Guna people

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(Redirected from Kuna people)
A Guna woman wearing a mola[1] stands next to a clothes line in Guna Yala, Panama
Total population
about 50,000
Regions with significant populations
Panama, Colombia
traditional Guna religion, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
other Chibchan-speaking people, Miskito

The Guna (also spelled Kuna or Cuna) are an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. Guna people live in three politically autonomous comarcas or autonomous reservations in Panama, and in a few small villages in Colombia. There are also communities of Guna people in Panama City, Colón, and other cities. Most Guna live on small islands off the coast of the comarca of Guna Yala known as the San Blas Islands. The other two Guna comarcas in Panama are Kuna de Madugandí and Kuna de Wargandí. They are Guna-speaking people who once occupied the central region of what is now Panama and the neighboring San Blas Islands and still survive in marginal areas.

In the Guna language, they call themselves Dule or Tule, meaning "people", and the name of the language is Dulegaya, literally "people-mouth".[2] The term was in the language itself spelled Kuna prior to a 2010 orthographic reform,[3] but the Congreso General de la Nación Gunadule since 2010 has promoted the spelling Guna.

Political and social organization[edit]

In Guna Yala, each community has its own political organization, led by a saila (pronounced "sigh-lah"). The saila is customarily both the political and religious 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. In the Onmaked Nega, the saila sings the history, legends, and laws of the Guna, 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 Guna 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 informal Guna language.

Guna families are matrilinear and matrilocal, with the groom moving to become part of the bride's family. The groom also takes the last name of the bride.

Today there are 49 communities in Guna Yala. The region as a whole is governed by the Guna General Congress, which is led by three Saila Dummagan ("Great Sailas").[4]


The flag of the Guna Yala community.
Alternate version adopted in 1942.

The Guna flag was adopted after the 1925 rebellion against Panamanian suppression. Horizontal stripes have a proportion of 1:2:1 and the central swastika is an ancestral symbol called Naa Ukuryaa. According to one explanation, it symbolizes the four sides of the world or the origin from which peoples of the world emerged.[5] In another explanation, it symbolises the octopus that created the world, its tentacles pointing to the four cardinal points.[6] Also known as the flag of Guna Yala island today, the flag was used for the province of San Blas until 2010 and also is used as the Guna ethnic flag. The central stripe, meaning peace and purity, is white on the official flag of the reservation, officially adopted by Guna National Congress, while yellow stripe is used on the ethnic flag (it was introduced on the flag at about 1940). In 1942, the flag was modified with a red ring (representing the traditional Kuna nose-ring) encompassing the center of the swastika because of Nazi associations; the ring was later[when?] abandoned.[7]


The Guna 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 Guna women's national dress, which is worn daily by many Guna women. Mola means "clothing" in the Guna language. The Guna word for a mola blouse is Tulemola, (or "dulemola") "Guna people's clothing."


A Guna woman selling molas in Panama City.
A Guna man, fishing in a hand-built dugout canoe.

The economy of Guna 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 Guna diet, supplemented with imported foods, a few domestic animals, and wild game. Coconuts, called ogob [IPA: okˑɔβ] in the Guna language, and lobsters skungit [skuŋkˑit] are the most important export products. Migrant labor and the sale of molas provide other sources of income.

The Guna 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 Guna people. The Guna have not excised 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 the Guna have been able to successfully function independently compared to other indigenous groups.

Guna communities in Panama City are typically made up of migrant laborers and small business owners, although many Guna also migrate to Panama City to sell fish and agricultural products produced by their respective communities. The sale of Mola and other forms of Guna art has become a large part of the Guna peoples economy in recent years and mola vendors can be found in most cities in Panama where they are marketed to both foreigners and Hispano Panamanians. Tourism is now an important part of the economy in the Carti region, and abandoned goods from the drug trade provide occasional windfalls.


Customary Guna houses in the Guna Yala built on stilts over shallow coastal marshes
A woman in customary Guna dress

Guna people were living in what is now Northern Colombia and the Darién Province of Panama at the time of the Spanish invasion, and only later began to move westward towards what is now Guna Yala due to a conflict with the Spanish and other indigenous groups. Centuries before the conquest, the Gunas arrived in South America as part of a Chibchan migration moving east from Central America. At the time of the Spanish invasion, they were living in the region of Uraba and near the borders of what are now Antioquia and Caldas. Alonso de Ojeda and Vasco Núñez de Balboa explored the coast of Colombia in 1500 and 1501. They spent the most time in the Gulf of Urabá, where they made contact with the Gunas.

In far-eastern Guna Yala, the community of New Caledonia is near the site where Scottish explorers tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a colony in the "New World". The bankruptcy of the expedition has been cited as one of the motivations of the 1707 Acts of Union.

There is a wide consensus regarding the migrations of Gunas from Colombia and the Darien towards what is now Guna Yala. These migrations were caused partly by wars with the Catio people, but some sources contend that they were mostly due to bad treatment by the Spanish invaders. The Guna themselves attribute their migration to Guna Yala to conflicts with the aboriginal peoples, and their migration to the islands to the excessive mosquito populations on the mainland.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the Panamanian government attempted to suppress many of the traditional customs. This was bitterly resisted, culminating in a short-lived yet successful revolt in 1925 known as the Dule Revolution (or "people revolution") – led by Iguaibilikinya Nele Kantule of Ustupu and supported by American adventurer and part-time diplomat Richard Oglesby Marsh[8] – and a treaty in which the Panamanians agreed to give the Guna some degree of cultural autonomy.[8]

The San Blas Islands could be rendered uninhabitable by sea level rise in the late 21st century.[9]


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

The Guna language is an aboriginal 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 Guna children speak the language. Although it is relatively viable, Guna is considered an endangered language.

Spanish is also widely used, especially in education and written documents.

Women with child
Woman in Panama City


The Guna have been shown to have a low average blood pressure (B.P., 110/70 mm Hg), and, do not experience the age-related increase in blood pressure that is common in Western society.[10] Death rates from cardiovascular disease (C.V.D.) and cancer – the #1 and #2 causes of death in the U.S. – are low in the Guna. Between 2000 and 2004 on the mainland of Panama, for every 100,000 residents, 119 died from C.V.D. and 74 died from cancer; in contrast, per 100,000 Guna, these death rates were 8 for C.V.D. and 4 for cancer.[11]


Guna children in 1927. The child in the center is albinistic.

Guna people have a high incidence rate of albinism,[12] which led to their nickname of "White Indians" in the early 1900s.[13][14] In Guna philosophy, the albinistic people (or "sipu") were given a special place and are considered a special race of people.[12] They have the specific duty of defending the moon against a dragon which tries to eat it on occasion during a lunar eclipse, and 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.[15]


  1. ^ Wetter, Renate (2009). "Mola History". PANAMA MOLA. Archived from the original on 16 September 2010. Retrieved 17 October 2010.
  2. ^ Erice, Jesus (1985), Diccionario de la Lengua Kuna, Impresora La Nacion (INAC)
  3. ^ "Lenguaje – ¿Guna, kuna o cuna?: James Howe" [Language – Guna, kuna or cuna?: James Howe]. La Prensa (in Spanish). 22 February 2014.
  4. ^ "Nuestras Autoridades de Kuna Yala" [Our Authorities of Kuna Yala]. Comarca Kuna Yala / Congreso Generales Kunas. 12 October 2006. Archived from the original on 18 February 2007.
  5. ^ "Segunda parte de mi Viaje a Panamá:El Mundo de los Cunas; Capítulo I , Historia y Organización Política – El Mundo de los Cunas – Historia y Organización Política, Parte 1" [Second part of my Trip to Panama: The World of the Cunas; Chapter I, History and Political Organization – The World of the Cunas – History and Political Organization, Part 1]. paseandote por el peru...y el mundo (in Spanish). May 10, 2013. Retrieved 15 October 2017.
  6. ^ Chants and Myths about Creation Archived 31 October 2005 at the Wayback Machine, from Rainforest Art. Retrieved 25 February 2006.
  7. ^ "Panama - Native Peoples". Flags Of The World. CRW Flags Inc. 22 May 2014. Retrieved 15 October 2017.
  8. ^ a b Howe, James (1998). A people who would not kneel: Panama, the United States, and the San Blas Kuna. Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry. Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 978-1-56098-890-8.
  9. ^ McCleland, Jacob (12 November 2015). "Rising Sea Levels Threaten Tiny Islands Home To Indigenous Panamanians". NPR. All Things Considered. National Public Radio. Retrieved 15 October 2017.
  10. ^ Hollenberg, Norman K.; Martinez, Gregorio; McCullough, Marji; Meinking, Terri; Passan, Diane; Preston, Mack; Rivera, Alicio; Taplin, David; Vicaria-Clement, Maureen (1997). "Aging, Acculturation, Salt Intake, and Hypertension in the Kuna of Panama" (PDF). Hypertension. 29 (1 Pt 2): 171–176. CiteSeerX doi:10.1161/01.HYP.29.1.171. PMID 9039098.
  11. ^ Bayard, V; Chamorro, F; Motta, J; Hollenberg, NK (27 January 2007). "Does flavanol intake influence mortality from nitric oxide-dependent processes? Ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus, and cancer in Panama". Int J Med Sci. 4 (1): 53–58. doi:10.7150/ijms.4.53. PMC 1796954. PMID 17299579.
  12. ^ a b Jeambrun, P. (August 1998). "L'albinisme oculocutané: mises au point clinique, historique et anthropologique" [Oculocutaneous albinism: clinical, historical and anthropological aspects]. Archives de Pédiatrie (in French). 5 (8): 896–907. doi:10.1016/S0929-693X(98)80136-X. PMID 9759297.
  13. ^ PROCEEDINGS OF THE BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION AT THE ANNUAL MEETING HELD DECEMBER 9, 1926, Smithsonian Institution, December 9, 1926, A paper by Miss Frances Densmore discusses the music and songs of the Tule Indians of Panama - the so-called "white Indians".
  14. ^ Marsh, Richard Oglesby (1934). White Indians of Darien. New York, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
  15. ^ Jeambrun, Pascale; Sergent, Bernard (1991). Les enfants de la lune: L'albinisme chez les Amérindiens [Children of the Moon: Albinism among the Amerindians] (PDF) (in French). Paris: Éditions INSERM. pp. 238–239. ISBN 978-2-85598-488-9.

Further reading[edit]

  • Alí, Maurizio. 2010: "En estado de sitio: los kuna en Urabá. Vida cotidiana de una comunidad indígena en una zona de conflicto". Universidad de Los Andes, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Departamento de Antropología. Bogotá: Uniandes. ISBN 978-958-695-531-7.
  • James Howe. The Kuna Gathering: Contemporary Village Politics in Panama. Wheatmark (2002). ISBN 978-1-58736-111-1.
  • Keeler, Clyde E. Secrets of the Cuna earthmother: a comparative study of ancient religions. Exposition Press, 1960.
  • Erland Nordenskiöld et al. An Historical and Ethnological Survey of the Cuna Indians. AMS Press (1979). ISBN 978-0-404-15150-8.
  • López, Delio; Pérez, Julio; López Archibaldo; López, Ateliano. "Igargan Cantos, la cosmovisión kuna y la biodiversidad marina. The Kuna cosmovision and their marine biodiversity." CODESTA (2007). OCLC Number 221707552. ISBN 9962000769 9789962000761
  • Mari L. Salvador et al. The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama. University of Washington Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-930741-60-0.
  • Muller, Scott; Solis, Rogeliano; Castillo, Geodisio; Castillo, Bernal; Andreve, Jorge; Castillo, Arcadio. "Biodiversity and Tourism, The Case for the Sustainable Use of the Marine Resources of Guna Yala, Panama." German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Protection and Nuclear Safety (BMU), 2003.
  • Joel Sherzer. Kuna Ways of Speaking: An Ethnographic Perspective. Wheatmark, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58736-030-5.
  • Joel Sherzer. Verbal Art in San Blas: Kuna Culture Through Its Discourses. University of New Mexico Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0-8263-1882-4.
  • Joel Sherzer et al. Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs of the Kuna Indians. University of Texas Press (2003). ISBN 978-0-292-70237-0.
  • Karin Elaine Tice. Kuna Crafts, Gender, and the Global Economy. University of Texas Press (1995). ISBN 978-0-292-78137-5.
  • Jorge Ventocilla et al. Plants and Animals in the Life of the Kuna. University of Texas Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-292-78726-1.

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Kuna at Wikimedia Commons