Master Mola Maker, Lisa

Kuna Indians in Guna Yala

The Kuna (or Guna) Indians have struggled for over hundreds of years for their independence.  They originally lived in the Darien Mountains but they slowly immigrated to the San Blas islands in the 1700’s.  They fought the Spaniards, Colombians, Panamanians, and pirates.  Here is a great website on the Kuna Indians.

In 1925 they agreed to be a part of the Republic of Panama if the government agreed to respect their tribal laws, traditions, and culture.  The Kuna received partial autonomy in 1930, and 1938 they were recognized as an official reserve. By 1945 they had a constitution and by 1953 they were granted full administrative and judicial powers.

Each year, the Kuna participate in a reenactment of the revolution.  It is NOT a celebration, but rather a reenactment to remember the struggles their ancestors went through to gain their independence.  It is also used as an educational opportunity for the youth.

The Guna Yala are very proud of their traditions and customs.  A traditional Kuna village is like stepping back centuries, but visitors are very welcome and appreciated.  Most of the small islands do not have running water or electricity beyond solar power or small generators.  But they survive, are happy, and live long lives.  They are a very peaceful, friendly community the sell molas, fish, lobster, octopus, crabs, fruits, veggies and more to tourists and cruisers.

Guna Yala is a matrilineal society where the women control the money.  The women select their spouse when they are mature enough, but not at any specific age.  They are not allowed to marry outside of the tribe which has caused a kind of genetic insulation and there are many albinos and most Kuna are short in stature.  If they marry outside the tribe, they will be shunned and not allowed back.  The husband moves into the woman’s family compound

Kuna woman walking in standard outfit for women

Kuna woman walking in standard outfit for women


The Kuna huts are made from renewable and fast-growing materials.  The roofs are composed of special palm fronts, dried and tied together with each palm costing $0.50 (which is expensive for the Kuna).  The walls are made of bamboo and tied together with twine or fabric.  There are no nails or commercial products and most huts stand for over 15 years against torrential storms.  The interiors are very sparse with dirt floors, hammocks and a few tree trunks for chairs and tables.

Kuna home and twine holding bamboo shoots together

Kuna home and twine holding bamboo shoots together

Most islands do not have running water or restrooms in their huts.  The villagers (and public) use outhouses built like a room, over water.

Floor of the public bathroom

Floor of the public bathroom


The average lifespan for the Guna Yala is well over 100 years.  Lisa, the master mola maker told us that the average person lives to be 115-120!  Her parents both lived to be 97 years old and thought to have died young.  Good clean living is a testament to a long life.


There are many Guna Yala communities within the San Blas Island chain.  Each community consists of several islands and has 3 Sailas (chiefs), with one is superior.  In addition to these Sailas, there are junior Sailas (akin to executives) and Sualipetmar which are their version of police, and a shaman “Nele” medicine woman/man.


The Sailas meet in the “congresso” the biggest hut in the village, where they sit and swing in hammocks situated in the center of the room.  As guardians of the Guna knowledge, the Sailas rarely give direct orders.  They do communicate through “Argars” which are powerful and important personalities that interpret the Sailas’ wisdom.

Seated around the Sailas and Argars are two rings of people.  The inner ring is composed of women and children and the outer ring contains adult males.  Everybody has the opportunity to express complaints or ideas.  This can be a grievance against your brother, spouse, neighbor, or lover.

It is a special occasion when young girls “come of age.”  All of the men in her village with come bearing palm fronds to build her a room within her parents’ hut.  Inside this room, will be a very small canoe or ulu where she will bath and be blessed.  Only her family and girl friends are allowed inside her room.

The village will celebrate this occasion with a celebration where a family member will host a 4-day party providing food, beverages, and entertainment at no cost for the entire village and community.  “Chica” is brewed from sugarcane and other special ingredients, which is the main drink consumed at these festivities.  It takes 10 days to ferment and is stored in large pottery.

Kuna require that you ask permission before you take a photo as they do not like to be photographed and be prepared to be turned down.  I think I asked over a dozen Kuna for permission and only received a few affirmations.

Kuna Indians in San Blas:

Sweet Kuna man carving wood

Sweet Kuna man carving wood

Master Mola Maker, Lisa

Master Mola Maker, Lisa


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2 thoughts on “Kuna Indians in Guna Yala

  1. Louis

    Very nice presentation Christine….we will also miss the Guna people we have met and become friends with…hope to also catch up with you guys again….
    SV Freya
    Captain Louis and Jules

  2. Elina Yelishevich

    Amazing place and amazing people. We had such a great time. Very greatful to Guna people for sharing their kindness and harmony.

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