That was the insistent invitation from a large Cuna mamacita brandishing a grinning mouthful of golden teeth and a half chewed-up cigar. Wearing a red headscarf, arm and leg beads, gold nose rings and earrings, and the traditional colorful mola panel blouse, she was inviting our women to join a raucous party.
This exuberant welcome was only extended to the females of our Panama expedition—the guys were gently nudged aside to wait outside under the large thatched roof awning. We were not let inside the women’s party house, but left loitering quietly like underaged fellows outside the grownups’ discotheque. In contrast, in the women’s’ common house there was a loud and happy humming of communal laughter, infrequent falsetto singing, and uplifting melodies played on pan flutes made of pelican bones. A wonderful mixture of sweet smells of tobacco, fermented sugarcane juice and rancid sweat seeped through the walls of the hut.
We learned later that this occasion was the date dedicated to celebrate Cuna women, in particular the native teenage village girls who were “coming of age.” After the young girl’s first menstrual period, a party is held where the pubescent girl’s nasal septa are pierced to make room for gold jewelry. We were also told later that a one point during the ceremony, a large chicken was sacrificed and its warm blood was splattered and smeared over the naked belly of the village head-woman.
This colorful scene took place about 15 years ago, when our small group of explorers had inadvertently stumbled upon this very special festivity on Kuanidup Island on the remote Caribbean coastline of Northern Panama. Two weeks prior to that, we had kayaked these remote western San Blas Islands following the trade winds westwards, hopping from one picture-perfect tropical island to another.
Our journey was the first commercial sea kayak expedition ever into the Panamanian Autonomous Region of Cuna Yala. There are 378 islands within the archipelago and they are scattered in a long chain across an area of about 100 square miles between the Colombian border and the Panama Canal. The majority of the San Blas Islands have no inhabitants, but on the larger ones (about two dozen in total), the gentle native people of the Cuna live—a little more than 30,000 total. Today, the indigenous Cuna, with the support of the Panamanian government, have established an autonomous territory called the Cuna Yala district, and it is a self-governing comarca within the Republic of Panama.
As we experienced firsthand, Cuna Yala is a place where women are in charge. Here, the locals keep a strict matriarchal society—of which there are very few left in the world. In this matriarchal society, several principles are upheld that give women the de facto power over the communities: the family’s residence is matrilocal—meaning that when young couples get married, they move into the woman’s family home. Also, the hereditary succession is matrilineary, so that any family lives with the mother’s kin. Most importantly, all essential possessions such a as land plots, animals and other goods belong to the matriarch of the family, not the patriarch.
The decision-making in Cuna Yala is made on an informal consensus basis within and between the Cuna clans and is based on strong female economic and social power structures. Although each village formally has a Sahila (headman) who represents the village in person to the outside world, the headman has to follow the strong female societal power basis.
This female-based indigenous culture might be one of the reasons that the Cuna natives have resisted the strong outside Western pressures of modern economic development. The economic basis for the San Blas Islands is fragile, and is mostly sustainable fishing and harvesting of island crops, combined with careful Panama ecotourism. The Cuna women’s’ decision-makers have chosen a more careful and sustainable development pathway not seen in many indigenous societies under modern development pressures. These women have realized that they had to adapt to an economic system based on their own terms and without destroying their unique moral and cultural beliefs.
One good example of that is the development of the molas—the valuable handicraft applique work that today adds to the Cuna economy. Less than 100 years ago, the Cuna women used to paint their bodies in intriguing and colorful geometrical designs and they found that there was a market in Panama and beyond for clothing bought from European settlers in Panama displaying such colorful, lovely patterns.
From a tourism development perspective and compared to most Caribbean coastal areas, the San Blas Islands are completely undeveloped, with no large hotels, busy marinas, access roads or airports The only access road is a muddy 4-wheel track that requires eight to ten hour’s drive through the jungle from Panama City and there are only a handful of short takeoff and landing (STOL) airstrips.
We had flown into such an airstrip across the Isthmus of Panama in a sputtering Twin Otter plane, packed full with our provisions and folding kayaks. The small dirt landing strip at Tigre Island had to be cleared from playing children and free-running pigs before we could make the wobbly landing in the strong crosswinds. After disembarking with our bundles of gear, children escorted us from the landing strip to the larger community thatched hut in the center of the village.
There, we were greeted ceremoniously by the Sahila (village headman) and the village male council—all lying relaxed in a semi-circle of hammocks facing us. I humbly explained in broken Spanish our intended route and where we had planned to camp and kayak along the islets on the more protected side of the inner reefs.
The village council listened with quiet intent and finally the Sahila raised his head from the hammock and deadpanned: “You are obviously good people of the sea like us and know how to respect our nature. Most importantly, don’t touch any coconuts—they are the gold of our land. You can fish for food with a hook—no nets—and be careful of the mainland jungle, where there are sacred graves and many mosquitoes. Go now.”
On our way out and back at the Cuna women’s party hut , our “gals” finally stumbled out, inebriated from fermented sugar cane juice and with a waft of cigar smoke around them. We led them to our kayaks and paddled away with throngs of Cuna women hollering their goodbyes from the edge of the beach.
This was all a confirmation that women rule in San Blas, Panama. It made me think that perhaps we can learn from them from these special island people and how they live. How they do not embrace growth for the sake of growth and how they economize wisely with a limited about of natural resources, all while respecting women and celebrating their strength!
The northern entrance to the Panama Canal at Colon skirts the Cuna Yala region. Visitors here will be able to encounter the Cuna women selling their precious molas, and will be enthralled by the beauty of their handicrafts and impressed by their female entrepreneurship!