Kuna people

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A Kuna woman wearing a mola[1] stands next to a clothes line in Kuna Yala, Panama.
Total population
about 50,000
Regions with significant populations
Panama, Colombia
Kuna, Spanish
traditional Kuna religion, various Christian religions including Baptist, Catholic, and Latter-Day Saint (Mormon)
Related ethnic groups
other Chibchan-speaking peoples, Miskito

The Guna, also known as Kuna or Cuna, are an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. The current preferred and legally recognized spelling is Guna. In the Kuna language, they call themselves Dule or Tule, meaning "people", and the name of the language in Kuna is Dulegaya, literally "people-mouth".[2]

Political and social organization[edit]

The flag of the Kuna Yala community.

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 groom 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."


A Kuna woman selling molas in Panama City.
A Kuna man, fishing in a handbuilt dugout canoe.

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 [IPA: okˑɔβ] in the Kuna language, and lobsters skungit (skuŋkˑit) are the most important export products. Migrant labor and the sale of molas provide other sources of income.

The Kuna 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 Kuna have been successfully resistant to Hispanic assimilation, largely retaining their dress and language in migrant communities throughout Panama.

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.


The Kuna have been shown to have a low average blood pressure (BP, 110/70 mm Hg), and, do not experience the age-related increase in blood pressure that is common in Western society (Hollenberg et al. 1997). More importantly, death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer, the #1 and #2 causes of death in the US are rare in the Kuna. Between 2000 to 2004, on the mainland of Panama, Bayard et al. (2007) reported that for every 100,000 residents, 83 died from cardiovascular disease (CVD), and 68 died from cancer. In contrast, per 100,000 Kuna, these death rates were 9 for CVD and 4 for cancer.


The Kuna have a very high incidence rate of albinism. In Kuna mythology, albinos (or sipus) were given a special place.[3] Albinos in Kuna culture are considered a special race of people, and have the specific duty of defending the Moon against a dragon which tries to eat it on occasion during a lunar eclipse. Only they are allowed to go outside on the night of a lunar eclipse and to use specially made bows and arrows to shoot down the dragon.


  1. ^ http://www.panama-mola.com/history-en.htm
  2. ^ Erice, Jesus. Diccionario de la Lengua Kuna. Impresora La Nacion (INAC), 1985.
  3. ^ Oculocutaneous albinism: clinical, historical and anthropological aspects

Further reading[edit]