Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs of the Kuna Indians

[ Latin American Studies ]

Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs of the Kuna Indians

Compiled, edited, and translated by Joel Sherzer

Ilustrated by Olokwagdi de Akwanusadup

Photos by Joel Sherzer

The Kuna Indians of Panama, probably best known for molas, their colorful appliqué blouses, also have a rich literary tradition of oral stories and performances; this book contains the texts of many such works.



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6 x 9 | 260 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70237-0

The Kuna Indians of Panama, probably best known for molas, their colorful appliqué blouses, also have a rich literary tradition of oral stories and performances. One of the largest indigenous groups in the South American tropics, the majority of them (about 70,000) reside in Kuna Yala, a string of island and mainland villages stretching along the Caribbean coast. It is here that Joel Sherzer lived among them, photographing and recording their verbal performances, which he feels are representative of the beauty, complexity, and diversity of the oral literary traditions of the indigenous peoples of Latin America.

This book is organized into three types of texts: humorous and moralistic stories; myths and magical chants; and women's songs. While quite different from one another, they share features characteristic of Kuna literature as a whole, including appreciation of their environment and a remarkable knowledge of their plants and animals; a belief in spirits as an important component of their world in curing, magic, and aesthetics; and, especially, great humor and a sense of play.

Vividly illustrated by a Kuna artist and accompanied by photographs that lend a sense of being present at the performances, the texts provide readers with a unique aesthetic perspective on this rich culture while preserving an endangered and valuable indigenous oral tradition.

  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Part I. Humorous and Moralistic Stories
    Chapter 2. The One-Eyed Grandmother
    Told by Pedro Arias
    Chapter 3. The One-Eyed Grandmother
    Written and read by Hortenciano Martínez
    Chapter 4. The Turtle Story
    Told by Chief Nipakkinya
    Chapter 5. The Way of the Turtle
    Told by Pedro Arias
  • Part II. Myths and Magical Chants
    Chapter 6. Counsel to the Way of the Devil Medicine
    Performed by Anselmo Urrutia
    Chapter 7. The Way of Cooling Off
    Performed by Pranki Pilos
    Chapter 8. The Way of the Rattlesnake
    Performed by Olowiktinappi
    Chapter 9. The Way of Making Chicha
    Performed by Mastaletat
    Chapter 10. The Way of the Sea Turtle
    Performed by Tiowilikinya
  • Part III. Women's Songs
    Chapter 11. Chicha Song
    Performed by Justina Pineda Castrellan
    Chapter 12. Three Kuna Lullabies
    Performed by Julieta Quijano, Brieta Quijano, and Donalda Garcia
    Chapter 13. Counsel to a Parakeet
    Performed by Justina Pineda Castrellan
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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The performances, translations, illustrations, and photographs in this book document and display the linguistic, cultural, social, literary, and individual imagination and creativity of the oral literature of the Kuna Indians of Panama. They are intended to guide readers into an appreciation of Kuna history, philosophy, mythology, symbolism, curing practices, knowledge of plant, animal, and marine ecology, gender relations, everyday interactions and preoccupations, and especially the rhythms and aesthetics of Kuna verbal practices.

The Kuna Indians, probably best known for their molas--colorful appliqué and reverse appliqué blouses made and worn by Kuna women and sold all over the world--are one of the largest indigenous groups in the South American tropics. About 70,000 Kuna inhabit Kuna Yala, a string of island and mainland villages stretching along the Caribbean coast from near Colón to the Panama-Colombia border. In addition approximately 19,000 Kuna live in Panama City. Readers of this book have probably seen pictures of Kuna women wearing colorful molas, along with tropical beaches, in advertisements aimed at attracting tourists to Panama or Latin America more generally.

A book on Kuna literature is most appropriate for a series focusing on Latin American translations. The verbal performances presented and translated here are representative of the beauty, complexity, and diversity of the oral literary traditions of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. While appreciated by indigenous peoples themselves as oral performances, they are not readily available to western audiences in either print or audio form.

Kuna literature is intimately linked to the social and cultural contexts in which it is performed. These include the gathering house, where myths are chanted, counsel is given, political speeches are made, humorous and moralistic stories are told, and people congregate at leisure times to talk and joke; the chicha house, where fermented drinks for young girls' puberty rites are made and consumed and where ritual chants for these rites are performed; and private homes where curing chants are performed for sick individuals, and lullabies, for babies.

This book is organized into three sections, I: humorous and moralistic stories; II: myths and magical chants; and III: women's songs. Humorous and moralistic stories can often be traced to European and sometimes African origins. It is possible that not only particular stories but the entire genre of storytelling was borrowed from Europeans, in particular, Spaniards, and diffused among indigenous groups, who are known to have traveled and continue to travel widely and learn each other's languages and traditions. In this regard it is interesting that the Kuna use the word kwento (from the Spanish cuento) for story, one of the few Spanish words to have entered the traditional Kuna vocabulary. In spite of their origins, these stories have, over time, become very Kuna in content, style, and performance. It is fascinating how borrowed characters, themes, and motifs become incorporated into Kuna modes of being, thinking, and talking. These stories describe the Kuna environment, Kuna behavior and philosophy, and Kuna morality. Their literary properties, in particular, the way in which they are told, are quintessentially Kuna.

Myths and magical chants are addressed to representatives of the spirit world, to cure a sick patient, control evil spirits, counsel helpful spirits, or achieve a specific goal, such as protection against dangerous snakes, a successful hunt, or the preparation of the fermented drink, chicha, which is consumed at girls' puberty rites. There are also chants performed for the pleasure and amusement of both spirits and humans.

The most commonly heard women's song is the lullaby, performed by all women, from young girls to grandmothers. Women also perform magical or semi-magical chants to spirits, as well as humorous songs at girls' puberty rites.

While these three types of Kuna literature are quite different from one another, they share features that are characteristic of Kuna literature as a whole. These include extensive repetition and parallelism, especially in curing and other ritual chants; metaphorical, figurative, and esoteric vocabulary; beautiful descriptions of tropical forest and marine ecology; detailed narrations of human, animal, and spirit behavior; and play and humor. Repetition for the Kuna, as for most Latin American indigenous groups, is not negative, but is valued, appreciated, and expected aesthetically. Similarly, detailed descriptions, play, and humor are all important components of Kuna aesthetics. The Kuna love their literature, appreciating it for its aesthetic as well as its social, cultural, and magical efficacy. They never tire of sitting and listening to these performances, often for hours at a time.

As is the case in many indigenous societies in the South American tropics, Kuna oral literature is often chanted or sung. Chants are usually more esoteric and difficult for ordinary Kuna to understand than spoken speech. Nonetheless, they are appreciated for their beauty in performance and powerful expression of Kuna beliefs and practices.

There are certain themes that are expressed in the texts presented here, themes that Kuna literature shares with the literatures of other indigenous groups in Latin America. Local ecology is a central one. Plants and trees and their magical and curative power are described in detail. These texts display a remarkable knowledge of both plants and animals, their form, shape, characteristics, and values. Animal behaviors and foibles are focused on, as are those of humans and spirits. In fact, the fascinating relationship that exists among the worlds of humans, animals, and spirits in the Kuna belief system emerges in these texts. Trickster stories in particular not only illustrate the Kuna's keen observation of the animals around them, but also communicate about social relations, including unequal ones.

The personalities and behaviors of animals and spirits are a mirror image and expression of Kuna human conduct. Spirits are a very important aspect of the Kuna world, in curing, magic, aesthetics, and everyday life. In these texts we see Kuna actors, human, animal, and spirit, as wily and clever, serious and humorous, all very important traits in their struggles against powerful forces, whether these are evil spirits or outsiders trying to take Kuna land. As part of the description of the behavior of humans, animals, and spirits, conversations are crucial. And the conversations depicted in these texts are wonderful renderings of those found in everyday Kuna life.

Several of these texts deal with various aspects of young girls' puberty rites. These include the preparation of the fermented drink, chicha, which is consumed in great quantities during the ritual; the special bathing and other activities individuals carry out before the ritual; and the various activities, including competitive drinking, that go on during the ritual.

Another recurrent theme in these texts is gender relations and the roles and worlds of women. The texts express a range and variety of gender relations and portrayals of women, from subservient to men to strong, willful, and confident actors. In their relations with husbands, children, and one another, women are depicted sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.

Finally, these stories, myths, and chants, like the Kuna life that they reflect and re-create, display considerable play and humor, as they mingle ancient legacies of indigenous Latin America with European motifs and everyday Kuna beliefs and behaviors.

The texts in this book provide a demonstration of how the Kuna understand and unify the ecological, social, cultural, and supernatural aspects of their lives through their language. Language is central and radiates out into the geographic, biological, botanical, zoological, and cultural worlds that speakers and listeners inhabit.

These texts constitute an autodescription and autoestimation of the Kuna world--Kuna social, cultural, and daily life the way the Kuna perceive it. The Kuna feel that their future as well as their past are expressed in these myths, stories, chants, and songs, which are both simple and profound, reflections of tradition as well as models for times to come. They are a legacy of the, unfortunately, vanishing verbal treasures of Latin America. They contain a learned expression of the knowledge and aesthetics of elders and ritual specialists and the sentiments of all Kuna, men, women, and children, who can understand, enjoy, and learn them.

Representation and Translation

The texts in this book are representations and translations of oral performances that I recorded. The rhythms of these performances, including volume, intonation, tempo, and pause pattern, are essential aspects of their aesthetics. My representations of these performances on the printed pages of this book aim at rendering their oral qualities for readers. Following current convention in the representation of indigenous American literature, including that of the Kuna, I present these texts in the form of poetic lines. I have determined lines according to pauses coupled with falling pitch, in spoken speech; according to musical pattern (a combination of pitch, tempo, and volume), as well as pause, in chants. Lines are also marked by an elaborate set of words, phrases, and affixes. Lines end with a period, and runover lines are indented. Long pauses without falling pitch are transcribed as blank spaces between words within lines. Short, interlinear pauses are represented with a comma. The line organization of the translation is identical to that of the representation of the original Kuna performance. Other expressive devices represented in the texts and translations are lengthening of sounds (indicated by doubling of letters), loud speech (indicated by capital letters), and stretched out pronunciation (indicated by dashes between syllables). Other features of the voice are indicated in parentheses.

Word boundaries in this polysynthetic language, in which there is a tendency for independent words to be shortened and affixed to other words, and in which there is not a tradition of writing, pose a particularly difficult problem. I have determined word boundaries by a combination of phonetic/phonological, grammatical, and semantic principles.

Translation, in particular from an indigenous Latin American language like Kuna into a western language like English, requires a combination of linguistic, anthropological, and literary perspectives. It involves grammar and words, knowledge of local ecology, and social and cultural concepts. I intend the translations to reflect the poetic and rhetorical subtleties, the symbolism, the allusions and presuppositions, the play and humor, and the aesthetic sensibilities of Kuna verbal life, and at the same time be understandable and appreciated by non-Kuna as they read them. More particularly, translation from Kuna oral performances to written English involves a number of issues. To the degree possible, I aim at rendering the oral features of Kuna voices into written English as I do into written Kuna. These include line breaks and spaces to indicate pauses and representations of shifts in tempo and volume, as well as other dramatizations of the voice.

Kuna words consist of several suffixes following a root or stem. Verb suffixation is particularly complicated and is where much of the meaning of sentences is located. In English, syntactic patterning, including word order, plays a much greater role than in Kuna. The Kuna tense-aspect system, marked by combinations of verbal suffixes, is quite different from English. Much attention is paid to details of direction and movement, positions of actors, and timing of events. In order to retain the Kuna system as faithfully as possible, my translation at times focuses more on aspect than on tense. Native English readers occasionally may be surprised by a seeming shifting in and out of particular time frames and by sudden alterations in point of view. They will be faced with and, one hopes, appreciate an aesthetics of time very different from what they are accustomed to.

In order to remain as faithful as possible to the original Kuna, my translations are relatively literal. In addition to direction, movement, motion, position, and timing, I translate literally the set of words and phrases that play a major role in the poetic marking of lines and verses--"then," "well," "thus," "so," "therefore," "say," "see," "hear," and variations and combinations of them. These punctuate and adorn Kuna performances and my English translations of them. These are poetic as well as incantatory units. They embellish performances and are essential to their rhythm.

The common Kuna practice of quoting oneself and others is not consistently marked by expressive features in oral performances. Following western orthographic tradition, I use quotation marks whenever a speaker quotes another or herself or himself.

Kuna vocabulary is characterized by extreme variety and subtlety, reflecting and expressing the ideational, ecological, material, metaphorical, and sociolinguistic worlds of the Kuna. To the degree possible, I have translated lexical meanings, denotative and connotative, into English equivalents. Onomatopoetic words are rendered exactly as in Kuna, so as to retain the Kuna sense of sound, so essential to performance.

The individuals whose performances are represented and translated here are or were acknowledged verbal artists in their community and in several cases ritual and political leaders. They are or were friends of mine and honored me in their willingness to perform for a tape recorder. They were very proud of their knowledge and reputation and wanted this knowledge valorized by having their voices heard and read by others. I have played recordings of these performances to Kuna men and women over the years. They are greatly appreciated. In the case of young people who have never heard them performed, the recordings bring tears to their eyes.

The drawings that illustrate these texts were done by Olokwagdi de Akwanusadup, a Kuna artist well known in Panama and Central America more generally for his drawings, book illustrations, paintings, and murals. He is particularly loved by Kuna who know his wonderful illustrations of books for both adults and children, dealing with various aspects of Kuna life. His illustrations are imaginative, poetic, inspirational, political, and humorous. He listened to the recordings and read the texts and then created the illustrations included here. These illustrations are visual renderings of the Kuna imagination of their actual, mythical, mystical, and philosophical worlds. They present, with remarkable perspicacity, aspects of Kuna history, ecology, and cultural artifacts, human and animal gestures and personalities, and dress, in ways that are both stylized and realistic, with extreme sensitivity and elegance.

Also accompanying the texts are photographs I took of the performers and the activities they describe. These photographs show people's faces, gestures, activities, and engagement in performance. They are intended to enliven the texts and provide a sense of being present at Kuna verbal performances. The illustrations and photographs also provide a perspective on the relationship between Kuna verbal and visual arts. Readers are thus presented with several intersecting renderings of Kuna literature--texts and translations of actual performances, artistic illustrations, and photographs. With the additional advantage of being able to listen to the performances on the AILLA (Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America) website, they are provided with an extremely rich contextualization. Those familiar with Kuna molas are rewarded with still another aesthetic perspective on the Kuna worlds presented in the texts in this book.

While the Kuna are global citizens, one of the best-known indigenous groups in Latin America, they speak a minority language and possess and perform an endangered oral literature. Their stories, myths, chants, and songs invoke and express intimate knowledge of the world at multiple levels, and a remarkable aesthetics. The texts in this book provide an opportunity for the unique and eloquent voices of an extraordinary people to be seen and heard.


The Kuna language is transcribed here in one of the several alphabets that have been used for it. There are five vowels, as in Spanish:

  • a: nate "he/she went"
  • e: eye "yes"
  • i: misi "cat"
  • o: moe "squash"
  • u: ulu "canoe"

These can be short or long (doubled): tii "water," muu "grandmother," kaa "hot pepper." Each vowel counts as a single syllable. Stress is usually on the penultimate syllable.

There are four stop consonants, which can be either voiced or voiceless. The voiced consonants are represented as follows:

  • p (pronounced b): poe "cry"
  • t (pronounced d): tii "water"
  • k (pronounced g): kunne "eat"
  • kw (pronounced gw): korokwa "ripe"

The voiceless stop consonants are represented as long (doubled) versions of the voiceless consonants:

  • pp (pronounced p): sappi "tree"
  • tt (pronounced t): satte "no"
  • kk (pronounced k): takke "see"
  • kkw (pronounced kw): akkwe "care for"

Nasals, liquids, and the sound r can also be short or long (doubled):

  • m: ome "woman," mimmi "child"
  • n: nikka "have," sunna "true"
  • l: kwalu "sweet potato," kwallu "grease"
  • r: warkwen "one"

There is a sibilant s and an affricate ch:

  • s: wisi "know"
  • ch: machi "boy"

There are two semivowels, w and y:

  • w: wini "bead"
  • y: daysa "saw"

Joel Sherzer is Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. Olokwagdi de Akwanusadup is a freelance Kuna artist in Kuna Yala.

"This book is an ethnographic, folkloric, literary, and scholarly treasure."

The Journal of Latin American Anthropology

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