Panama: The Cuna Tribe – A Life between Traditions and Modern Influence


Author: Helen
Date: 27.12.2018

When people hear the word „Indian“, most of them might just think of a brounskinned guy with leather trousers, long black hair holding a peace pipe standing in front of a tipi. Just as people see them in Lucky Luke, Yakari or Winnetou. However, what I realised is that there is a huge variety of tribes with their own culture, clothes, lifestyle, gods and languages. They create such diversity that it is really sad most people only have one stereotype in their mind when thinking of „Indian“. Also there are Indian tribes all over the world, e.g. in the Himalayas, in Australia, in Africa or in the Andes.

Last week we were in contact with the Cuna Tribe, which settles on the St. Blas Islands and the Atlantic coast. There are around 60 000 Cuna people worldwide, who mostly live with their families on one of the islands they are allowed to govern. The Cuna Tribe was once under control of the Panamanian government. They were even forbidden from practising their rituals or wearing the traditional wardrobe. However, the Cunas took back the control with a liberty fight. This day is still celebrated as a huge event. Today the Cunas have reached the privilige, different from the other tribes, to be indepentent and govern themselves and the ground they live on. They even sent two people to the Panamanian parlament. Despite that, many other tribes are put in danger by big dam projects or other interventions by the Panamanian government.

On their islands the Cunas have their houses, but their fields, where they grow plants to feed themselves, are on the main land. The Cunas also make a little extra money with tourism. We for example paid  some money to sleep on the so-called „gefegte Insel“ in our hammocks. Their women also sell their traditional „molas“, a picture made of up to seven layers of material. To travel between the islands and also the main land they use their „Einbäume“. Those are boats made out of one trunk and steered with a special paddeling method. Some of them even have little sails, like those we could try out at Nalu Nega.

Different to many other tribes in Panama, the Cunas live in a matriarchy. That means that it is always the woman who takes care of the money, the house and the children while the men have the responsibility of getting food. Either through their plants on the main land or by hunting wild animals. It always takes a whole day till the men come home again. In case of a divorce the women is the one who keeps the property and the man has to put up a new life.

The Cunas are a tribe who attach importance to keeping their traditions alive. The women for example still wear the molas, jewelery and a black line in their face to keep bad ghosts away. In a big conmmunity house the children are taught old stories, songs and rituals.
At the same time we could see how western lifestyle slowly influences the lives of the Cunas. The modern archievements simply bring too many advantages for them. Nearly every Cuna we saw had their own mobile phone and the first „Einbäume“ already have their own engine.
At the same time the Cunas do not have a lot of experience with modern technology to manage it sustainably. Everywhere on the island, plastic waste is laying around.

I hope that all the indigen tribes find their own way of keeping all of their different traditions alive, and dealing with the achievements of the modern world responsibly at the same time.
In my opinion it is very important that we do not forget that there is not only the western style of living. These indigenous tribes exist way longer than our western traditions and all have their own attitude towards their lives. I am really thankful that I had the opportunity to get to know the life of the Cunas not only through television, but by making my own experiences and getting in touch with them. Whenever I hear the word „Indian“ now, there are many diverse pictures that come to my mind. Pictures of the Cunas are some of them.