Kuna culture and mola art

The Kuna Indians (or Guna or Cuna) are an indigenous tribe living mainly in Panama and Colombia. Actually, they are one of Panama's three major indigenous groups. Nowadays, most of the Kuna Indians live on the San Blas territory of Panama while a few Kuna Indians live in other communities and villages in Panama and Colombia. The San Blas territory includes a long narrow strip of jungle along the mainland and about 360 small islands in the Caribbean Sea. The Kunas live on about 55 of these islands and on 10 communities along the Caribbean coast. The region is also called Kuna Yala (Kuna land). The main form of transportation are canoes and other types of boats. Eack canoe is made up from a sinlge tree trunk. There is no fresh water supply on the San Blas islands leaving the Indians with the daily task of traveling up the rivers of the mainland to collect water.

Mapa de Panamá
The Kuna Indians inhabit the comarca de San Blas or Kuna Yala, located along Panama's northeast coast. The region comprises the archipelago de San Blas (the islands in the Caribbean sea) and a thin strip on the coast. 

The Kuna Indians have lived in the Comarca Kuna Yala for the last 150-200 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. Although, their origins are not known for sure, according to the oral tradition, they have emigrated from Colombia to Darien Mountains at the end of the 16th century, to avoid attacks from other Indian tribes. Later they moved to the coast and gradually to the offshore islands, either to avoid Spanish conquistadors or other tribes or to find a healthier environment, to escape insects, snakes, illness and to interact with traders. 

Kuna Indians communicated only with the spoken word and they had no written language. They speak their own language (until recently unwritten). The Kuna language is a native american language and belongs to the Chibchan lanuage family. 

The Kunas are animists. The "nuchus", small dolls curved out of balsa wood protect Kunas from bas spirits. This tribal society is a matriarchal society. A young man after marriage must live in the house of his mother in law. The Kuna have a very high incidence of albinism, probably due to the tradition of intermarriage. Most of the Kuna in an island are related with each other. In Kuna culture albinos are considered a special race of people and have the specific duty of defending the moon against a dragon which tries to eat it during a lunar eclipse. Albinos, can not participate to normal duties because of the intensity of the sun and they assume duties, traditionally assigned to women, including mola-making. 

The full costume of Kuna women
The mola blouse with the two mola panels is the most characteristic part of the cultural dress of Kuna women. Apart from the blouse, the women wear patterned, blue cotton, wrap around skirts (saburet). The skirt is long and reaches the calf or the ankle. It is usually dark blue with green or yellow. A printed bright yellow and red headscarf (musue) is always worn by married women, either covering the head or carried folded up on the shoulder. In the book of Charlotte Patera "Mola Making" there is another explanation for the head scarve. The author says that shy Kuna wear red and yellow head scarves, to hide their face from the photographers and to flirt.

Kuna women also wear a gold ring (olasu) in the nose and earrings (dulemor) in the shape of big plates. They also paint a line down their nose. Their ankles and wrists are wrapped tightly with strands of beads known as "wini beads". Occasionally, they wear necklaces, gold or with beads. The Kuna men have adopted a clothing style similar to the men of the western world while Kuna women still wear molas both everyday and in special occasions.
traditional dress, Kuna costume, Indian costume, tribe costumes, traditional costumes, tribe costume, tride dress
The Kuna have been successfully resistant to Hispanic assimilation, largely retaining their dress and language in migrant communities throughout Panama.Original image source:"Panama-Kuna 0605a" by Yves Picq http://veton.picq.fr - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - link 

The importance of Mola art in Kuna society. 
It is said, that Molas are responsible for the independent status on the Comarca San Blas. The Panamanian goverment attempted to "westernize" the Kuna by forbidding their customs, their language and their traditional dress. Then a resistance movement arose and culminated in the Kuna revolution of 1925. After heavy battles the Panamanian government had to make concession of giving the Kuna people the right to govern their own territory autonomously.

The ability to make an outstanding and high-quality mola is a source of status among Kuna women. However, commodification is one of the most prevalent, negative impacts from tourism. Rituals, craft, festivals, dances are reduced and sanitized to conform to tourists expectations. In Kuna Yala, mola has transformed from a traditional art into a commercial trade, loosing its spiritual value and meaning. However, mola is a unique technique and has become an international symbol of Kuna women's identity and culture. Different islands have their own methods and styles of working.

Molas and beliefs

According to the book Ethnic and tourist arts (page 172) The Cuna believe in a general concept of talent or intelligence, which is distributed in varying degrees to all people. One can have talent for any skill-hunting, eloquence or making beautiful molas. This talent can be improved with medicine. Plants having leaves with beautiful designs are soaked in water that is used to bathe the eyes, thereby improving the ability to make beautiful baskets and cutting beautiful molas. 

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