The Culture of the Kuna People

The head of a Kuna family allows Meredith to take her photo for a small price. The Kuna are known to be camera shy.

Our experience with the Kuna tribespeople runs parallel to Eric Bauhaus' excellent guide to the area and culture. Out of respect for the culture's preferences concerning photographs, we took very few. We also think Eric's guide says it best, so I've included many excerpts and paraphrases from it, and our website manager, Matt, has added photos he's found online. We cherished meeting and visiting with the Kuna people and found them to be warm and welcoming souls who fight a losing battle to keep the long held beliefs and traditions of their culture above the rising waters of both climate change and modernization. We're lucky and honored to have met and learned more about them.

Except for a few islands, the only way to find much of this remote community is by snaking your way through reefs on your own boat. As many as 6 boats have washed up on reefs in the last month here. The Kuna strip the yachts of valuables after they have been abandoned by their owners. We saw many items such as cockpit benches, a binnacle, and random bits of boat gear decorating Kuna huts. Suffice to say, Kuna Yala would be one of the worst possible bareboat charter bases!

The schools are on holiday this time of year.

About the Kuna of KUNA YALA, (Spanish name: San Blas Islands)

All quotations are taken from Eric Bauhaus' “The Panama Cruising Guide”

“Comprised of 340 picturesque islands, Kunas have best preserved the culture and traditions out of all the tribes in the Americas.”

Until a few years ago, coconuts were used as the main form of exchange. And every single coconut in Kuna Yala has an owner.

“The mainstay of the Kuna economy is coconuts which grow en masse on the outlying islands, with every coconut palm owned by a tribal member, even on offshore islands.” You may receive one as payment for allowing a Kuna to charge his cellphone on your yacht's battery power though!

The coconut palms of the Coco Banderas family island sway in the trade winds.

The coconut palms of the Coco Banderas family island sway in the trade winds.

“Kuna Yala is officially part of Panama, but is ruled autonomously by the Kuna general Congreso. On March, 1925, the Kunas agreed to be part of the Republic of Panama under the condition thatthe Panamanian government respect their tribal laws, traditions and culture in the Comarca de Kuna Yala.”

“The whole communication infrastructure is totally self­ contained and powered by solar panels with data transmitted via microwave link to repeater stations. “

“The majority of rivers in Kuna Yala are totally pure. In order to keep it this way, it is not allowed to use outboard motors in some of the rivers, especially near populated villages.”

Did you know riverways in Kuna Yala are rich with gold?! But not even the Kunas are permitted to extract it, as per Panamanian law.

“Since the revolution of 1925 no Kuna is allowed to intermarry with non­ Kunas, upon penalty of exclusion.' The resulting genetic insulation has led to a number of albinos in the Kuna tribe.

“Kunas don't like the name San Blas since it was given by the Spanish invaders. They prefer 'Kuna Yala.'” 

“Kuna Yala is a matrilineal society. The women control the money and the husbands move into the women's family compound. Kunas do not marry at a fixed age but rather when they are considered mature enough, often with the women choosing the husbands.” This does not mean Kuna culture is matriarchal. It is the men, the chiefs, who rule and govern the islands.

“The land is not divided into individual properties, and fences are absent. Tribe members can pass through and benefit, but do not claim possession by industrial development. That is why the landscape still looks much the same as when Vasco Nunex de Balboa first arrived. Foreigners cannot settle here or buy land, but are welcome to visit.”

A Kuna man smiles at Coconut Woman from his ulu boat.

“Kunas are physically small, rivaled in tribal shortness only by the pygmies. They are peaceful and non­aggressive, and crime of any form is extremely rare in Kuna Yala.”

“The Kunas number around 55,000 or about ten percent of what they were before the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors. They are a determined nation, organized and united within a strict hierarchy of tribal leaders.”

“Each village has three “Sailas” (chiefs) who hold the highest authority at the village lever. Three “Caciques” or high chiefs rule the nation as a whole, each one representing his part of the land.

Of these, one will be elected supreme leader of the Kuna Nation. Sailas are much more than political leaders. They are also holders of the Kuna spiritualism, poesy, medicinal knowledge and history.”

“Although normally indulgent of their children, the tribe employs certain branches from a special plant that burn and sting upon contact to control unruly children.”

“The Kunas have an elaborate system of penalties and fines, strictly enforced by the Congreso. A favorite penalty is to collect coral rubble from the sea and deposit it in a barrel to be used as landfill.” This is to combat erosion and sea level rise.

Kuna culture does not stigmatize homosexuality. In fact, some Kunas dress and behave as women, right down to wearing Molas and wini beads on their arms and legs. 

Kuna Nuchu dolls from

Kuna Nuchu dolls from

Kunas have three branches of Shamanism. They often use mind­altering herbs to achieve connection with the divine. The branch of shamans, or “Nele,” who chant at funerals, sing for often entire days, in order to guide the spirit of the deceased on the correct path to the Kuna afterlife and to avoid the tempting evil spirits along the way. Another branch of shamanism includes men who are successful fishermen and hunters, essentially men who are the best at what they do and are who are good providers.

“Nuchu” are small sacred hard wooden statuettes, usually about 15 inches tall that act as a link between the spiritual and the physical world of the Kunas. “The statues are believed to be alive and every Kuna owns one. There are many different types, some having a stronger spirit while others are weaker. Some are good and others bad. The Nuchu plays a central role in Kuna spirituality, medicine, and religion.” For example, Nuchu are used by shamans to diagnose illnesses.

“Chicha is an intoxicating drink brewed from sugarcane and other special ingredients that is used for spiritual events. The chicha ritual is held once or twice a year and requires at least one month of preparation. It starts with harvesting cane from the mainland and extracting the juice with a special press.”

Cane, and tagua palm leaves proved the materials to artfully construct thatched roofs of the village huts. The huts are held together with jungle creepers, and the roofs provide 15­ years of watertight shelter from the rainy season. They use compacted sand for floors.

Due to climate change and rising waters, several Kuna islands have been abandoned and more are soon to come. As Bauhaus writes, “Every time I do a survey after being away for some time, I have to take islands off the maps that are now nothing but shoals.”

Kuna women are famous throughout the world for their unique applique embroideries called “Molas.” The laborious process involves multiple layers of colorful fabrics and days of hand-stitching images of animals, tribal symbolism, and abstract forms. Molas range in quality by the amount of work that goes into them. Some of the best and most expensive ones having taken three months to craft.


A a typcial Kuna day begins with rising before dawn and paddling their dugout canoes, called “ulus,” to the mainland, a distance of 1⁄2 to as much as 3 miles. Then, they continue onward by foot to the farms where they harvest fruits, sugarcane, and firewood until about midday, when they return to their islands. The afternoon is spent fishing, sailing the ulu, lounging with family, making crafts, or in recent years, paddling around to visiting boats selling lobster, fruit, beer, and Molas. Early evening is spent in the Congreso, the central meeting hut, where any manner of topic can be discussed by any Kuna. Then it's to bed for an early night of hammock­ swinging.

The Congreso is the largest hut in the village, and is where villagers gather each night for the evening meeting. Presided over by the head chief, or “Saila,” and his two lesser Sailas, who sit swinging on hammocks in the center of the gathering space, they serve as the guardians of the Kuna culture and history. The Sailas communicate to the people through Argars, who are the translators/interpreters of the Sailas' wisdom. Often, the Sailas will sing long songs of their ancestors, past exploits, battles, and other aspects of the Kuna oral history as passed down through generations.

The villagers sit on wooden pew­ style benches situated in a circle around the Sailas and Argars, with the women and children in the innermost ring and the men behind. During these meetings, every Kuna has the right to express any issue of note­ an idea, a story, a concern. Apparently, these meetings can be many hours and are sometimes boring for the villagers, so there are designated adults who yell out piercing screeches at random intervals to keep everyone from nodding off!!


Due to flooding and competition from other tribes, the Kuna forefathers migrated from the Darian Mountains to what they now call Kuna Yala. These islands presented them with fewer bugs, predators, and disease, and offered waters rich in lobster, fish, and crab. Plus coconuts of course!

The Spanish conquistadores invaded Kuna Yala beginning in the Seventeenth Century, bringing disease which wiped out much of the Kuna population. Pirates and privateers took hold of the islands for use as a home base from which they could launch attacks on nearby rich ports.

Eventually, the Kuna fought back, killing many of these intruders, which necessitated the Treaty of 1785, and a declaration that the Kunas were to be left in peace. During this time, the Kuna coconut trade flourished, as it still does today. Around this same period, modern textiles were brought to Kuna Yala, replacing the natural fiber-­based fabrics of Kuna molas. Until 1964, Mola designs were purely abstract designs when foreign influence encouraged the introduction of forms such as animals, plants, and objects.

In 1903, the establishment of the Republic of Panama brought Latino police posts to Kuna Yala. Soon followed the arrival of a government­ elected Latino Governor/dictator who then took up residence on Porvenir.

Because the Kuna resented the Panamanian police and officials, and had maintained a loyal relationship with Colombia after independence, tension continued to mount until a rebellion broke out against the Panamanian government and non­genetically pure Kuna in 1925. The “Holcausto de las Razas” flew a flag with a swastika on it, but the symbol had nothing to do with the later Nazi flag.

You can still see this flag flown by the launcha taxis today.

The Kuna declared their independence from Panama, so the Panamanian government immediately began building a military campaign. In the end, it was the Unities States Naval Ship, the U.S.S. Cleveland, that prevented another bloody battle.

Since that time, the Kuna relationship with Panama has been stable, but the Kuna have expressed continued resentment and distrust of them to the crew of Coconut Woman.

Posted on February 16, 2015 .