Panama – The Cuna Tribe

Schüler Ole

written by Ole

The native American people in Panama have been living there for a very long time. The name of their area is “Cuna Yala”, which is at the northeastern coast of Panama. It is around 205.410 km² big and there are 36.165 Indians living on many islands. They are nearly alone on their islands, just their own tribe is the community. Year after year they lose big parts of their living space, that is one reason why their population decreases dramatically.

At Cuna Yala, onlyCunas live because Panama gave them these islands and a part of the main country on the northeast coast of Panama. In the past they lived on the mainland but the state took all the land and the Cunas just got the possibility to move to the San Blas Islands. But they were able to get their own rights on the islands, so everything there is owned by the Cunas. Every coconut belongs to the Cunas and they are very important for them next to the Molas, because it is nearly the only thing, which they can sell to other people. No one else is allowed to take the nuts from the islands. That is one reason why they hardly ever bargain and only sell it for the original price if they trade.

This year we visited them and it was a very nice experience. On this stage I have been a provisions assistant, so I was responsible (with Manu, Jordy and Jan) for the provision. At the San Blas Islands we had to buy 100 coconuts with a budget of 50 $. You have to know, that the Cunas are very bad trading partners. We tried to get all the coconuts for 25 $, so we told them, that we are students of a sailing ship, that we have very little money and that Christmas is today. It did not work, because they were not interested in all these facts. The coconuts are one of the only resource on their islands which they are able to sell, so that is why they wanted to get a fair price for all nuts. Finally, we got them for 40 $ and we were happy about the fact, that we got them for 10 $ less than the starting price. The problem was that they did not have enough, so we had to open many coco-fruits, to get to 100 coconuts. That was very hard work, because we used a tong to get the fruit into two parts, so that we were able to reach the coconuts. When we had finished it, we went through the island, so we got to know how this people live and survive just on these conditions.

At another day we were visited by the Cunas, because Ruth invited them one day earlier to the Thor. They have special products, which they made by themselves and it was the only chance for us to buy these very cool things. But it was for us again a hard trip (also because of the language) until we got the price down a bit. They had many different items like bracelets, necklaces and “Molas”. Molas are special fabrics of the Panamanian natives, which are made only by them.

No other tribe builds this kind of art. Molas consist of many layers over each other which build some different patterns on a space of some square centimeters.
Some days later we sailed to Nalunega, where we visited a village of the Cuna tribe. The children there were very nosy, so we played with them Soccer and Basketball for some hours. In the afternoon we went to Nestor´s house (a Cuna) to sail with “Einbäumen” which are build out of one trunk of a tree. With some sticks, a scrap of material and a paddle we had all important stuff for a very interesting transporting mobile. Everyone was able to sail for half an hour to the Thor and back to Nestor´s garden.

The next day we slept one night on one of the San Blas Islands, where 6 inhabitants were living. The Island was very natural but full of trash. The people lived in a poor way and were the completely opposite of us. Wooden houses with a roof of palm leaves and not very weather resistant. The only reason why they live there is, that they protect their coconuts at the time when the rest of the family works somewhere else. We made a small barbecue with a fire at the beach. I slept between two palms with a pretty nice view at the ocean in a hammock and woke up in the morning with a beautiful sunrise.

It was a very nice time when we were at the San Blas and in Cuna Yala and I learned very much about them, their culture, their traditions and their interesting products. The nature and landscapes were beautiful, which was nice to see by kayaks, because we were able to see everything a bit closer. There were interesting plants and animals to watch and it was funny to surf on the wave in our small boats.

For me it was a sad moment when we left the Cunas, because they had an enjoying mentality by doing their things so easily and relaxed at the same time.