside manufactures were relatively favorable. The Cuna dealt only in cash; they bought from many suppliers; and Cuna themselves owned retail stores in San Blas.

By the early years of the twentieth century, the modern settlement pattern of the San Blas Cuna was well defined. Settlements varied in scale from temporary working camps of one to two families to permanent communities numbering in the hundreds. Social life then, as now, was organized around the twin foci of household and village. Descent was reckoned bilaterally, individuals tracing their ancestors and their progeny through both males and females. The household was the most significant grouping of kin. A 1976 survey found that households numbered on average 9.9 persons, with multiple family households the rule. Larger groupings of kin had no formal role in social relations. Adult siblings were rarely close, and contacts between more distant relatives, such as cousins, were even more diffuse.

Cuna households, in their ideal form, were composed of a senior couple, their unmarried children, and their married daughters and sons-in-law and their offspring. The head of the household directed the work of those residing there; a son-in-law's position was extremely subordinate, particularly during the early years of his marriage. After several years of marriage, husbands usually tried to establish their own households, but the shortage of suitable land made this difficult.

Women were a major force in household decisions. Their sewing and household activities were respected work. Men dominated the public-political sphere of Cuna life, however, and women were overwhelmingly subordinate to men outside their homes. Only a few women had been elected to public office, but daughters of leaders sometimes held government appointments.

Politics and kinship were separate aspects of Cuna life. Kin, even close relatives, did not necessarily support one another on specific issues. Although the children of past leaders enjoyed some advantage in pursuing a career in politics, kinship did not define succession to political office.

Villages had formal, ranked elective political offices, including the chiefs and the chiefs' spokespersons (also known as interpreters). Most communities also had a set of committees charged with specific tasks. Chiefs (except in the most acculturated communities where the chiefs did not sing) derived their authority from their knowledge of the sacred chants, and the spokespersons derived theirs from their ability to interpret the chants for the people. Elected officials conducted elaborate meetings dealing with both religious and secular affairs. The number of officials, the presence or absence of a specifically designated meeting place, and the number and complexity of the meetings themselves were all measures of a village's stature.

Meetings or gatherings fell into two categories: chanting or singing gatherings attended by all members of a village, and talking gatherings attended by adult men only. Singing gatherings were highly formalized, combining both indigenous and Spanish elements. The ritualized dialogue that chiefs chanted to their followers was common Indian practice throughout much of Latin America. Much of the actual vocabulary reflected Spanish influence. For example, the Cuna word for chief's spokesperson, arkar, is probably a corruption of the Spanish, alcalde.

Talking gatherings focused on exchanging information and taking care of matters that demanded action--relating travel experiences, requesting permission to leave, or resolving disputes, for example. Resolution was reached through consensus in a gradual process directed by the chief or chiefs. Votes were rarely taken, and then only in the more acculturated communities. Agreement was evident when no further contrary opinions were stated. Historically, if an agreement could not be reached the community would split up.

Cuna also held general congresses as frequently as several times per year. Each village sent a delegation; the size varied but typically at least one chief and a chief's spokesperson were included. The rules of procedure were highly formalized. As with local gatherings, the emphasis was on reaching a consensus of the group rather than acquiring the votes necessary for a majority. And, again, agreement was evident when no further contrary opinions were stated or when they were shouted down by the rest of the delegates.

Villages had considerable discretionary powers and they regulated who could settle there. Most refused to accept Colombian Cuna displaced by cattle ranchers. Others expressed disapproval of landless San Blasinos (residents of San Blas) from other villages marrying into their village. The power of villages to grant or withhold travel permits was used as a sanction against misconduct and a weapon in political disputes. Women were rarely permitted to travel outside San Blas, and until the mid-1960s, many villages required an absentee worker to come home for harvest and planting or pay for a substitute.

Villages varied in their willingness to accept innovations. In general, the Cuna of eastern San Blas were more conservative, while those of the western and central parts more readily accepted outside influences. Modernist villages sent more workers to the larger society; conservative communities tended to rely more extensively on agricultural income for their livelihood. Village politics were concerned with questions of inheritance, boundary disputes, land sales, and property theft.

Land was privately held. As population increased, landholding and inheritance were more critical. In theory, all children had an equal right to inherit their parents' fields. In practice, though, most land passed from father to son. Sons, after fulfilling the labor obligations to their in-laws, farmed with their fathers.

Some coconut groves were held in common by the descendants of the original owner; common ownership gave these groups of descendants a strategic importance in controlling resources. Cooperative societies played a significant role in various economic ventures and had a major impact on coconut production, transporting, and selling.

Slash-and-burn farming on uninhabited islands and the mainland was the major economic activity, providing most subsistence. Bananas were the primary subsistence crop; coconuts, the main cash crop. Sources of nonagricultural income included migrant wage labor, the sale of hand-sewn items by Cuna women, and tourism. Most of the tourists were day visitors, but there were several resorts in the San Blas Islands owned by Cuna, United States citizens, and Panamanians. The Cuna also owned retail stores on the San Blas Islands.

Migrant wage labor was the most common source of nonfarm income. The Cuna have a long history as migrant laborers, beginning with their service as sailors on passing ships in the nineteenth century. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Cuna did short stints in Panama City, Colón, and on banana plantations. Later they worked in the Canal Zone. The United Fruit Company banana plantations in Changuinola and Almirante were frequent destinations for Cuna. The company viewed the Cuna as exemplary employees, and a few were promoted to managerial or semi-managerial positions as of the late 1980s. Migrant labor was a part of the experience of almost every young male Cuna in his late teens or early twenties. In contrast with most of rural Panama, however, women left San Blas very infrequently. A mid-1970s survey found that less than 4 percent of San Blas women of all ages were living away.

Missionary activity among the Cuna began with the Roman Catholics in 1907 and Protestant denominations in 1913. Non- Panamanian Protestants were banned in 1925. A small Baptist mission returned with legal guarantees of freedom of confession in the 1950s. The presence of missionaries was a bone of contention between modernist and traditional Cuna for decades. Christianity spread unevenly through the archipelago, and the San Blasinos often resisted it tenaciously. Converts were often lax in their adherence to the new creeds; indigenous belief and practice remained prominent. The Baptist mission, noted one anthropologist, was "thoroughly Kuna-ized."

Ritual was a major focus of Cuna concern and a significant part of the relations between non-kin. It formed the basis for community solidarity and esprit. A man gained prestige through his mastery of rituals and chants. Virtually the entire village took part in female puberty rites, which were held several times each year; much social interaction followed ritualized patterns closely.

Lavish sharing was an esteemed virtue; stinginess was disparaged. Thus, the Cuna continued to celebrate community solidarity through feasting, gift giving, and ritual. The community offered food to visitors and entertained at public expense. The plethora of celebrations in the Cuna calendar offered ample occasions to display their generosity.

Many Cuna recognized the value of literacy, and schools had a long history in the archipelago. In the nineteenth century, some Cuna learned to read and write during periods of migrant labor. By the early 1900s, there were a few primary schools in San Blas. There was some resistance among the more conservative elements in Cuna society, but in general education encountered far less opposition than did missionaries' proselytizing. In the 1980s, most settlements of any size had a primary school; there were also several secondary schools. It was not uncommon for Cuna to migrate to further their education--there was a contingent of Cuna at the University of Panama, and a few had studied abroad. On islands with the longest history of schooling, illiteracy rates among those ten years of age and older were in the range of 15 percent in the late 1970s. The 4 villages that had refused schools until the late 1960s and early 1970s averaged nearly 95 percent illiterate. Overall, more than half the Cuna population over ten years of age was literate, and a comparable proportion of those aged seven to fifteen were in school.

Cuna relations with outsiders, especially the Panamanian government, have frequently been stormy. In general, however, the Cuna have managed to hold their own more effectively than most indigenous peoples. Early in the twentieth century, there were several Cuna confederacies, each under the aegis of the main village's chief. The chiefs negotiated with outsiders on behalf of the villages within their alliance.

In 1930 the national government recognized the semiautonomous status of the San Blas Cuna; eight years later the government formed the official Cuna reserve, the Comarca de San Blas. The Carta Orgánica, legislated by Law 16 of 1953, established the administrative structure of the reservation.

Tensions between the state and the Cuna increased under the rule of Omar Torrijos Herrera (1968-81) as the government attempted to alter Cuna political institutions. Cuna were unhappy over the appointment of Hispanics rather than Cuna to sensitive posts. Relations reached a low point during the controversy surrounding government plans to promote tourism in the region, threatening San Blas's status as a reserve. The conflict ended, however, with the reaffirmation of the reserve's status. The extent of Cuna disagreements with the national government was reflected in their vote in the 1977 referendum on the Panama Canal treaties: San Blas was the only electoral district to reject the treaties. For the Cuna, this action was less a statement about the fate of the former Canal Zone or Panamanian sovereignty than their rather strongly held views about their autonomy. Although many government-sponsored reforms were incorporated into Cuna political institutions, the San Blasinos continued to exercise a significant measure of autonomy.

More about the Ethnic Groups of Panama.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress