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The Kuna

the Kuna

the Kuna

"Kuna" is the name of an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia whose population is estimated at about 53,000. Although sometimes also spelled "Cuna", the spelling "Kuna" is preferred. In the Kuna language, the name is "Dule" or "Tule", meaning "people."

The majority of the Kuna live in the San Blas Archipelago, part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala. The Kuna have governed the Comarca ("autonomous territory") de Kuna Yala "Kuna-land" or "Kuna mountain" in the Kuna language) since the 1920's. Living across 49 communities (each run by their own chief), they maintain their own economic system, language, customs and culture with their distinctive dress, music, dance and legends. The Kuna are known for their decorative art, known as molas.

The name of the Kuna language in Kuna is "Dulegaya", meaning "people's language".

Kuna 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, and the use of English is on the rise with the increase in tourism.

Although the Kuna language, until recently unwritten, is estimated to be spoken by 50,000 to 70,000 people, it is considered to be an endangered language.

The Kuna have a matriarchal society with the line of inheritance passing through the women. Men move to their mother-in-law's house after marriage and apprentice with their father-in-law for several years. Divorce is uncommon and daughters are prized.

the Kuna

Within families, labour is divided along gender lines. Husbands gather coconuts, cultivate the food, provide firewood, make the clothing for themselves and their sons, weave baskets and carve tools and utensils. Wives prepare the food, build and repair the dwellings, collect fresh water from the mainland rivers (if they are on one of the many island without running water), unload the boats, sew female garments, wash the clothes and clean the house.

the Kuna

The traditional dress of the women is spectacular. The gold nose rings, beaded arm and leg bands, sarongs and the colorful mola blouses are works of art. The Kuna men have adopted a clothing style more traditional to the men of the western world and appear rather drab in comparison.

the Kuna

The Kuna have a custom for every event and happening in their life and these customs are passed on to their children through dances and chants. These events are also documented in their molas. Notably, Kuna politics are dominated by a congress conducted by the 49 chiefs of the 49 Kuna communities and their interpreters. Chiefs derive their authority from their knowledge of the sacred chants and the interpreters derive theirs from their ability to interpret the chants for the people. And, participation in the "congresso" is for men only but women's (silent) presence is permitted.

The Kuna economy includes the sale of molas, farming, fishing, some hunting and tourism. (Notably, tourism is limited to only a few of the islands and permission must be obtained from the chief of the community before any islands may be visited.) Coconut farming is the main cash crop and other crops are grown but mostly for their own consumption. Women, with their molas, are an important source of income and are credited for being the main reason health care and education are improving.

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