The Kuna Yala Indians live in three politically autonomous reservations in Panama, the Republic of Panama and in a few small villages in Colombia. There are also communities of Kuna people in Panama City, Colón, and other cities. The most Kunas live on small islands off the coast of the comarca of Kuna Yala known as the San Blas Islands. The other two Kuna Yala reservations in Panama are Kuna de Madugandí and Kuna de Wargandí.
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In Kuna Yala, each community has its own political organization, led by a Saila (pronounced “sai-lah”). The Saila is traditionally both the political and spiritual leader of the community; he memorizes songs which relate the sacred history of the people, and in turn transmits them to the people. Decisions are made in meetings held in the Onmaked Nega, or Ibeorgun Nega (Congress House or Casa de Congreso), a structure which likewise serves both political and spiritual purposes. It is in the Onmaked Nega that the Saila sings the history, legends and laws of the Kuna, as well as administering the day-to-day political and social affairs. The Saila is usually accompanied by one or more voceros who function as interpreters and counselors for the Saila. Because the songs and oral history of the Kuna are in a higher linguistic register with specialized vocabulary, the Saila’s recitation will frequently be followed by an explanation and interpretation from one of the voceros in everyday Kuna language.
Traditionally, Kuna families are matrilinear, with the bridegroom moving to become part of the bride’s family. The groom takes the last name of the bride as well.
The Kuna are famous for their bright molas, a colorful textile art form made with the techniques of appliqué and reverse appliqué. Mola panels are used to make the blouses of the Kuna women’s national dress, which is worn daily by many Kuna women. Mola means “clothing” in the Kuna language. The Kuna word for a mola blouse is Tulemola, (or “dulemola”) “Kuna people’s clothing.”
The economy of Kuna Yala is based on agriculture, fishing and the manufacture of clothing with a long tradition of international trade. Plantains, coconuts, and fish form the core of the Kuna diet, supplemented with imported foods, a few domestic animals, and wild game. Coconuts, called ogob in the Kuna language, and lobsters skungit are the most important export products. Migrant labor and the sale of molas provide other sources of income.
The Kuna Yala have a long deep rooted history of mercantilism and a longstanding tradition of selling goods through family owned venues. Most imported goods originate from Colombian, Mexican or Chinese ships and are sold in small retail stores owned by Kuna people. The Kuna traditionally excise no tax when trading goods and place strong emphasis on economic success. This tradition of trade and self-determination has been credited by many as a chief reason why the Kuna have been able to successfully function independently compared to other indigenous groups.
Kuna communities in Panama City are typically made up of migrant laborers and small business owners, although many Kuna also migrate to Panama City to sell fish and agricultural products produced by their respective communities. The sale of Mola and other forms of Kuna art has become a large part of the Kuna peoples economy n recent years and mola vendors can be found in most cities in Panama where they are marketed to both foreigners and Latino Panamanians. Tourism is now an important part of the economy in the Carti region, and abandoned goods from the drug trade provide occasional windfalls.
The Kunas were living in what is now Colombia at the time of the Spanish invasion, and only later began to move westward towards what is now Kuna Yala. Centuries before the conquest, the Kunas arrived in South America as part of a Chibchan migration moving east from Central America. At the time of the Spanish invasion, they were living in the region of Uraba and near the borders of what are now Antioquia and Caldas. Alonso de Ojeda and Vasco Nunez de Balboa explored the coast of Colombia in 1500 and 1501. They spent the most time in the Gulf of Uraba, where they made contact with the Kunas.
In far Eastern Kuna Yala, the community of New Caledonia is near the site where Scottish explorers tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a colony in the “New World”. The bankruptcy of the expedition has been cited as one of the motivations of the 1707 Acts of Union.
There is a wide consensus regarding the migrations of Kunas from Colombia and the Darien towards what is now Kuna Yala. These migrations were caused partly by wars with the Catio people, but some sources contend that they were mostly due to bad treatment by the Spanish invaders. The Kuna themselves attribute their migration to Kuna Yala to conflicts with the native peoples, and their migration to the islands to the excessive mosquito populations on the mainland.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, the Panamanian government attempted to suppress many of the traditional customs. This was bitterly resisted, culminating in a short-lived yet successful revolt in 1925 known as the Tule Revolution, led by Iguaibilikinya Nele Kantule of Ustupu and supported by American adventurer and part-time diplomat Richard Marsh and a treaty in which the Panamanians agreed to give the Kuna some degree of cultural autonomy
The Kuna language is a Native American language of the Chibchan family spoken by 50,000 to 70,000 people. Dulegaya is the primary language of daily life in the comarcas, and the majority of Kuna children speak the language. Spanish is also widely used, especially in education and written documents. Although it is relatively viable, Kuna is considered an endangered language.
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