In 2019, in a world before Covid, I had one of the greatest privileges known to man: I traveled around the world for five months experiencing some of the best things this world has to offer. I’m drawn to adventure — but I’m also a spoiled European girl — and thus preferred to tread the line between backpacking nomad and resort hopper. This mostly meant staying at hostels and, when affordable, in a private room.
You can imagine then, that when I came across fellow travellers boasting about their fantastic trip through the San Blas Islands, I was drawn to the adventure — but immediately had questions about the lodging and logistics…
4 days, 3 nights; a bus, many bumpy boats, and an entry into Colombia. Sleeping arrangements: a hammock in the open air. Bathroom: the ocean. Easy peasy, right?
While my limits were certainly tested throughout this trip; it was the beauty and culture of the Kuna people, that expanded my views the most.
The Kuna have a unique culture that depends on island tourism and agricultural trade. Instead of men owning land and property and acting as the head of the family, it is the women who inherit the islands, make the household decisions, and determine the future of the family. Women’s ability to take on these responsibilities has never been questioned there.
To the locals, it’s logical to put women in charge. Kuna men work on the land, fish, and generally provide income through manual labor. Women skilfully use the Kuna’s history and culture to make profit through crafts sold locally and on the mainland. With the men away, and the women able to work closer to home, Kuna women have a better overview of the finances, families, and priorities for future decision-making. Which is why they are put in charge.
Political systems are traditionally still ruled by men, but since the women are believed to be gifts from Mother Earth herself, they are regarded as special in a way that is unique to the Kuna. Modern notions such as property ownership and financial planning has adapted to this view, rendering women head of the family, and making the Kuna one of the last few Matriarchal societies left on earth.
The Kuna settled on the islands 500 years ago and their traditions haven’t changed much since. Unfortunately, freedom didn’t come easily. Before gaining their independence in 1925 they were bullied, raped, and slaughtered by local Panamanians who clashed with their culture, religion, and language. The US supported their fight for independence by organising a coup and drafting a state independence letter. While San Blas now technically still belongs to Panama, the Kuna are free to make their own rules and regulations independent of the state.
Panama has offered to help the region expand financially and offer work and living arrangements on the mainland, but many Kuna decide to stay on the islands. Younger generations are curious and often spend time on the mainland before returning to their roots. The islands have only been open to tourists since 1940 and foreigners are still met with curiosity and excitement. While visiting one of the main islands we encountered this for ourselves. The island has one guest house and a school for the kids. Being completely disconnected from the modern world, small items like hair ties bring the biggest joy in the village, and visitors are honoured with a regional dance performed by the smallest islanders in their traditional clothing.
One thing cannot go unnoticed while connecting with the locals; the worshipped albino inhabitants. The Kuna people have the world’s largest albino population; with 7% of its people presenting this anomaly. In San Blas, this rarity is considered a sacred blessing, contrary to Albino populations worldwide, who experience a lot of discrimination.
Here, albino people are considered holy and are seen as pillars in the community. Known as a special saviour race, they’re believed to ward off the dragon that devours the moon during (what we now know to be) lunar eclipses. These “Children of the Moon” stand on rooftops warding off the evil that will stop the night light from shining.
All this shows that the Kuna are amazingly interesting and unique people. One with a repressive history; but one that never gave up its traditions, religion, and culture.
When finding out the Kuna people were one of the only Matriarchal societies left in the world, the feminist inside me roared with excitement to meet the island females responsible for their own success. Obviously, these women are just a product of their traditions and wouldn’t consider their situation a feminist statement.
Many Western women feel oppressed by the patriarchy; and it’s easy to romanticise different systems. My time with the Kuna was too short lived to see any major surface-level differences that the Matriarchy has provided, so it’s hard to say how much the Kuna women benefit. But I hope for them, that they feel safe and secure in their positions, and are given equal respect and status to their male counterparts. Ultimately, if feminism isn’t a prevalent topic for the Kuna women, isn’t that a victory in itself?