Kuna Yala, Who Knew?

So like I said in my last post, I went to the San Blas Islands in Panama for a week. It was amazing. When I think paradise, from now on, this is what I will picture.

Picture of Island in San Blas

Paradise right?

The San Blas Islands are actually the old name for the territory. It is now known as Kuna Yala, which is an autonomous territory in Panama. The Kuna Indians live there and have their own form of governance.

Even though the sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, and in general lazing about were amazing, I think that my favorite part of the trip was getting to learn about the Kunas and experiencing a bit of their culture.

The first interaction that I had with them was when they paddled up to the sailboat and sold us some fish. They had miraculously caught two big red snappers, which is hard to do because there is not a lot of fish among the islands, because there is a big reef that protects the islands from the open ocean and therefore keeps most of the big fish away.

Two Red Snappers

Big and delicious fish

The Kuna men were very nice.  One of those fish fed all five of us and the other went towards fish tacos the next night.

The Kuna women also paddle around to boats and sell molas, which are beautiful pieces of cloth that they have embroidered. The society is matriarchal, and if a family only has boys, one of the boys will be designated a girl and raised as such. The groom moves into the brides house when they get married. The first Kuna Lady that we met was Lisa, who was actually a Kuna Queen, a man that had chosen to live as a woman. She is one of the most well known Kuna Ladies and her embroidery is some of the best.

There are about 365 islands in the Kuna Yala nation. Most are uninhabited. But there are three big islands that the Kuna live on, one has 1,000 people, another 800 people and the last has 500 people. From those people, families are selected to live on and mind some of the islands for a couple of months. Then they switch with another family.

Each of the villages or cities has a chief who is elected. He is in the congresso house almost all day and sits in the middle in a hammock. He deals with and lays down the law. There is even a secretary who takes down notes.

On our last night in Kuna Yala, we went to the main island and because our hosts George and Melinda who own the sailboat that we were staying on knew a Kuna by the name of Mr. G, we were taken to the congresso to meet the chief. George and Melinda are well known because they donate food and help in small ways around the community. Mr. G translated for the chief and told us that they were going to be having a smoke out in a few days.

Kuna woman in traditional garb and children playing baseball

A Kuna woman in traditional garb and children playing baseball

A smoke out ceremony goes on for three days and is supposed to help cleanse the community of bad spirits. At four p.m., all of the people in the community are supposed to be in the congresso. Every 30 minutes the men smoke. The women can smoke if they choose, but the men are required to smoke. Every villager also brings their wooden carvings of themselves, which the Kuna believe hold the soul of the person. The smoke is supposed to help cleanse each statue and therefore cleanse the spirit of the person it represents.

The chief wanted to warn us that during those three days, foreigners are not allowed on the island after four p.m. We could come to the island in the morning, but by the time four p.m. rolls around, we would need to leave.

After the chief was finished telling us about the ceremony, he welcomed us to the island and thanked us for visiting. We shook hands with him and then went to Mr. G’s house for dinner. The house was actually more of a small compound; it had a front gate (wooden) and there was a garden inside and a couple of buildings. One was for cooking and the other for sleeping. They had a cat and a dog and a baby sea turtle.

Dinner was coconut rice and a soup of fish and green bananas. When I first bit into the bananas I thought that they were some kind of potato or starch. They were delicious. And the fish was yummy too. It was a filling meal.

All around us there were hammocks and a bed where his niece and nephew were reclining. Two children were roaming about and they were precious. All of the Kuna children that I saw were happy. When we would walk around the village, the children would wave and smile while enthusiastically saying “Hola.”

The littlest baby at Mr. G’s had pink eye and was getting treated for it. But Mr. G said that if someone is sick and they go to the hospital on the island, if the person doesn’t have money, then no attention is payed to them. So sometimes when babies get sick with a little virus and then get asthma, they die.

When a person dies they put them in their hammock and for a day the village mourns them and visits the body. Then they bury the person in their hammock in the ground. They also build a small structure, like a little house, for them. They believe that the person’s spirit is still in the body and they want it to live in death like they did in life. They burn incense every three days to help the spirit ascend to heaven.

Some Kuna Graves

A Kuna graveyard

Getting to see a bit of their culture was an amazing experience. Their culture is almost unspoiled. They live nearly the way they did many years ago. Though parts of modern society are creeping in, such as the many satellite dishes that spot the roofs of the houses. Ironically many of the Kuna people don’t have electricity so they can’t even use the dishes.

Some of the parts of modern culture are good though, like the influx of more modern medicine. Though more and more Kunas are not wearing their traditional garb. I’m not sure how long the Kunas will hang on to their culture with more conveniences being introduced to them.

Woo, well that was a long one! There will be another post about the trip soon.

Thanks for reading and lemme know what you think!


2 responses to “Kuna Yala, Who Knew?

  1. What can I say but Amazing! This blog is amazing! Did you take all the shots in this? It’s good to find other people who appreciates stuff like this. Being a florist I just find this kind of idea very interesting. Would you mind if I backlink back to your blog from my own blogs? Thank you for writing. Elizabeth Wong

    • Thank you! I really appreciate it!

      Actually my dad, who I was on the trip with, took the pictures. I mostly took pictures of my dad.

      And yes, please go ahead an link back to my blog! I really appreciate it!

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