Friday, April 24, 2009

Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands) or Panama

During late 2007 we visited Kuna Yala, a/k/a the San Blas Islands of Panama. This is a very unique culture and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. Hoping to return in a few years for a more protracted visit. Rather than describe our time there, I have copied and combined here several postings from our original website that describe Kuna Yala. So if you followed our original website, you can skip this long posting because you might already be familiar with all this stuff.

Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador were originally combined into one country known as Gran Colombia. During the very early 1800s Simon Bolivar was instrumental in the division of this territory into the 3 separate countries as known today. But during the 1800s the area now known as Panama was actually still part of Colombia. There has always been dissension between Panama and Colombia, and the Darien Indians in southern Panama are incredibly fierce people. The Darien had driven the Kuna (also spelled Cuna) to the Caribbean side of the isthmus. Even today the Darien control the Pacific side of southernmost Panama and the Kuna control the Caribbean side. Both indigenous groups have proven over the centuries their total refusal to accept being ruled by a central government. Both the Darien and Kuna are part of Panama, but rule themselves, each with their own unique style of tribal rule. The central government of Panama realized after many deaths that the easiest and most logical way to deal with these people was to let them operate somewhat independent. This has worked well over the past century.

The Kuna live in the Comarca de San Blas, which for statistical purposes is treated as part of Colon Province in most official documents. The provincial borders have not changed since they were determined at independence in 1903. The other 9 provinces of Panama are divided into districts, which in turn are subdivided into sections called corregimientos. Configurations of the corregimientos are changed periodically to accommodate population changes as revealed in the census reports. The borders of the Comarca de San Blas where the Kuna live under tribal rule are not changed by the census count. Don’t think the Kuna would accept that. They are not going to give up any of their lands to the central government of Panama.

History of Separation of Panama from Colombia (copied from an official Panama government website):

During the last half of the nineteenth century, violent clashes between the supporters of the Liberal and Conservative parties in Colombia left the isthmus' affairs in constant turmoil. Local self-government for the department of Panama was extended when the Liberals were in power and withdrawn when the Conservatives prevailed. The Catholic Church was disestablished under the Liberals and reestablished under the Conservatives.

The fortunes of local partisans rose and fell abruptly and often violently. According to one estimate, the period witnessed forty administrations of the Panamanian department, fifty riots and rebellions, five attempted secessions, and thirteen interventions by the United States, acting under the provisions of the BidlackMallarino Treaty. Partisan clashes and foreign intervention exacerbated racial antagonisms and economic problems and intensified grievances against the central government of Colombia.

Between 1863 and 1886, the isthmus had twenty-six presidents. Coups d'état, rebellions, and violence were almost continuous, staged by troops of the central government, by local citizens against centrally imposed edicts, and by factions out of power. The chaotic conditions that had prevailed under the federalist constitution of 1863 culminated in the 1884 election of Rafael Nuñez as president of Colombia, supported by a coalition of moderate Liberals and Conservatives. Nuñez called all factions to participate in a new constituent assembly, but his request was met by an armed revolt of the radical Liberals.

Early in 1885, a revolt headed by a radical Liberal general and centered in Panama City developed into a three-way fight. Colón was virtually destroyed. United States forces landed at the request of the Colombian government but were too late to save the city. Millions of dollars in claims were submitted by companies and citizens of the United States, France, and Britain, but Colombia successfully pleaded its lack of responsibility. Additional United States naval forces occupied both Colón and Panama City and guarded the railroad to ensure uninterrupted transit until Colombian forces landed to protect the railroad.

The new constitution of 1886 established the Republic of Colombia as a unitary state; departments were distinctly subordinate to the central government, and Panama was singled out as subject to the direct authority of the government. The United States consul general reported that three-quarters of the Panamanians wanted independence from Colombia and would revolt if they could get arms and be sure of freedom from United States intervention.

Panama was drawn into Colombia's War of a Thousand Days (1899- 1902) by rebellious radical Liberals who had taken refuge in Nicaragua. Like the rest of Colombia, opinion in Panama was divided, and revolts in the southwest had hardly been suppressed when Liberals from Nicaragua invaded the Pacific coastal region and nearly succeeded in taking Panama City in mid-1900. The fortunes of war varied, and although a local armistice gave supporters of the Colombian government temporary security in the Panama-Colón region, the rebels were in control throughout the isthmus. Meanwhile, by early 1902 the rebels had been defeated in most of Colombia proper. At that point, the Colombian government asked the United States to intercede and bring about an armistice in Panama, which was arranged aboard the U.S.S. Wisconsin in the Bay of Panama in 1902.

Throughout the period of turmoil, the United States had retained its interest in building a canal through either Nicaragua or Panama. An obstacle to this goal was overcome in December 1901 when the United States and Britain signed the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty. This treaty nullified the provisions of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 and signified British acceptance of a canal constructed solely by or under the auspices of the United States with guarantees of neutrality. (And we all know that the US built first the Panama railroad to handle traffic for the Alaskan Gold Rush and then later built the Panama Canal; but those are future stories in our travels.)

(Aside note: Several times in Cartagena we heard talk about the United States having expressed an interest recently in helping to build another water pathway between the Caribbean and the Pacific using 2 rivers in Colombia. Apparently this would not require a huge investment to complete. This secondary water pathway would be used by pleasure craft and smaller shipping vessels, and leave the Panama Canal for the larger ships. We have no idea if there is any basis in truth for these rumors.)

All that brings us to Panama self-governance in 1903. The Kuna won their right to self-government in the Kuna Revolution of 1925, an historic event that San Blas celebrates every February with the local holiday of Mor Ginnid. During the Kuna Revolution, the Kuna killed everyone in the area they defined as “their land” who was not full-blooded Kuna. They wanted no dilution of the true Kuna bloodlines. The officials in Panama realized at this point that it was futile to continue to try to control the Kuna, and the Comarca de San Blas was established. This system has worked well ever since.

The Kuna are a matriarchal society. The women control the economy. When a man marries, he goes to live in his wife’s village. But each village has a man chief known as a saila or sahila or salia (I have seen various spellings for this Kuna word). More about all this in future postings. Strange arrangement but it works well for them. The Kuna are probably the last remaining indigenous people of the Americas who continue to live a truly traditional lifestyle – no cell phones, televisions, radios, modern conveniences, etc.

The San Blas consist of 357 islands spanning roughly 260 miles of the southeastern Panama cost of the Caribbean. There are 49 separate Kuna communities in this territory. Truly a gorgeous place.

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. Laye

rs 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 colle

ctors intere

sted 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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