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The Guna: An Endangered Matriarchal Caribbean Society

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.

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The Guna

The name Guna, alternatively written as Kuna or Cuna, refers to a native people that have been living in Panama and northern Colombia for hundreds of years. In Kuna, a Chibchan language from Panama, they call themselves Dule or Tule, which means “people.” Conversely, they call their language Dulegaya, literally meaning “people-mouth.”

They represent a colorful and interesting culture that adds mystique and wonder to their inhabited areas. Despite their charm and unique matriarchal structure, they face challenges threatening their long-term existence as a people.

Today’s Guna

They walk down the streets of Panama City selling their molas and other indigenous apparel. The women wear colorful patterned wrapped skirts called saburet; bright yellow or red headscarf they call musue; arm and leg beads they call uini or chakira; also their olasu or gold nose ring and earrings; and their mola blouse or dulemor.

Every piece of garment or body adornment displays their personality and individuality. Sometimes these apparels are representative of a tradition, such as in the case of the uini, which women are expected to put on the day of their puberty ceremony and continue to wear for the rest of their lives.

In an archipelago known as San Blas, comprising some 300 islands off the coast of Panama, reside the majority of these indigenous people. Their history goes back perhaps two millennia, although no one knows for sure. What we do know is that the Guna migrated from South America to their current location sometime in the 15th century.

San Blas, also known as the Guna Yala comarca (region), a politically autonomous reservation, is where the majority of the Guna people live by occupying 49 of the islands. However, there are two other comarcas; Kuna de Madugandí and Kuna de Wargandí. These are forest communities off the Chucunaque River and the Bayano Lake, respectively. There are also a few small villages in the northern part of Colombia near the border, as well as a few communities of Guna living in Panama City and Colon.

Totalling less than 80,000, they migrated to the area that is today Panama, from what is now Colombia, during the invasion by the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. Skirmishes with the Spanish soldiers and other indigenous groups pushed them to the areas they now occupy.

Today, the majority of the Guna live in the San Blas Islands and enjoy living in what any visitor would call a Caribbean paradise. Calm blue turquoise waters adorned with hundreds of white sandy islands with clusters of palm trees lush with green coconuts. The residents of the other two comarcas enjoy uncomplicated, free and self-determined lives just as the San Blas residents, but along the banks of the area’s main river and lake.

The flag of the Guna community. (By S/V Moonrise

The flag of the Guna community. (By S/V Moonrise

A Matriarchal Society

Exemplifying their outlook on life is the flag adopted by the Guna National Congress in 1940, which contains a black left-facing swastika representing the four directions and the creation of the world. But in addition to this worldly perspective is their approach to gender equality upholding a strict matriarchal structure, one of the few such societies in the world today.

Although each community is led by a male saila, who acts both as a political and religious leader in charge of memorizing songs relating to the history of the people, the women hold de facto power over the communities. Women are the main food distributors, property owners and decision-makers.

True to their matriarchal structure, the Guna are matrilocal, which dictates that upon marriage, couples move into the bride’s family home. Additionally, they are matrilineal, making hereditary succession run along the mother’s family line. This means all essential possessions, such as land, animals and other valuables, belong to the matriarch of the family, not the patriarch.

In Guna society, there is no hierarchy assigned to the value of work. While fishing, hunting or other manual forms of labor are considered work, so is cooking, raising children and the making of molas. In fact, in recent years, with the increase in tourism and the popularity of the molas, women can earn substantially higher—up to $50 per mola—than men, who typically earn $20 per day fishing for lobsters or cleaning the bottom of boats for tourists.

The Omeggid: a distinct, additional third gender.

The Omeggid: a distinct, additional third gender.

The Gender Fluid Omeggid

In addition to the Guna’s female empowerment, their society allows for gender fluidity. Boys may choose to become Omeggid, or womanlike, a role by which they can act and work like other females in the community. In the Guna culture, these individuals are considered to be neither male nor female but rather a third gender. Unlike the term ‘transgender’, which suggests a transition or even a combination between male and female, Omeggid, for the Guna, refers to a unique and distinct sex that goes back to the mythology of how the Guna were created.

Perhaps one of the reasons for society’s acceptance of a non-binary gender and of the Omeggid, in particular, can be attributed to the influence powerful matriarchal figures have on men. The women are the ones that advance the idea children should have sufficient self-determination to decide what is best for them. Especially as it applies to gender selection, as the general consensus is these tendencies start showing at an early age. Once manifested, boys are not prevented from being themselves.

In an interview with Egle Gerulaityte of BBC Travel in August of 2018, Panama City’s transgender health educator and LGBTQ rights activist Nandin Solis Garcia, originally from Guna Yala, described the ease with which she grew up as a gay, gender-fluid boy on the islands. The support she received from family, friends and community allowed her to grow up as a well-adjusted person. Extolling the virtues of a non-binary tolerant society such as the Guna, she said even though transgender women are extremely rare, they would have no problems making the transition from female to male.

As per Solis Garcia, many Omeggid leave the comarca for Panama City as they look for better education and career opportunities. The move works out well for some but not for others. One serious issue they face, however, is the threat of HIV. Regarding this issue, she said:

We have a big problem with HIV in the community. In Guna Yala, there is no sex education, and people simply don’t know about sexually transmitted diseases. As a result, many [men and] Omeggid people become infected with HIV in the cities, and then, unknowingly, bring it back to the Guna islands when they return home.

In spite of the issues they face, whether at any of the comarcas or in Panama City, the Omeggid are ubiquitous and thriving. Many learn needlework from their mothers and other women in the community and are able to sell their handiwork to tourists as well as non-Guna residents of the country. Others work as tour guides or translators to the tourists. But always treated as equal members of the community at large and by their families.

“Deadly tropical sun for the albinos of Panama’s ethnic Kuna” (Credit to Costa Rica Star News

“Deadly tropical sun for the albinos of Panama’s ethnic Kuna” (Credit to Costa Rica Star News

Their Economy, Health and Albinism

Living as their ancestors did perhaps more than a thousand years ago, they lead an austere communal existence of acceptance and tolerance. Their wooden shacks covered with palm leaves and a fireplace for cooking conspicuously contain hammocks as their only furniture.

Their economy is based on agriculture, fishing and the manufacturing of clothing, and a few small retail stores, with a tradition of international trade as they have sold their products to tourists and merchants from all over the world. The sale of molas and other Guna art has become a large part of their economy. Mola vendors can be found all throughout Panama in large and small cities, selling their products to not just international tourists but local citizens as well.

Their diet consists of plantains, coconuts, fish, a few domestic animals and sometimes imported food. Their diet has often been credited for the long life span the Guna enjoy. Showing an average blood pressure of 110/70 and a lower incidence of cancer than their Western counterparts, the life expectancy of the Guna is higher than non-Guna Panamanians.

Interestingly, the Guna have a high rate of albinism within their ranks. This has led to their sobriquet of “White Indians.” In Guna mythology, sipu or albinos are considered a special race and hold a unique place in their society, as they are charged with defending the Moon against the dragon, which tries to eat it during Lunar eclipses. Only they are allowed to go outside during the night of these celestial events to shoot the dragon down with their bows and arrows.

Island at risk of disappearing due to sea level rise.

Island at risk of disappearing due to sea level rise.

Threatened by the Environment and Other Factors

The same ocean that provided them with food, shelter from adversaries and above which their tranquil lives have allowed them to coexist with nature is slowly taking away all it once gave them. As the Caribbean Sea rises, it is not difficult to see a future in which the islands of San Blas no longer exist. Hence, many members of the Guna Yala community are considering life on the mainland. Were this to happen, the Guna culture, as we know it today, would cease to exist.

The destruction that climate change is bringing to the Guna Yala habitat goes beyond rising sea levels. It is also the cause of the slow dissolution of the bountiful coral reefs surrounding the islands, which for hundreds of years have provided this community with the means to subsist. Consequently, the Guna Yala numbers continue to decline as young people move to the cities of Panama in search of better education, job opportunities and a more secure future.

The Gunas’ unsophisticated lives are heavily dependent on their environment. They rely on a growing tourist industry, fishing, handicrafts and the trade of coconuts with Panama. Their housing is simple, made of sour cane—a native plant to Latin America—with roofs made of palm leaves. Typically sitting on stilts in order to avoid being washed away by surging water, the houses are fragile and at the mercy of any inclement climactic shift. Any rational thinking dictates the obvious conclusion: the tropical paradise that has so far sheltered them will not be around much longer.

The old disposal way of throwing trash into the ocean is still used today. One problem: The trash comes back.

The old disposal way of throwing trash into the ocean is still used today. One problem: The trash comes back.

Drowning in Waste

No different from the rest of the world, the Guna suffer from crowded spaces and waste problems. Today, of the forty-nine communities in Guna Yala, the vast majority live in islands ranging in population from hundreds to several thousand. Prior to the 1940s, when island communities were smaller, processed foods and manufactured goods were not as readily available as today, the Guna were able to keep their villages clean by disposing human waste, unconsumed food and glass items into the ocean.

Additionally, making the disposal process easy was the usage of organic materials for storage, cooking and serving food. Empty coconut shells acted as storage vessels; palm leaves were used for serving and even cooking foods; some types of wood would be carved into utensils.

Today, increases in modern trappings have drastically changed waste management landscape of the Guna’s world. Plastic items of all sorts, metal cans, leftover apparel fabric and whatever else modern society has brought into their households must be disposed of. Island residents with little means to recycle, no viable space to create landfills and no plumbing or sewage systems must rely on the ocean as their only destination for disposal.

Unfortunately, the ocean gives back what it receives, and waste washes back onto the narrow shores surrounding the islands.

Contemporary traditional Cuna houses in the Guna Yala built on stilts over shallow coastal marshes (Source: By Ayaita

Contemporary traditional Cuna houses in the Guna Yala built on stilts over shallow coastal marshes (Source: By Ayaita

What Is the Future of the Guna?

While many are content with their lives in the comarcas where they live, many decide to seek better fortunes in other Panamanian cities, especially the capital—Panama City. Because of this, the overall population of the reservations and most of all Guna Yala is dwindling.

Although they achieved independence from Panama in 1925, following a revolt, and were able to develop their own system of governance that resolves problems and makes decisions through a process of consensus, their future in Guna Yala, where the majority of the population lives, is highly in doubt. Rising sea levels represent the most severe existential long-term threat they face.

On an immediate basis, however, they desperately need facilities such as sewage, a viable trash disposal system and potable water. More schools with higher grades than the sixth grade, which is their current limit, need development. Proposals have been made to include grades up to the ninth grade. Of course, more teachers are needed.

Various nongovernmental organizations (NGO) such as Displacement Solutions and Fundacion Uaguitupu are involved in providing health and dental care, solutions to their waste disposal problems, overcrowded conditions in some of the islands and possible depopulation should sea levels begin to erode the land area of their habitat.

While improving their economy in order to solve fundamental problems of poverty and infrastructure can help, the Guna face other substantially weighty decisions they must make, as the Guna Yala might not be a viable homestead for future generations.

Resources and Additional Reading