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Cuna [archive]

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The Cuna are mostly found in eastern Panama and parts of Colombia. Modern observers have divided cunas into the Mainland or Mountain Cuna, and the San Blas Cuna. The two groups have very little contact with each other. The Mountain group didn't give emphasis to outside contacts so they are relatively unstudied. But their common language, Cuna identifies them. Cuna language has been classified within the Macro- Chibchan phylum as one of the Central American languages of the Eastern Chibchan group.

The Cuna have had long historical contact with Europeans like the Spanish. The Spanish arrived in the early 1500's. A period of deculturation and decimation began due to the arrival of the Spanish. A large number of Cuna died due to war and European diseases. The Cuna aligned themselves with Panama when they became independent from Spain. Reconstructions show that the Cuna had a mixed subsistence strategy based on horticulture, collecting, hunting and fishing and that they preferred to live along inland waterways. The Cuna religious system has a direct relationship with their medical system as various magico-religious are practiced by chanters, cursers, and seers. Some of the people even specialize in epidemics.

Cuna economy is mostly based of horticulture, trade, migratory work, fishing, hunting and collecting. They usually hunt for tapirs, agoutis, monkeys, deer, birds, peccaries, and iguanas. They are expert at using blowguns, spears, shotguns, bow and arrow and pits. Hunting has declined in its importance as men have diverted their activities to slash-and-burn farming, which was formerly a female activity. The major crops are plantains, corn, yarm, sweet potatoes, rice, sugarcane, sweet manioc, avocados, coconuts and several other tropical fruits. They also trade crops to earn money. They depend on the mainland for their supply of water. The modern economy of Cuna is becoming cash oriented.

Cuna villages exhibit structural similarities though they vary in size and degree of modernization. The household is the basic unit, and is usually comprised of a matrilocal extended family. The oldest man is the head of the household; he is most commonly the father or father-in-law of the other people in the household. When the household head dies he may be succeeded by the oldest surviving male. It can also happen that after the death, the household may split into several independent units.

Marriage is usually arranged and there are restrictions against marriage to close relatives. Most of the marriages takes place between people of the same economic class. Divorces are also permitted. Polygyny is uncommon and is mostly confined to the wealthy. In the past, infanticide, especially of albino infants was practiced. Cuna women are expert in making Mola (a kind of carpet usually made by hand). The applique process referred to as “reverse applique” is used in making Mola. Adults and children consider Mola a fun project. There is even a Mola Cooperative today which was formed by three hundred Cuna women in 1964. This cooperative mainly helps to market the Molas.

Additional Reading

 Cuna Language
 Cuna Words
 Indian Tribes of Panama

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