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The origins of the Kuna are unclear and are heavily debated by ethnographers. Since their language shares similarities to tribes living near Costa Rica, some scholars believe they immigrated a few hundred miles from the west. This theory goes against their oral history, which explains that they moved to Panama in the 1600s after a series of devastating and fierce wars with Indian tribes in the jungles of Colombia. There is ample evidence that the Kuna were well established in Panama when the Spanish arrived. Conquistadors recorded that the people they encountered used the Kuna word â€˜ulu' for canoe and â€˜oba' for corn. In addition, nearly all of the rivers in the Darien have Kuna names.
What is known for sure is the Kuna have only been living on the islands for a very short period of time- only about one hundred and fifty years. Up until the early 1800s the islands were completely free of people with the exception of pirates who used the islands as a hideout.
The Kuna were Supportive of Colombia when the movement towards independence gained popularity. When Panama broke away from Colombia the Kuna resisted. In 1915, President Belisario Porras tried to quell the insurgency by establishing a governor in El Povenir and placing police officers from Colon in many of their communities. In 1925, after many indignities by the police, the Kuna staged a revolt which was led by Nene Kantule. Armed with arrows and machetes the Kuna proclaimed themselves independent and killed 22 police officers and 20 Kuna who befriended them. The Republic of Tule was declared which later turned into the Comarca de Kuna Yala. Finally in 1952, after many years of negotiations, Panama ceded the land around the San Blas to the Kuna.
The Kunas still have a relationship with the Colombians. Every year, rickety wooden schooners from Colombia laden with cocoa, soup, soap, and trinkets come to San Blas to trade with the Kuna for Coconuts. The Kuna probably sell the most coconuts out of anybody in the world. Infact, up until the late 1990s, the coconut was used as currency.
The traditional belief in Nana Dummad or mother earth is still strong, despite lots of churches sending missions to San Blas with the purpose of converting them. The Kuna are engaged in a battle to preserve their culture as they straddle the modern and traditional worlds. But lots of Kuna seem to be winning because they take the best of both worlds. Many Kuna go to Panama City for University.
You can experience Kuna culture first hand by traveling to San Blas. There are daily flights from Panama City and the islands are gorgeous. You have to pay a small entry fee or tax then you can roam around as you like. But don't think about buying one of the 360 islands, only the Kuna are allowed to own land here.
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