[MEMO FROM PANAMA – KUNA YALA]
I wish I could have been in Kuna Yala (“Kuna Indian Territory” or “The Land of the Indians” as translated to English by members of the local community) this morning, to witness the moment the streets of numerous villages on the islands off the northeastern coast of Panama became centre stage for reenactments of a tragic chapter in Kuna history.
Alberto Ariel, a community elder and actor in today’s commemoration, gently wiped the tears from his eyes as he passionately shared the story of his community’s horrific past two days ago, during my visit and what appeared to be a meeting in preparation for this day.
“People will dress in red to symbolize the bloodshed” he said while wearing a black baseball cap with the words “Colonial Police” in Spanish painted onto it in a bright yellow colour.
February 25th, 2015, marks the 90th commemoration of the Revolution (1921-1925) that ultimately resulted in the independence and autonomy the Kuna People had been fighting for since their ancestors’ arrival in Panama thousands of years ago.
According to a book written and given to me by Golmildo Valles Smith, a member of the Kuna community living on Carti Tupile, it was the former President of the Republic of Panama, Rodolfo Chiari, who in 1921, under the guise of protecting Kuna territory for its rightful owners, ordered the commander of the country’s National Police to establish a presence in Kuna Yala. “The actions of the police were forcing the Kuna to change their culture. The police showed [a] lack of respect to the Kuna men and women, who only wanted to follow traditional customs. The Kunas could not defend themselves or their culture without being beaten or imprisoned” writes Smith. By 1923, Kuna women were no longer permitted to use their traditional body paints and forced to wear blouses. Men were disrespected and abused, and women “raped in front of their husbands” Smith writes. But despite the brutal attempts to destroy one of the world’s most significant cultures, the Kuna people again proved resilient. “The Kunas fight for their liberty and protection of their culture. They always defend their mother’s ground” Smith said.
Despite numerous talks, as well as an American intervention, the prospect of peaceful negotiations between Panama’s indigenous population and the government had failed, and in 1925, the devastating and bloody battle ensued. It’s unclear how many people died. Everyone I asked nodded their heads in sorrow…simply saying, “many, many people…”
Despite numerous efforts to document Kuna history, much of it remains unclear. Smith is among several people who claim that there are major inaccuracies in present day publications. I for one will, therefore, wait until I am able to conduct further research locally. In the meantime, a simple thought, or observation, based on conversations with several indigenous communities far removed from one another, if I may.
As un-journalistic as this may be (given my clear bias towards recognizing the importance, significance, preservation, and protection of global cultures at all cost)…isn’t it time to focus on what the world can do to prevent the ongoing motivations, behaviours, and actions that lead to commemorations of horrific confrontations that have, could, and do entail the potential of destroying innocent lives, and the survival of global cultures?
I, as a Polish immigrant to North America and nomad, stand behind those who 90 years ago today, sacrificed their lives to protect their families, their communities, the Kuna culture, customs, language, knowledge, and history. Without your courage, pride, resilience and strength, the depth of Kuna wisdom and culture, would not exist today. As someone who has much to learn from your descendents, may you always be remembered!