Sunday, November 4, 2007

Info about the Kuna Yala people of San Blas

November 4, 2007 Sunday

Kuna life:  (all info borrowed from various websites)

Kuna law prohibits fishing in their waters by boats with sophisticated machinery or the taking of anything from the sea that a diver can not reach with air from his own lungs. Scuba diving is not permitted; but you can snorkel in the reef, which is one of the oldest and best preserved reefs in the world.

The men rise early to fish or tend their farms on the mainland, paddling off in dugout canoes that are sometimes equipped with makeshift sails. Fresh crab, lobster, octopus and fish are caught with nets or spears and are exported to Panama City.  For this reason, it is now illegal for tourists or visitors to harvest lobster; you must purchase from a local Kuna.  The larger lobster tails now are exported into the US and can be found at places like Sam’s Club or Costco.  I do hope this does not cause over-harvesting of the lobster in the San Blas and create a lobster shortage like that which currently exists in the rest of the Caribbean.  On their farms, the Kuna men raise vegetables, fruits, coffee and the all-important coconut.  Fifteen million coconuts are exported each year to neighboring Colombia. Coconuts can actually be used as coins in Kuna commerce and have a value of about ten US cents. A soda, which costs about 40 cents, can be purchased for four coconuts on the islands of San Blas!  Because coconuts are such a staple to the Kuna economy, it is illegal for any visitor to pick up or take a coconut anywhere in the San Blas Islands.  It would be the same as stealing money from them.

Women work at making molas, the traditional women's garments.   This tradition is passed from mother to daughter.  If a family does not have a daughter, then usually the first-born son is dressed and raised as a girl; and “she” is taught the mola skills.  One of the best-known mola makers presently is “Mola Lisa” who is technically male, although “she” is considered a woman by the Kuna.  (See, even the oldest societies had tranvestites.) Molas are one of the primary expressions of the visual arts in Kuna society. All genuine molas were created by a Kuna woman as the focal point for her own dress. The designs are always original and are an important way for a woman to express herself and demonstrate her talent and industry in this traditionally matriarchal society.
Molas are panels of hand stitched reverse cloth appliqué, which are sewn into the fronts and backs of blouses.   Molas are always made in a pair; never a single piece mola. Layers of cotton cloth and thread are the only materials used in the process.  Mola designs vary from the abstract and geometric to representations of birds, fish and innumerable other subjects, all different, but all distinctly Kuna.  The designs are based on things that the women see in their daily life.  Shortly after the US involvement during the end of the Norreiga control, one could find molas depicting soldiers and helicopters; because the Kuna women had seen these things and considered them to be part of their lives.

All mola designs are more or less abstract, but many of the most traditional in style are completely geometric, non-representational designs. This type is considered the most authentic, and therefore the most valuable by collectors interested in molas as an indigenous art form.  The favored colors appear to be predominantly orange and black; one rarely sees predominant light blues or pastel colors.

The women also make and adorn themselves with necklaces of sea shells, and chaquiras.  Chaquiras are the bead bracelets worn on women's arms and legs, usually many at a time covering most of their ankles and calves and forearms.  The women often wear nose decorations, either a gold nose ring or a line painted down the length of their nose, but rarely both at the same time.  They also paint bright red on their cheeks.  None of these adornments would be considered attractive in our western culture, so this just goes to prove that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Towns or villages in San Blas are exceptionally tidy.   A traditional Kuna house is made of palm-thatched roofs and cane walls.  Public buildings include schools, health centers and the town hall.  A town hall is a long building with thatched roof and is the heart of each community.  Villagers meet each weekday to discuss community affairs, as well as issues involving neighboring communities and Kuna culture in general. Town meetings are presided over by the village leader known as the sahila.

There are hotels on the islands of Wichubwala, Nalunega, Ailigandi, Nargana, Achutupo and Carti-Sugtupu.  Most Kuna communities have an airstrip, either on the island or the mainland nearby, and are easily accessible by light aircraft.   Eco-tourism is a big deal in the San Blas, in case anyone contemplates a visit to this unique area.

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