Costa Rica Tour and Panama Cruise with CruiseWest
The Independent Indigenous People of Kuna * Text and Photos -by Jack Yeazel
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While indigenous people throughout Latin America fight for autonomy and survival against often oppressive governments and waves of immigrants, the Kuna have called the shots on their territory for more than 50 years. They originally fled to Panama's Caribbean coast 500 years ago to escape Spanish conquistadors, and in 1938 won from the government rights to more than 360 tiny islands, called the San Blas, and a strip of coastal land northeast of Panama City that extends 232 miles to the Colombian border. The Kuna police and govern their territory, called the Comarca de Kuna Yala, which is more like a separate country than an "Indian reserve."

The Kuna people have been leaders in indigenous rights and preservation of the natural resources on which they depend. With the help of the World Wildlife Fund and other institutions, they have established a 600-square-kilometer forest reserve on their lands, an example for indigenous people world-wide.

Kuna women are known for their colorful costumes which consist of a patterned blue cotton-wrapped skirt, red and yellow head scarf, arm and leg beads, gold nose rings and earrings and the intricately-sewn mola panel blouse.  The mola panels of the blouse are hand-woven in a reverse appliqué technique using several layers of cotton fabric, each layer a different color. The mola may also be decorated with very fine embroidery.

Mola panels have become much sought after and collected examples of textile folk art. The artistry of a mola reflects a synthesis of traditional Kuna culture with the influences of the modern world. Molas developed when Kuna women had access to store-bought yard goods and are often inspired by modern graphics such as political posters, labels, pictures from books, and modern technology as well as themes from traditional Kuna legends. Kuna women spend hours sewing panels for their blouses.  When they tire of a particular blouse, they disassemble it and sell the molas to collectors.

The most valued molas are the ones that have actually been worn as part of a Kuna woman's costume.  Of course, the Kunas, being very creative people, have adapted the mola technique to other uses and now produce mola designs on a variety of useful objects such as pot holders, bags, eyeglass cases, stuffed animals, Christmas decorations, and pop can insulators!

While these items are not traditional, they demonstrate the Kuna's ability to adapt to the modern world and turn it to their advantage. The sale of these crafts enables them to have a cash income which they need for their children's education, medical care and other necessities.

Click on the following thumbnails for larger views

A small part of the San Blas Islands.  The mainland of Panama is to the left.



Apparently the Pacific Explorer has been here before!


Next the Pacific Explorer traveled back to Colon, Panama through some more "interesting" seas.
Click on the picture.  We only missed about a half dozen at dinner that night!

From Colon we traveled by bus across the isthmus to Panama City and the airport to return to our homes.  It must have been an interesting trip; it took me two months to prepare this set of web pages!

Good sailing to all,
-Jack and Rita Yeazel