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Post The Kuna of Panama
Created by John Eipper on 06/02/17 6:01 AM

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The Kuna of Panama (Enrique Torner, USA, 06/02/17 6:01 am)

As many indigenous tribes as I thought I knew, my 14-year old daughter just introduced me to a new one: the Kuna tribe of the Caribbean, off of the coast of Panama.

She had to write a project on Panama for her high school Spanish class, and asked me for help. In the process, I learned about this tribe, which, according to a 2015 news article from The Guardian, is in danger of extinction. There are only 50,000 of them left. Regarding the country of Panama, I discovered that they eat all kinds of strange food, like "ropa vieja"--in English, dirty clothes! For crying out loud! Just kidding! I had heard of "ropa vieja" before, but forgot what it is: it is sort of a stew made with meat and vegetables. Its origin is Cuban, but Panamanians fix it with a spin.

Here are the links to the Kuna article and to the recipe for "ropa vieja":



Does any WAISer know about the Kuna? Has anybody eaten "dirty clothes"?

JE comments: Wouldn't it be old clothes?  I've enjoyed ropa vieja a couple of times.  It's a delicious stew, and a staple of Cuban cuisine.  How about a round of ropa vieja at WAIS '17, Havana?

Our Central America expert Tim Brown is probably familiar with the Kuna people.  I hope he'll comment.

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  • The Kuna of Panama, and Other Central American Native Peoples (Timothy Brown, USA 06/03/17 4:09 AM)
    I congratulate Enrique Torner (2 June) on having a daughter with the intellectual energy to include the Kuna in her research on Panama, not least because she probably knows a lot more about them that I ever will--although we do have two pieces of Kuna trade art hanging on the entrance to our home. If her school has a chapter, she might want to consider joining Destination Imagination. I have a granddaughter that just came back from helping represent Monterrey, Mexico in its annual international gathering and competition, gala sombrero, serape, Mexican flag and all. And for her it was a fascinating and imagination stimulating experience.

    As for the Kuna, about all I know is that they are just one of dozens of indigenous peoples in Latin America, perhaps 40,000 Kuna in a sea of 40 million or so that still hold to their pre-Colombian identities in a sea of 650 million. Pre-Conquista estimates by some historical anthropologists estimate that before the Conquest they numbered 50-60 million and spoke several thousand different languages. During the first part of the Conquista both these numbers dropped sharply. But more recently they've grown back to 30-40 million, depending on who you believe.

    My own hands-on experiences with indigenous peoples in Latin America have spanned most of my professional years, including more than a decade ranging from six years in or dealing with Guaraní-speaking Paraguay, another six plus with Sumus, Ramas and Misquitos in Nicaragua and a few more with both lowlands Maya in the Yucatan and highlands Maya in the Soconusco/Chiapas of Mexico and Guatemala.

    On Central America in general, Costa Rica, being essentially a European-origin country, has the fewest remaining descendants of pre-Colombian peoples, perhaps nine groups in all, each quite small. After Costa Rica, Panama may now have the fewest culturally cohesive pre-Colombian indigenous groups, while the Guatemalan highlands have the most, followed by northern Honduras. But there is a vast difference between the relative handful of culturally and linguistically cohesive indigenous groups and dominant post-colonial mixtures in the region, not counting ten-12 more doing doctoral research in the region. And what I learned was very different from the dominant dialogue.

    Contrary to the conventional wisdom of today, the Spanish were not the region's first Conquistadores. Six centuries before the Spanish arrived, Nahua-Mexica from the region of today's Puebla, Mexico had conquered and colonized about half of Central America. Since the Conquista most have lost their original languages and now speak vernacular versions of Spanish. But few if any have lost their pre-Colombian social mores.

    Today the base populations of Pacific lowlands Guatemala, almost all of El Salvador, Pacific coastal Honduras, Nicaragua's Pacific lowlands and the province of Guanacaste, Costa Rica, are of Nahua-Mexica origin, while the highlands of Guatemala and northern Honduras remain Maya. Since it was more recently settled by refugees from the Caste War of Yucatan, Spanish is its second language.

    So, when the region's second wave of Conquistadores arrive, the indigenous peoples in Central America were vastly different from what they had been five or six centuries earlier--highlands Maya to the north and Nahua-Mexica in the Pacific lowlands, while the Segovian highlands of Nicaragua and southern Honduras were regions of small holders that had been pushed out of the Pacific lowlands by Nahua-Mexica invaders although the centuries-old wars between them were still being fought.

    After they arrived, the Spanish easily conquered the lowlands Nahuas, since they were already about 99% "serfs" working for the 1% that were Mexica "nobles." This originally gave the Spanish an already docile labor force that they quickly brought under control that originally was able to produce sufficient trade goods to make Pacific Nicaragua valuable. But, for two reasons, they did not bring the highlanders under control. First, because as highly independent milpista small farmers they were not a readily controlled and already organized work force. And two, because there was very little else in the highlands, except in one small place where there were valuable mines, it wasn't worth the effort. In fact, highland Chibcha raids into the Pacific lowlands took place as recently as the 1960s. (No, that's not a typo!)

    According to documents found in the Archivos de Las Indias, several hundred thousand Pacific lowlands Nahua-Mexica were later sold into slavery. But that's another story.

    PS: I like "ropa vieja" too, although I like my wife's arroz con pollo more.

    JE comments:  It's "rice with chicken" in Spanish, but "chicken and rice" in English.  These kinds of things amuse me (perhaps) more than they should.  Similar examples: a black-and-white TV is "white and black" (blanco y negro) in Spanish, and when you get married, you are pronounced "husband and woman" (marido y mujer), not the traditional English "man and wife."  To be sure, mujer translates as both "wife" and "woman."

    Thanks for this very informative post, Tim.  Could you tell us more about Destination Imagination?

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    • A Panamanian Vampire Tale; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 06/05/17 3:55 AM)

      Gary Moore writes:

      Re: The Indians of Panama (June 2-3, Enrique Torner, Timothy Brown, and Enrique's
      admirably inquisitive daughter):

      My own indigenous contact experience came at the opposite end of Panama, which couldn't be reached
      by road in those days. For ages that pocket of Panama had formed an exotic backside-of-everything,
      lost between Caribbean swamps and the chilled cloud forests of the Continental Divide. I reached it,
      sweaty and ragged, by means of some obsessive hiking. My experience with the indigenous people
      there might be called, without exaggeration, blood-curdling.

      I had come in from the neglected back door of Costa Rica, hiking down deserted but luxuriant beach,
      and had no contact with public information. Thus I didn't know that at the time the entire nation of
      Panama--the nation whose jungles I was entering--was undergoing a social phenomenon, in the form
      of a delusional mass panic. This had spread even into the roadless jungles. Its crux was simple:
      People kept seeing vampires.

      Or at least, their cousin's uncle's brother-in-law had said, on absolutely bona fide authority,
      that the vampires had been spotted, definitely. Across Panama, children were being kept home
      from school (because you know who vampires find most juicy). Sweat-blind and stumbling
      along gamely, I knew none of this, though I could see how such a story might take root.
      Before the deepest jungles I had found myself in a cleared pasture where three local cowboys
      were at work. I spent the night with them, in a stilted bunkhouse cubicle reached by a ladder,
      testifying to local respect for varmints. Meanwhile, the cowboys were busy swabbing wounds
      on their cattle, wounds left by vampire bats. So Panama had a background with vampires, of a sort.
      I took no heed. I was puzzled, not long after the bat glimpse, when a couple of guys at a
      hole-in-the-wall store, where I hungrily downed two Cokes in the heat, called after me with a warning:
      "Watch out for the vampires." I thought this must be some kind of little joke--one more embarrassing
      proof of my slowness in comprehending local slang. But there was something disturbing in their
      parting expressions. It looked like they meant it.

      Throughout the Indian areas of old Meso-America there are trails, so most of it doesn't require
      machete-hacking. If you're lucky, the dismal point where a trail cryptically forks will eventually produce
      an amiable pedestrian, or somebody on a mule, or an isolated house--where you can ask the obvious:
      which fork to take to get to the next village. This game of trial and error could get me ten miles or
      more in a day in the jungles, as opposed to twenty on roads. I had crossed some impressive swamps,
      with a few conversations at isolated houses, when a long, daunting, unpopulated stretch took me into
      the heart of Guaymi country, settled only by isolated villages of a pre-Colombian people called the Guaymi.

      It was late in the afternoon when the jungle began to open up and tree stumps among weeds
      marked a clearing that led to a village. Like country people anywhere, those in Latin America put a
      high value on hospitality, so naturally, even though I had entered a new cultural zone, I expected
      to be able to ask my way to the home of some nice lady where I could buy a meal--dutifully
      paying my way--as she might rustle up a couple of eggs from yard hens, along with maybe some beans.
      And then, I expected, I would ask some more, in order to find where I could string up my hammock
      for the night. Thus, as the stumps and weeds began to lead to thatched roofs, I planned to wave
      goofily at the first kids who might predictably come out to stare. These were cruder stilt houses than
      the Spanish-speaking cowboys had used, but larger. I had stayed in many such villages before.
      The basic ceremonies of greeting were always the same.

      But here, the kids did not come out to stare. A small tidal wave was beginning. Each house would yield up
      furtive, hurrying inhabitants who at first could scarcely be seen as they ran ahead of me, as if escaping
      some plague. Nobody was waving. The hours of swamp-slogging I had just survived did not dispose me well
      to this mystery. When I was snubbed it irritated me. The ghostly fleeing figures began accumulating at a
      single house, fronted by some rickety fence pickets. I was too tired and disoriented to realize how ridiculous
      it was that my feelings were hurt. How could they ignore the rules of hospitality? They stared strangely
      at my mud-spattered, scarecrow-like form--until at last the crowd rippled, and from the house (apparently
      the village chief's house) an old fellow in a battered fedora walked out. I can see now that the poor guy
      must have felt he was taking his life in his hands. But, backed by his staring constituents, he strode up to me
      defiantly, leaned close to my face, and blurted out: "Es usted el vampiro?"

      Well, what does one say to this? When asked if one is the vampire, what can one possibly say
      that a tricky vampire would not say? No, I'm not the vampire? That's exactly what a tricky vampire
      would say. But luckily, my heatstruck emotional state supplied the perfect reply. Idioticaily, I got mad.
      I still knew nothing about the nationwide vampire panic, but I could tell now that I wasn't going to get
      any fried eggs, at least not soon. Practically snorting at the absurdity of the fellow's question--and maybe
      too surprised and baffled to feel fear--I slammed my backpack on the ground in front of him. "Here, search
      everything I've got," I scolded impatiently. "Would a vampire be carrying this stuff?" This caused a sudden
      rush. The crowd surged forward, glomming around me, peering to see into the backpack as my inquisitor
      dug through it. Then silence. A sea of faces turned back up to me, reproachfully. The inquisitor said suspiciously:
      "There aren't many clothes in here." (A vampire, being able to fly away and do other miracles, wouldn't need
      many clothes.)  Again my swamp-strained mental state pulled me through. I kept sputtering until sheer indignation
      won them over. No vampire could be this crazy. They saw that I was merely an odd sojourner, to whom they had
      refused hospitality.

      Thus the pendulum swung back, and they rushed to make amends. I got to eat. These people turned
      out to be pathetically impoverished, without even many yard hens. They proffered a quart can in which
      some green bananas had been boiled, as tasteless as eating styrofoam, along with some remarkably small fried fish,
      barely minnows, caught in a jungle stream. But I was in. My lunatic charms had won the day--except for one thing.
      I was still just as groggy, and less than insightful. "You must stay with us tonight," they urged, giving me a
      priceless chance to learn about this isolated culture from the inside. But did I accept?

      I should explain here that a certain malady of the trail is known to many long-distance hikers, sometimes called One More Mile.
      Oddly, the more tired you get out in the wilderness, the less you want to quit. You want to keep pushing and pushing,
      putting away more of those uncomfortable miles, as if the perfect resting spot is up ahead in your dreams. To the offer
      of overnight hospitality I replied that there was still plenty of daylight left, and I could make a few more miles toward the
      next village. I didn't notice their eyes widening as they replied, "But no, the sun will be down soon. You can't stay out in
      the jungle after dark." Not to worry, I said, I had done it tons of times. I would would just string my hammock between
      two trees. Their new silence continued to go unnoticed. Dutifully, they sent a couple of kids with me to show where the
      village clearing melted in to a new trail into the jungle. The kids stayed with me as we all pushed into the shadows,
      deeper and deeper. Then, sooner than I expected, dusk came filtering in among the fan palms. "Well, right here,"
      I said expansively to my guides. "This will do fine. I'll string my hammock up right...." I stopped, realizing that I was
      speaking to no one. Suddenly I was alone. Seeing that I actually did mean it, that I would sleep unprotected in the
      spirit-haunted jungle, my guides had fled in terror. It was true! I was the vampire.

      It took some more hard days. Up over the Continental Divide, getting past arrow-poison frogs on the trail (another story)
      and going from near-heatstroke to near-hypothermia in the cold of the cloud forests, but I then wandered out into the
      more populous parts of Panama, there to discover the details of the mass panic. It took different forms according to region.
      Back in the jungles, where there were no roads, the vampire was said to be a solo predator who could fly. Some soldiers
      had chased it down, getting a shot at it, but it soared away. Darn. But in the populous areas where there were roads,
      the story grew ornate: There were not one but two vampires, a couple, a male and a female vampire. Everybody said so.
      Why, the horrifying corpse of a bloodless child had been found right in the next town (which happened to be the Panamanian
      city of David, in a sort of Prufrockian burlesque of Bible lore). Soon I actually got to the city of David, and the people there
      hastened to confirm. Why yes, that horrible corpse really was found--but it was in the next town. And so it went.
      The stories did vary a bit. Always the romantic vampire couple was disguised, but some stories said they were posing
      as priest and nun. And others said doctor and nurse. But in all versions they were traveling by the same means--in a
      Volkswagen van. This detail was ironclad. A sizeable portion of a nation seemed to be dreaming while awake--and scoffing
      (almost as groggily as me among the Guaymis) when the government kept releasing lame disclaimers, and sputtering
      that there was no vampire. Or vampires.

      Later I was back in the States, in Florida, conversing with an affable barmaid. It turned out she was from Panama, and
      apparently she kept in touch. Wow, I said, do you know about the vampires? "Yes!" she exclaimed. "You've heard about
      them too?  Did you know they're in a Volkswagen van?"

      JE comments:  This is a soon-to-be WAIS classic, Gary!  It's frightening to be the lone, isolated sojourner, but the malaise is often mutual.  I am somehow reminded of the classic Gary Larson Far Side cartoon, below:  fear the anthropologist.

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