The Kuna of Panama turn the tables

Two examples from the Kuna’s twentieth century history illustrate their tendency to militancy and its importance.

After the creation of the state of Panama (as a territory independent from Colombia) in 1903, the new Panamanian government adopted a policy of acculturation of the country’s tribal groups into a culturally and economically modern national system. Traditional dress and ceremonies were banned and schools and police were introduced into tribal communities, including the San Blas islands. The general discontent with this situation led eventually to a brief revolt in 1925 in which all the police were either killed or driven off the islands. As a result, the comarca became officially autonomous in 1930, and in 1938 it gained official recognition as a Kuna reserve.[1]

Foreign ownership of land in the comarca is prohibited, and the second example of the Kuna’s militancy refers to the treatment of outsiders who have tried to open tourist facilities without the required approval of the Kuna General Congress (KGC), the Kuna’s governing body. Around the start of the 1970s, two North Americans, W.D. Barton and Tom Moody, opened two tourist resorts, one called ‘Islandia’ and the other on the island of Pidertupu. Both had gained permission of the local Kuna chiefs, but had failed to seek approval from the KGC. Both ‘owners’ were driven from the comarca, Barton’s hotel being burned down twice and Moody being injured in a shooting shortly after the formally announced deadline for his departure had passed. For further details of both cases the reader is referred to Swain (1989)[2] and Bennett (1997) [3].

[1] Howe, J. (1986) ‘The Kuna gathering: contemporary village politics in Panama’, Latin American Monographs, no. 67, Austin: University of Texas Press.
[2] Swain, M.B. (1989) ‘Gender Roles in Indigenous Tourism: Kuna Mola, Kuna Yala, and Cultural Survival’, in Smith, V.L. (Ed.) Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
[3] Judy Bennett (1997) ‘San Blas: the Role of Control and Community Participation in Sustainable Tourism Development’, University of North London, M.A Dissertation.