Kuna people

From Anarchy In Action
Panama-Kuna 0605a.jpg

The Kuna people of Central America have an egalitarian matriarchal society that practices consensus-based decision making. About 60,000 of the Kuna live in Panama's archipelago called Kuna Yuna (formerly Sans Blas).

Though the Kuna has often been described as "matriarchal," this does not indicate that women are dominant over others. In fact, there is gender complementarity, with women having the upper hand at the local level, men having the upper-hand at the regional level, and transgender individuals being welcomed and respected.


The Kuna are matrilineal and matrilocal.[1] The Irish Times reports, "And what does being a Kuna woman in a matriarchal society feel like? 'It's a good life,' says one young woman, bashfully."[2]

The culture's most important ritual is the girl's initiation into womanhood, known as the Diwe Inna.[3] There is also an important festival when a girl menstruates for the first time. There are no comparable rituals for boys, and even weddings are a much more simple affair.[4]

In this matriarchal culture, the women dress much more elaborately than men do. Heide Goettner-Abendroth explains:

Before Christian mission schools were built in their territories, men used to wear nothing but a gold- en penis-holder and feathers; today they wear inexpensive western clothing. The women, on the other hand, are well dressed. They used to wear only a cloth wrap- around skirt, but were adorned from head to hips with their own creative and elaborate body painting in a great variety of fantastic forms. They also wore the family gold on their bodies as heavy, round plates in their ears and around their necks, sup- plemented by golden breastplates and nose rings. Although missionaries insisted that Kuna women cover themselves, they stayed true to traditional styles: as talent- ed painters, they transferred body painting designs to post-contact cotton blouses, and later began to practice their art in the form of needlework. This needlework, which adorns their blouses, or 'molas,' still expresses the fantastic forms that portray the entirety of their mythical cosmology—including modern images derived from American television commercials.

Third Gender

There is a third gender called Omeggid referring to those who are assigned male at birth and then adopt mainly feminine traits. The Omeggid often choose traditionally feminine professions such as weaving molas.[5]


Women are more powerful at the local level, and men are more powerful at the regional level. Anthropologist Diego Madi Dias summarizes, "while women make all the domestic decisions, they are rarely politicians or chiefs."[6]

At the local level:

"Women are the boss," says Jose Davies, a Kuna museum archivist. "My wife makes all the decisions. If I say to her, tomorrow I'm going fishing, she could say to me, no, we need bananas, go to the mainland and bring back bananas. So I go to the mainland and bring back bananas."[7]

At the regional level, men make decisions at public assemblies. Kuna chiefs, who are usually men, serve as facilitators and can be immediately recalled by their communities. They maintain their role only if they have popular consent. Each village's assembly meets two to three times a week. Delegates and chiefs gather for a regional assembly a few times a year.[8]


Women control the land and own what's grown on it. Men do the farming and hand the harvest over to the matriarch so that the women can distribute it fairly.[9]


In Kuna religion, "everything has a soul: rocks, water, wind, plants, animals and people all possess souls."[10] The Kuna have struggled actively against ecologically destructive projects such as the Pan-American Highway.[11]

Kuna Yuna's islands are at risk of being submerged by rising sea levels due to global warming.[12]

  1. Matriarchal Societies
  2. Sarah Marriott, "Where every day is mother's day," Irish Times, 19 March 2004, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/where-every-day-is-mother-s-day-1.1136122.
  3. Matriarchal Societies, 250-1.
  4. Marriott, "Where every day".
  5. https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20180813-guna-yala-the-islands-where-women-make-the-rules.
  6. Egle Gerulaityte, "Guna Yala: The islands where women make the rules," BBC, 14 August 2018, https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20180813-guna-yala-the-islands-where-women-make-the-rules.
  7. Marriott, "Where every day."
  8. James Howe, "How the Cuna Keep Their Chiefs in Line," Man 13 no. 4 (1978):537-553.
  9. Goettner-Abendroth, Matriarchal Societies, 245.
  10. Goettner-Abendroth, Matriarchal Societies, 249.
  11. https://www.doordie.org.uk/issues/issue-10/18-life-s-a-beach.html.
  12. https://www.vice.com/en/article/nev3aw/climate-change-refugees-kuna.