Fall Waning Autumn Moon

The Cuna indians. Native to the San Blas Islands for thousands of years, the 8,000 Cuna live in small villages on islands that have little or no open space. The palm frond thatched roofs cover small, 18×20 dirt floor huts with simple furniture and they form a tight grouping of buildings with wider paths, maybe 10 feet running parallel to the dock for cruise ship tenders and narrower ones, perhaps 4 feet between groups of huts.

The Cuna women wear colorful mola skirts and thin blouses. The older women have gold nose rings with a tattooed line up the nose while the younger women retain the tattoo but seem to have forgone the nose rings. The women make the molas, a primary tourist attraction traditionally done in abstract patterns, but now done in contemporary themes as well. These range from Santa Claus to Jesus Christ, automobiles to fish, birds and monkeys all in bright colors.

The women also visit the mainland every day to gather fresh water. The men hunt on the nearby mainland, the Caribbean side of the famously dense Darrien Wilderness, the only remaining gap in the Pan American Highway, fish and gather other seafood like crabs and lobsters and conch.

Kate and I visited, at the end of our time on the island, a Cuna (Kuna) museum run by a Mr. Davies, a Cuna man who had learned English in Panama City. This is a very modest affair consisting of a single room, dirt floor with various displays on the walls, including the large skulls of several giant tapirs killed in the mountains on the mainland.

Mr. Davies brought the museum to life with his refreshingly uncanned presentation. This is a guy who wanted to share his culture. Among the many very interesting things he told us, four of us were in the museum, it cost $5.00’s, was the role of the hammock in their religion and in their daily life. The mother and father gods came down to earth with a hammock which they gave to the Cuna people. In religious ceremonies there are always two hammocks, one for the father God and one for the Mother God, and the priest sits in one of them and sings the ritual songs.

Cuna are born in hammocks, get married in hammocks, sleep in hammocks and are buried in them. Mr. Davies showed us a mock up of a grave which has a hammock slung over the material items representing the individuals earthly occupation. The deceased is placed in the hammock, the mourners come, look down in the grave and say their good-byes then the grave is covered with banana stalks so the deceased can no longer be seen.

They also fought a revolution in 1925 against the Panamanian national police. “Many police died, many Cuna died,” Mr. Davies said. In the end the Cuna were left alone as an autonomous region, responsible for their own affairs, but still part of the nation.

Cuna culture and practices are intact, continuous with their sacred past.

Cuna men and women are short by American standards, under 5 feet. The men have well-developed muscles and good muscle tone, in part at least from paddling their dug-out canoes in the Caribbean.

These kind of encounters always leave me feeling conflicted, but Mr. Davies helped me. The Father God made us all and he made the tourists to come to the islands and share their money with the Cuna. Sharing is an important part of Cuna culture. So much so that their traditional police take responsibility for the homeless and the destitute, enforcing sharing to see that their needs are met.

A less happy part of this encounter began early with Cuna men and teen-aged boys paddling out to the Veendam in their canoes. We knew they were here because we heard them shouting. I went outside and heard the cries of money, money, money coming up from the ocean below. Passengers throw down quarters and the men and boys dive for them as they float toward the bottom. When I can edit my pictures I will post photos showing this event.

It saddened me to realize that a primary word in our English, learned by the Cuna, was money. On the island we visited, another two words were common, “One dollar.” This was the price for taking a photograph of a cute kid, for a child’s school coloring project or small molas.

We were taken to and from the island in the tenders I mentioned in the earlier post.

 

On a different note, the captain came on the loudspeaker during dinner and said, “You may have noticed we are not moving. We are having trouble weighing our anchor.” An electrical problem of some kind. Soon fixed and we were underway for a short trip to the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal.

 

More tomorrow as we transit the Canal, Kate and I for the second time.

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