The Kuna Indians

Scattered along the southern Atlantic coast of Panamá, the 378 islands that comprise San Blas contain some of the most pristine tropical nature in the world.  In the month that I’ve spent there, I was awestruck on a daily basis by the intensity and variability of the colors and how the change.  When you think it can’t get any better, the sun comes out and illuminates everything so you can see into the coral reefs that rest some 8 meters below with perfect visibility.  While all that is great, what is most unique about this place and what keep the nature this way without a single resort and precious few accommodations outside of hammocks and palm tree huts, are the Kuna indians.

hammocks on the beach, san blas panama

Nearly all the indigenous people in the Americas were obliterated during the colonial conquest and what few are left often life on the edges of society, practically forgotten particularly by the white majority in the US.  The Kuna indians, however, managed to hang on to their lands, preserve the culture, and continue to speak the native tongue.  They have total sovereignty over San Blas and an expansive range of virgin rainforest along the coast, a territory they call the Guna Yala.  You can only enter here by paying their Congresso, can stay only with their good graces, and any punishment for criminal activity committed is their prerogative.  It’s incredible the stark change once you leave their land… the deforestation is immediately apparent.

guna yala, rainforest, panama

boats on dock, porvenir san blas, panama

Only 49 of the islands are populated, most of these only by the huts of a family or two.  Amongst these a few have very sparse touristic development, a tiny bar or restaurant (which may or may not cater to you depending on if the proprietor feels like cooking). El Porvenir, the capital, is the only one with a significant population and where you go to get your passport stamped by a guy who spends most of his day in a hammock or out on a fishing boat.

view of porvenir, san blas

I think very few tourists have very much interaction with them, most likely when they row up in their boats to sell handicrafts or sell you freshly caught seafood (the going price for lobster here is about 5 bucks).  These first impressions of them might lead you to think that they’re living in poverty, but the truth is that what you’re seeing is culture.  It’s a culture that’s (nearly) untainted by capitalism and the ambitions of these Indians (who actually have quite a bit of money) is not to be rich.  One of them even told us Bill Gates came here to buy and island and couldn’t because the land is Kuna and only Kuna can buy land.  The Kuna are proud of their culture, of their traditions, and their dignity is not up for sale.

One of the most interesting things for me is that the society is matriarchal, men move in with the woman’s family upon marriage and it’s the women who handle all business transactions.  When there are no women in the family to pass on these duties, one of the sons is raised as a female to continue the tradition.  San Blas is full of them, people who we’d normally label as transvestites, though Im not sure what term you would apply here.  Interestingly enough, even in a matriarchal society I still see plenty of machismo in the Kuna culture.

Kuna indian woman sewing, San Blas handicrafts

Unfortunately capitalism is arriving and along the coast the Kuna aren’t quite as trustworthy.  They’re starting to bring in things like canned tuna and processed American snacks.  Sometimes the indians that come up to the boat are greedy, asking for more after already agreeing on a price, and then there’s drugs.  San Blas is a direct route for the best and purest cocaine from Colombia, costing a whopping $1 for a healthy dose, the exact equivalent of the marijuana.  It’s mostly the younger Kuna who partake in the activity, joining the festivities of many of the ‘local’ foreigner boats.

Kuna Indians

Despite these dark encroachments, what’s most impressive is here everyone seems to be happy.  In our society we mark doing nothing all day — which is how we would classify their daily activities — as laziness, a lack of ambition.  But there is nothing to do in San Blas.  They spend their days with their family, laying around in the hammocks, sewing beautifully patterned clothing, and talking to each other while watching their children play in the radiantly blue water.  If they’re hungry they go catch a fish or a lobster or eat a coconut.  And they are happy; I think the secret is they don’t want anything else.  We have a really false idea of what life was like before are awesome cities, electronics, supermarkets, and all that jazz.  It wasn’t really all that hard to survive if the Kuna are an example.  They are living the life of the richest among us everyday — eating lobster and chilling on tropical islands — without stress and with no a sort of wise innocence.  I hope they can keep hanging or that they just close the world off — they still remember how to go back to the way it was.

tiny san blas islands, islas san blas, panama

P.S. I’m still planning on beating Stephen Colbert at LOTR trivia if I ever get back stateside!

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