Guna Yala: the indigenous Caribbean in a state of struggle

As with the histories of most indigenous peoples, the Guna people have endured many hardships over their long history. Find out the cause.

Guna Yala: the indigenous Caribbean in a state of struggle
Indigenous Caribbean peoples are fighting for survival in Guna Yala. Photograph by Alex Alba

The Guna people's history is full of struggles and tragedies, just like the histories of other indigenous peoples. They fled from the mountains along the Ogigidiuala River, which is now called the Atrato River, and crossed the sacred hill of Dagargunyala in what is now Colombia.

Some families remained there, and today their descendants still live in the villages of Ibgigundiwar and Makilagundiwar, but the vast majority gradually occupied the isthmus of Panama, first in the Darien and then on the Caribbean coast of what is now the autonomous region of Guna Yala.

It is a long piece of land that extends from the top of the mountains of the mountain range to the Caribbean Sea and has 3,206 km2 of land area, to which the maritime territory and its islands must be added. Some of these are minimal, with barely enough space for a few palm trees; others have large settlements, such as Usdub and Ogobsuggun, two united islands that, between them, are home to 3,500 people.

The largest community on the mainland is Mamsuggun, with just under 600 inhabitants. The Guna Yala Comarca is home to some of the best-preserved forests in Panama and more than 300 coral islands, where almost the entire population lives.

There are also two communities inhabited mostly by non-indigenous people, mainly blacks: La Miel and Puerto Obaldía (Armali in Dulegaya), near the border with Colombia, which reside under a special regime in the comarca territory.

There is almost no presence of the Panamanian State or western civilization; the only ways to get there are by land in the west, by sea from the Costa Arriba de Colon, and by plane to several airports located throughout the region.

The Guna Nation: A Long History of Resistance, War, and Reconfiguration

The Guna nation as we know it has survived until today thanks to a long history of resistance and warfare against Europeans, settlers, and other indigenous peoples of the area. When the Spaniards arrived in the Darien, they began a process of territorial conquest with military outposts that consolidated into settlements, from which they sent out new military expeditions.

This meant that a lot of the native people had to move or disappear. On top of being surrounded by the Spanish, English, and French, they also had to fight among themselves to move to new areas.

There is little information about the reconfiguration of the area, but it is known from traditional stories and legends that the Emberas and the Gunas, among others, fought each other for years. Soon after, enslaved Africans began to arrive from Cuba to work in the mining operations. Maroons emerged from this group and joined the fight for the territory.

At the beginning of the XVIII century, the Gunas dominated a large part of the Darien, where many rivers, regions, and mountains are named in the Guna language, such as Chucunaque, Tuira, or Pinogana.

In the second half of the 18th century, new English and, above all, Spanish incursions returned to the region, seeking to destroy the political and social system that the Gunas had established. The Spaniards appointed new caciques, who received a salary, tobacco, and other privileges such as hereditary titles, with the clear objective of distancing the Gunas from their traditional forms of government.

Influence peddling, bureaucracy, submission to the Catholic religion, and the establishment of unequal trade served to establish a political order of conquest and dependence, a model that somehow persists in Latin America. The reasons why it is believed that the Gunas were able to survive the Spanish conquest have to do with their organizational power, but also with other circumstances such as the geopolitical situation of the time.

The Gunas demonstrated the ability to negotiate—not always amicably—with various groups of Europeans, blacks, mestizos, Creoles, other indigenous people, and, finally, with the government of Panama. This was how they were able to maintain territorial control as a reinforcement of their cultural identity.

The map of Gunayala territories.
The map of Gunayala territories.

A brief history of the Gunas

The Gunas acquired fame as warriors in the 16th century for their complicity with the English, Dutch, and French in attacks on Spanish ships and settlements. This collaboration began informally with privateers, but when the Scots established a colony in the Darien in 1698, it marked the beginning of a more formal alliance between the Gunas and the latter.

At the end of the 17th century, in addition to the Scots, there was a colony of French pirates, and survivors of various shipwrecks, who established commercial and friendly ties with the Gunas. Thus arose the so-called Franco-Guna populations, which included mixed families, although the peaceful coexistence between them did not last long.

In 1745, the Jesuits negotiated with the French to enter northern Darien, and later, the English proposed a commercial alliance with the Gauls. This caused alarm among the Gunas, and tensions increased until, in 1757, there was a massacre of Frenchmen: 87 of them died, and the rest were forced to leave the area. Until the beginning of the 19th century, Anglo-Guna attacks on ships going to or coming from Cartagena were frequent.

At the beginning of the 20th century, after the birth of the new republic of Panama, the Guna people faced great obstacles in the consolidation of their territorial and cultural entity. The new government sent military delegations to the islands to "civilize" them, which meant stopping cultural practices like traditional ceremonies, songs, and women wearing molas.

Great hostilities finally provoked the armed uprising of the Guna people in February 1925, under leaders such as Nele Kantule and Simral Colman (Ologindibibbilele), known as the Dule Revolution. After the rebellion, the Republic of Panama had to change how it thought about the territory of Guna Yala. In 1938, the Comarca of San Blas was made.

However, the rulers of the time continued not to recognize their political organization and traditional authorities until much later. The law established as the highest authority the representative of the president, ignoring not only the presence of the Guna leaders but also the existence of a political structure based on the assemblies or congresses.

The Gunas today

In Guna Yala, the language spoken is Dulegaya, although most people are bilingual or trilingual and can communicate in Dulegaya, Spanish, or English. A few years ago, the official schools attended by Guna children started teaching in Dulegaya.

Unlike the rest of the country, Guna Yala's internal regulations currently allow private property on the islands and coasts. For this reason, it is common for families who own the beach to charge a tax or tribute to visitors ("wagas") for using the beach or camping there. Generally, the most traditional communities are also the best organized and strictest in terms of rules regarding alcohol and community life.

One of the most serious environmental problems in Guna Yala today is litter, mainly plastic bottles, and bags. The seabed and roads in many villages began to become littered in recent years; it is a serious problem that some communities have dealt with better than others.

Guna society has been adapting to the gradual entry of the capitalist economy and Western civilization for years. The biggest change, however, occurred only in 2010 when the Panamanian state paved and built bridges on the El Llano-Gardi road.

Suddenly the territory that was the isolated refuge where this person settled after centuries of conflict was opened as never before to tourism, at the same time that the Gunas were able to move more easily to and from the city. Things are different here, and visitors, or as non-indigenous people are called, even if they are from Panama, can feel like they are in another country.

Guna Yala is governed by a system of traditional authorities called Onmagged Dummangan or General Congresses: that of the Guna Culture, in charge of cultural and spiritual matters; and the Guna General Congress, administrative and political, which represents the comarca before the Panamanian State, private entities, and national and international organizations.

Both congresses are presided over by three sagladummagan (or "general caciques,"  although the term cacique is in disuse); sagla is pronounced "sáhila" and means "maximum chief." Both congresses are composed of representatives of the 49 communities, and each has local leaders called simply saglas, who enjoy sufficient autonomy to decide on economic, social, and even security matters.

The Guna General Congress is governed by a Congress Executive Board, made up of the three sagla dummagan, two siggwi (secretaries), and an administrator, which is held every six months and represents all the communities.

Today, Gunayala is still writing its history with the perspective of continuing to strengthen its autonomy, its identity, its territory, and its political organization. The great revolutionary leader Nele Kantule summarized the Guna history and vision in a single sentence: "I want our culture to endure in the universal framework of peoples as that of a dignified and humane people." So far, this wish has been fully fulfilled.

Author: Fundación Almanaque Azul (Blue Almanac Foundation), Source: Revista de la Universidad