The Kuna People of Panama


Most of the Kuna's 62,000 people are dispersed among three "comarcas" or reservations located in northeastern Panama, where they enjoy substantial political autonomy. The Kuna Yala, where most live, has provincial government status. The Comarca de Madugandi is an inland territory adjoining the Kuna Yala that was established in 1996, and the adjacent Comarca de Wargandi, was established in 2000. Both have sub-provincial status. Efforts to unite the three comarcas under one government, have met with resistance from the Panamanian government. Many Kuna live elsewhere in Panama, mostly in and around the capital. Kuna citizens may vote in Panamanian elections and hold office.

The top position of the Kuna is the "sahila" who serves as both political ruler and spiritual leader, transmitting the oral history of the Kuna in verse to the other members. A matriarchal society, the Kuna hold spiritual beliefs based on Mother Earth as the creator and provider of all things. The adult children and their families live with the wife's family. Whereas in some cultures girl babies are considered a liability, here they are celebrated since when they marry, the husband becomes an apprentice to his wife's father.

The traditional dress for women incorporates panels of colorful finely-stitched molas that contain designs reflecting the Kuna belief system. They accessorize with bright headscarves, nose rings and strings of tiny beads that adorn the neck, forearm and ankle to mid-calf called a uini. Kuna women produce molas to sell to visitors on Panama tours with designs of wildlife and other images of interest to international buyers. The Kuna have a genetic anomaly that gives the race the highest rate of albinism in the world. These tribal members are called "moon children" and are protected from the sunlight by being assigned indoor chores as they grow up. For albino boys, this means learning crafts that would otherwise only be considered appropriate for females.

The Kuna speak Dulegaya, a mostly spoken language that was only written down in recent times.

Experience the culture of Panama on a Southern Explorations Panama tour.