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Bureaucracy Kuna Style

Cruiser's experience the Kuna Indian's governing style first hand.

Reg & Moe from s/v Heart of Oakby Reginald McCluskey, sailing vessel Heart of Oak

It was with great expectations that my wife, Maureen, and I arrived in the San Blas Islands of Panama in October, 2002 aboard our CSY 44 “Heart of Oak“. We had heard and read nothing but favorable comments from all who had gone there before us. We had heard of the beautiful molas made by the Kuna women, the fantastic snorkeling and diving, not to mention all the islands of palm trees and sandy beaches that make up the 100 mile long archipelago known to the Kuna Indians as “Kuna Yalla.”  As a result of a bitter struggle on the part of the Kunas the Panamanian government has basically given them autonomous control over their own affairs and each group of islands is governed by its own “congresso” with its own chiefs. Some island groups have as many as three chiefs (known to the Kunas as Silos) while others only have one.

About three days after our arrival in the San Blas we dropped anchor in the lee of and island called Mamitupu, located near the eastern end of the island chain. We had heard that it was customary to visit the Silo and pay a nominal fee, usually about US five dollars for the privilege of anchoring at his island. As soon as we landed our dinghy we were greeted by a very friendly fellow by the name of Pablo who spoke quite good English. We had actually read about him in the cruising guide.  Pablo offered to take us to the Congresso where we could pay and he would translate for us.

Upon arrival at the Congresso we were advised that we would have to return the following day…something about a change in the rules.  At this time we were unaware of the fact that another cruising boat anchored for some time at Mamitoupo had been teaching the Kunas how to make jewelry from coconut shells and at the same time were paying some of the Kunas to make jewelry for them to sell in the States at craft shows. Apparently they had been doing this without having consulted the Silo, thus causing him to get his nose a little out of joint.

The next day we met Pablo at the agreed time and proceeded to the Congresso hut where we were shown into a back room of the dirt floored, thatched roofed stick building. We were introduced to the Silo and two other gentlemen whose role was not made clear to us. We were asked to be seated on a small bench hewn from a single piece of log across a rough table from the Silo.  For the next hour we listened, with our knees up around our chins on the little bench, as Pablo, the Silo and the other two gentlemen carried on a very earnest discussion in both Spanish and Kuna (the Silo spoke only Kuna).  We had no idea what the subject of the discussion was or what part our presence played in it.  We were actually a little amused and at no time did we feel unsafe of threatened.  After all, what could we have done to offend anyone?  After about an hour they seemed to arrive at some agreement and Pablo dutifully advised us that we were now free to go.  As we walked back to our dinghy Pablo explained about the jewelry operation and the fact that the Silo was upset that his blessing had not been sought.  As a result, he had decided to change the fee for visiting yachts from five dollars for three months to five dollars for five days, which was in line with what was allowed for Kunas from other islands visiting the island. Pablo explained that he had argued that this would only result in fewer cruisers coming to their island thus less fees and less mola sales.  The only reason for our presence was the fact that we were perceived as representatives of the cruising community thus, in the interest of justice, were allowed to be present for the hearing, ignoring the fact we had no idea what was being discussed.  The end result was that the Silo acknowledged that he may have been a little hasty with his decision and allowed the fee to remain at five dollars for three months.

This little incident quickly opened our eyes to the fact that, although the Kuna Indian way of life may seem a bit primitive to us, they do have a strict system of government with a strong view to fairness.  An example of this was when the folks making the coconut jewelry advised Pablo that they wanted to buy 200 coconuts and that they were willing to pay 20 cents each rather that the normal 15 cents paid by the Colombian buyers.  Pablo advised them that this would have to be presented to the Congresso.  The decision of the Congresso was that they could buy the coconuts, but they would have to do it by purchasing four coconuts from each of 50 families, thus spreading the profits around.

During our week at Mamitupu we had Pablo and his wife Jacinta as well as three of their children aboard for dinner. We learned Kuna children do not like hot dogs and very much prefer rice.  Without having experienced it, one could just not imagine the shear bliss on the faces of three little Kunas who have never seen a TV before watching Shrek on the VCR.

We are glad we visited Mamitupu early in our one year visit to the San Blas because this gave us an unusual insight into how these people govern themselves.  The incident sparked long discussions with Pablo who explained many of the rules and regulations of the Kuna people.  They have a virtually crime free society as a result of very strict rules and common sense punishments which is almost always community service.  We were sad to leave Mamitoupo and were very moved when almost all the village turned out to wave goodbye as we left with the music to “Heart of Oak” blasting on our deck speaker. With a bit of luck these people will keep their culture for another few hundred years. We are proud to display the special mola Pablo’s wife, Jacinta, made for us with a sailboat and the name of our boat on it.  This little island and the people who inhabit it will always have a special place in our heart.

Notes on the author:

Reg & Maureen McCluskey have been cruising their CSY 44 “Heart of Oak’ which they have completely rebuilt, in the Caribbean since July 2000 and have cruised from Trinidad to the Virgin Islands and back, then in December of 2001 commenced a clockwise circumnavigation of the Caribbean, which to date has taken them to Belize & Guatemala.

Heart of Oak under sail to Utilla, Honduras.  She's sailing to "her" song ... Heart of Oak. 

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