Country Guide » Culture and History
The Guna Indians (formerly known as the ¨Kuna¨ or ¨Cuna¨**) are the amerindios, indigenous people, of Panama and Colombia that are important in understanding Panamanian culture. The Guna primarily live between three politically autonomous reservations in Panama, called comarcas, most especially concentrated in the popular tourist destination of the San Blas Islands (also known as the Comarca de Kuna Yala or Guna Yala). They also live in communities in Panama City, Colón as well as other cities and towns.
Guna women are known for their colorful, daily, traditional form of dress made of gold bands, nose ring, leg beads, headscarves and molas, intricately woven textiles with geometric shapes on natural colors (as shown in the photo above). Molas have become an important symbol of Guna culture, and with tourism becoming particularly important for the Guna´s economy, the Guna women typically sell these increasingly trendy textiles in most public locations. These sturdy, well-sewn pieces take anywhere from a few weeks to 6 months to complete, and are beautiful souvenirs that are used as wall hangings, pillows, cloth purses, etc. by Panamanians as well. Most Guna women rely on the trade of molas as their primary source of income.
As an autonomous province and with minimal interference from the national government, the Guna are the governing authorities of the San Blas archipelago and reside on 49 of the 378 islands. They wholeheartedly invite visitors to share in their crafts, dress, food, music, their culture and customs, and offer snorkeling and simple ecoturistic accommodations. The islands´ economy is based on tourism, coconut sales and fishing, including lobster, crab, squid and octopus.
**In 2011, the Intercultural Bilingual Education Program (EBI Guna) informed that from now on, ¨Kuna Yala¨ will be replaced with ¨Guna Yala.¨ In the Guna alphabet, the letter ¨K¨ does not exist, according to the EBI Guna. The legal change is in accordance with Law 88, which recognizes the languages and alphabets of Panama´s indigenous people.