Awakening: The San Blas Islands
The Panama Canal Review - February 1965
South from Jamaica a warm
wind sweeps across the Caribbean Sea and courses gently down the West Indies
Archipelago. five centuries ago, borne upon this wind, the ambition of Spain, then
Europe, began to influence a new land. The Old World had found the new; Western
civilization marshaled its ideas and set out on a westward march that has influenced the
history of two continents.
But the winds of change, which soon became a tempest that shaped the destiny of the Americas, brought almost no breath of disturbance to one quiet and lovely paradise - the San Blas Islands.
Today, currents of change are beginning to envelop these islands, tracing an arch of jade close by the eastern shore of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. The Indians of San Blas, cheerful and happy people in a well developed, if partly primitive, life, welcome the benefits of modern society.
A journey to San Blas from Panama is a pleasant hour by light plane. It is walk into the past, the falling away of a thousand years in the time the plane skirts the Gulf of Panama and then cuts north across the Isthmus and searches out a landing strip among the flecks of green scattered below.
From the air, the islands are a story book description of paradise. An azure reef to the windward side breaks the roll of ocean waves. Between the reef and the shore lie the islands, sharp cuts in a thousand shades of green, toy-like landscapes in circles of sunlit sand, flanked by shallow coral waters where tropical colors chase one another through a succession of sunny days.
Every inlet and bay is a highway for the Cuna Indians. Small white sails are seen against the blue sea from the air, but most cayucos - the dugout canoe of the Indian - are paddled.
Ailigandi Island is a few hundred yards from mainland air strip. It is neither entirely primitive nor highly developed. Here are the crossroads of two ways of life, where corn is ground by hand between two small stones but where wireless reaches the population center of Panama in a few seconds.
There is no hotel here, no motels, automobiles, TV, movies, supermarkets, roads, ice cram, neon signs, or office buildings.
But there are no ulcers, no exhaust smoke or bleating horns, no TV murders, auto accidents, rush hour madness, no mental wards, and no one is a stranger.
Modern conveniences and education are beginning to come into these islands. but the Indian is being counseled on the more important values, so that he might keep his great gift of happiness as he finds more comforts in life.
Ailigandi, then, while not a tourist island - there is no place to shelter outsiders except at the mission where this writer stayed - is a good island on which to meet the Indian and see how he lived in the past, to see what today and tomorrow hold for him.
There are things of value here. Labor is respected. The Cuna regard a lazy man as a sick one. Steps are taken to cure his illness, for he regards it as natural to work.
There is the Cuna himself. He is resourceful and will work hard. He has a keen and innate political sense, for he has practiced democracy for centuries. His tribal government parallels the pattern of a New England town meeting - the pride of early democracy in North America. He is honest, commits almost no crime, respects his fellow man immensely, believes in discipline, and he has not discovered that favorite past-time of much of the world - complaining. It doesn't occur to him to lie.
Here on Ailigandi there are more smiles per hundred faces than any pace on earth. The children seldom cry, never fight, and are obedient. A fifth grader plays with a stick and is happy. Little girls of 6 and 8 carry babies about and paddle cayucos a mile and a half for water. They seem not to mind at all. Cunas are quick to learn and have an amazing memory. They are remarkable people.
Until about three generations ago, most of the Cuna lived on the Mainland. Malaria, insect pests, and tropical diseases took a heavy toll. After one epidemic took many lives, the Indians moved to the islands, where ocean breezes keep the villages free of mosquitoes and sandflies. Including 7 mainland villages, there are 42 main settlements scattered through the 365 islands. About 20,000 Cunas and a handful of missionaries make up the population.
Only in the past few years have tourists come to the islands. Few islands are open to them, and there are overnight accommodations only at Porvenir. [Editor's Note: There are now a few more accommodations on other islands.]
Cuna economy is based on the coconut, harvested by the millions and sold at prices that now average $5 per hundred. Money is used, but two coconuts are accepted as readily as a dime in payment for goods.
Each day the men set out to fish, or to tend crops on the mainland. Ailigandi Cunas paddle up the Ailigandi River about a mile, where they grow sugar cane, white and red rice, corn, oranges, plantain, bananas, and cocoa nuts. These foods, together with red snapper, make up the Indian diet.
Cuna familes own land, but there are no deeds and no mortgages. There is a mutual agreement on who owns property, and boundaries are known by those concerned.
In the village of Ailigandi, the workday begins before dawn, when the women ply cayucos to the mainland, then upriver for more than half a mile. Dozens of hollow gourds are filled with water and brought back, a 3-mile round trip before breakfast. Cooking is in one house; the family lives in another. A house may have as many as 20 people, because a Cuna man moves into the house of the woman he marries.
The houses are large, perhaps 40 feet long and 30 feet wide. Closely spaced bamboo shafts make up the walls, with a frame of wood built stoutly to support a thatched roof. There are no windows, the earth serves as a floor and there are two doors.
For cooking, three logs are set upon the floor of the house in the form of the spokes of a wheel, with the fire at the hub. Over this fire, fish is smoked.
Plantains are put directly into the coals for baking. some dishes are a combination - strained plantain and flaked fish is a favorite. the blend is boiled and sometimes spiced for added flavor. Hammocks occupy one part of the house. Furniture is generally limited to a few armless chairs, made by carving a contour into a section of log.
Cunas are not without problems. They solve them through a congress, which meets in the evenings when there are matters to discuss. the first, second, and third chiefs are there, the first chief presiding. All men take part in the discussions. Once a vote is taken, the majority opinion prevails and the problem is settled. Justice is also handled this way, with offenders turned over to the Panamanian Government to be fined or for imprisonment on the mainland.
Several islands have schools. All have grades 1 through 6 except at Nargana, where there is a junior high school. For further education, children must go to Colon or Panama City. Ailigandi has a government school and a Baptist mission school where six teachers are employed. Faces shining, children show up for school at 8 a.m. No attendance roll is called, but everyone is there. If the roll were called it might sound strange. Many children have been given no names and are free to choose a name when they please. Adults, to, adopt names. many times, they take the name of someone they like, or of a famous person.
Women are an important part of the Cuna society. when a man marries and moves into the hose of his bride, he is subject to orders from his father-in-law. While serious, the marriage ceremony isn't formal. A man is tossed into the hammock of his bride by the men of the village. If he stays,the marriage is one. If not, the men try once or twice more. If he still jumps out, no marriage. This is an old custom and though it's still practiced, the bride and groom of today usually know in advance of the outcome of a hammock ceremony, and modern courtship now plays a part before marriage.
Women dress in a wraparound skirt and a bandana over the head. A blouse, made from the rectangular mola, completes the outfit. Jewelry and makeup are popular. The gold rink through the nose is still predominant, though it's use is dwindling. Like the gold earrings (purchased in Panama) and the handmade necklaces of hard berries, fish and animal teeth, these rings have no special significance. Facial rouge is made from the pods of a red flower are used liberally. Men are conservative in dress, preferring Western shirt and slacks. No one wears shoes.
The mola blouse is especially beautiful. The designs are geometric, or of animals or birds, or village scenes, or religious themes. the mola may require 80 hours labor by one woman. it is made by a complex stitching of small pieces of fabric; one is laid over another with two pieces of cloth forming the foundation to which the small pieces are added. Hundreds of small stitches and hours of patience are required. The finished product is about 16 by 20 inches. Two of them form the front and back of a blouse. Framed molas make beautiful wall decorations in many homes.
Most influential today in changing the Cunas are the missionaries. One of the first was the late Dr. Lonnie Iglesias, a Cuna from Nargana. He began his non-denominational work more than 30 years ago. His name is an honored one among the Cunas. the Baptists have 40 missionaries working on 20 islands. they run three schools and six churches. The Catholic church, too, has missions and is also a major beneficial influence in the educational and cultural development of the Indians.
Until recently, the Cuna language was spoken but never written. Now, Peter Miller, a missionary, is translating the Bible into Cuna, a slow and challenging task.
Bringing the world of industry, commerce, and modern thought to the islands of the Cuna will take a long time. There is a hospital on Ailigandi, but nearby several medicine men still flourish, dispensing potions and herbs and casting out demons with magic spells. the Cuna accepts both. He observes Christmas and attends church in increasing numbers, but his ancient rituals are still an important part of his life. already, a few transistor radios are beaming the hope of a brighter life to these islanders and they respond to the sparkle and allure of commercials.
It would be hard to find a people with more natural charm, friendship, and appealing character than the Cunas. Happy and energetic, they have a rare talent for taking life as it comes, but not too seriously.
The outside world, shining in a thousand ways at the doorstep of these islands, has made its first impact. and the Cuna is faced with the ancient dilemma that is t the right hand of all progress - how to take the good things brought by change and still keep those warm qualities of spirit that nature has given him. The stuff of which Paradise is made is in his hands. If he is wise, he will use it to triumph.
November 20, 1998