The Art of Being Kuna (Panama)

Edited by Mari Lyn Salvador
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

I didn’t want to read about some white guy’s swashbuckling adventures in Central America in the 1930s, a la Ernest Hemingway, or yellow fever and the Panama Canal. (Having seen Arsenic and Old Lace, I’ve seen all the Panama Canal building I care to. Bully!) So instead, I plunged deep into the world of the Kuna, the Golden Ones– the original inhabitants . I began with the chapter on Medicine.


Unlike many indigenous people around the world, the Kuna have managed to hang on to most of their culture. Ritual medicine is practiced by shamans, medicine men, and chanters (kind of like the different levels of doctors we have in the US). Sometimes all three are needed. Like many Native American tribes, the Kuna believe that sickness starts in the soul.

I was interested to read that in their creation story, as in the Biblical one, death and illness were once unknown. (As opposed to say, the Buddhist tradition that death and rebirth are a natural part of life.) Also like Jews and Christians, the Kuna tales of creation include a great flood.

Other surprises: Since Americans tend to think of Panama as a piece of land holding a canal, it surprised me to read the phrase “the Kuna used to live all along the mainland”, implying that Panama has islands. (It has hundreds.) A less pleasant surprise was that there are rattlesnakes in Panama. (I thought only North America had rattlers).

map of Panama
Panama–note the islands. And, Panama is an isthmus–a narrow strip of land surrounded by water. Looks like a turkey neck.

In the final section, recorded in 1975, the year that I was four years old, a four-year-old Kuna girl, suffering from a high fever, is treated with traditional medicine. When this doesn’t make her better, the local Panamanian doctor arrives, having heard from the community about the kid. He strides in shouting in Spanish, with his Kuna nurse, telling the women to bring the child to the clinic. Once there, he gives her an injection without explanation and the women take her home. The next day he shows up at the dwelling, angry that they haven’t brought the child to the clinic, saying these unnecessary house calls are wasting his time. (It wasn’t clear to me or to the Kuna that this wasn’t a one-time injection.) He gives her a total of five, and then she starts to recover. I would have liked for the author to have mentioned what the little girl’s Western diagnosis was; and what drugs she was being given. I assumed antibiotics.

Wiki tells me that Panama is home to some tropical plants (and animals) found nowhere else on the planet. That could have important implications for medicine, if they don’t get destroyed.

Let’s Talk About the Islands

Some of the islands of Panama

All the maps I’ve ever seen, plus my Dad’s high school globe circa 1956, make it look like Panama has practically no islands at all. But in fact, it has hundreds. There are islands in Lake Gatun. There are islands in the Caribbean Sea. There are islands in the Pacific Ocean. There are 378 islands in the San Blas archipelago alone. The Kuna inhabit 49 of the San Blas islands and the rest are not inhabited. Now you can see how the people may have preserved their culture so well.

The islands and the forests served as refuges for native Panamanians when Europeans arrived from Venezuela in 1501. (Columbus arrived one year later.) The original people were:

  • Chibchan
  • Chocoan
  • Cueva
  • Cocle

Unfortunately, the last two named tribes were almost 100% wiped out by European diseases. (I rather hope the natives exchanged STDs with these men–syphilis is said to have infected European men who slept with Native American women, and since I assume the sex was forced, this made me rather pleased.)

Kuna Writing

Kuna writingKuna tradition involves oral storytelling, but they also have a written script. This seemed unusual to me for indigenous people. In the book on Burkina Faso, Malidoma Patrice Some talks about how the elders of his village didn’t want to learn to read and write, because they said it would cause them to lose their memories. They had observed how white people couldn’t remember the simplest things without writing them down. And in elementary school, we were taught how the Cherokee hero Squanto had devised a written alphabet for his people, who had never had one. I was surprised to read that scholars are now finding that tribes they THOUGHT had only an oral tradition often relied on written symbols as summaries or shorthand for stories. You’ve only got to see a fish symbol on the back of a car to understand how this works: the story of a fisherman from Galilee will pop right into your head.

Kuna script is very pictorial and colorful–more like ancient Egyptian than modern-day Chinese. And like some Asian languages, it is read from the bottom and moving up the page, from right to left. The earliest writings were made on balsa wood.

So what kinds of things did the Kuna write? Well, the book has examples of creation stories and tribal history, medicine chants, etc. Absent are bills of sale, love letters, or records of births and deaths. You can learn a lot about a people by what they consider important.

Are You Kidding Me?

Kuna weavingWhile the book contains a heaping helping of facts about the Kuna, I had two problems with it.

  • Some of the pages are so dense and scholarly as to be almost unintelligible to the layperson and
  • what are these weird and uninformed assumptions about written language?

“Rows of small figurines, of circles, boats, flags, leaves, or flowers accurately colored one by one, on balsawood form the oldest documents that we have; more recently they appear on ruled pages of school notebooks. Kuna healers and chiefs have produced images of this kind for at least a century. Like other picture-writings of the American Indians, these images have been considered with some embarrassment by Western scholars. Historians of art have found them difficult to understand in purely aesthetic terms; historians of writing found them too pictorial to be sound vehicles of information.”

Yes, yes, ok, we know that the Western anthropologists of yesteryear were blinkered racists who couldn’t have found their own blind spots with a spoon. Such as when the Western discoverers of Machu Piccu determined that an alien race must have built it because the modern Peruvian Indians were too stupid.

More Kuna weavingBut it gets worse: “A drawing devoid of phonetic value is, we tend to think, a fragile, even rusty means for encoding a text. Whatever the symbolism used for transcribing words in a drawing, it will be fatally restricted to the domain of the individual. ‘Never mistake a drawing for a text,’ warned E. Gombrich rightly in his famous book on The Sense of Order (1979). …Communication through images is difficult, always arbitrary, inevitably vague. Faced with a document that stands midway between sign and design…we feel uneasy.”

Rightly? What the front door?

Seriously, who is this “we”, White Man?! Both Japanese and Chinese kanji, as the former call it, are stylized representations of nouns and verbs.

Point 1: My friend Hanjo, in grad school, told me that he sees (literally sees) English as flat and boring, with no dimension. When he sees the Chinese drawing for “tree”, he said, he sees a tree. In 3-D. Not just a symbol representing the sounds you make when you say the word for tree. Chinese, he said, is more immediate, more alive, more rich and colorful.

Point 2: There is an entire poetry movement created by Idaho’s much-lauded son Ezra Pound, in which artists try to deal with abstract content by using concrete imagery. It’s called the Ideogrammic Method.

Point 3:  Scientists have discovered that our brains don’t think in words or abstract symbols. They communicate in images and pictures, which we then put into words (and then, in English, into symbols representing words). I have to stop now. Reading this bit was infuriating. I could’ve understood it better if the book came out in the 1970s, but it was published in 1995. GRRRR

I am glad this book exists, for if it didn’t I would have zero information on the Kuna, but at the same time, they could have done better.

RATING: Three Panamanian mosquitoes. (That they are mozzies is bad, but that there are only three is good. LOL)

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