From the Ship

Wago Méndez: Self-governing and Culture of the Kuna Indigenous People of Panama

Jul 20, 2023

Wago Méndez, artist and environmental activist from the Kuna indigenous community in Panama, introduced the unique way of living, art and culture of his people in a series of onboard presentations and workshops while Peace Boat’s 114th Global Voyage was sailing over the Atlantic. Wago is a long term partner of Peace Boat, not only joining voyages as a Guest Educator but also hosting numerous study and cultural exchange programmes to his community as part of their initiatives for sustainable tourism.

Artist and environmental activist, Wago Méndez is a long term partner of Peace Boat

The Kuna community, one of seven remaining indigenous groups in Panama, resides in the San Blas Islands and along the northern coast. They are known for their rich culture and traditions, and particularly for their political independence and self-governance. They follow their own customs, laws and legislation, which enables them to preserve their heritage and natural environment.

Wago presents the history and culture of the Kuna people 

During his introductory presentation, Wago explained that governmental pressure on the Kuna to give up their traditional way of living led to a revolt in 1925 and a subsequent treaty with the Panamanian government which has guaranteed Kuna’s self-determination and autonomy to this day. The Kuna people live in four politically autonomous communities, called comarcas. They have rights to join and make statements to the government, and take part in elections.

The Kuna communities live on 60 small islands, each of which has its own leader, called Sahila, who is elected for life. The elders help in governing social and religious matters, which are based on traditions and ancestors’ stories. Wago introduced to participants how these traditions and sacred history are transferred to the younger generation through songs, dance and oral history.

From Wago's presentation: a Kuna woman presenting molas

Kuna culture is famous for the colorful textile art form mola, made appliqué techniques and used to create clothes and jewelry. In tradition, said Wago, the bright colors are thought to repel evil spirits. All women have a nose piercing which they receive at the age of three months. In his presentation, Wago explained these traditions, as well as the main ceremonies marking important stages in growing up, and the culture’s matrilineal system. Further, he shared that their economy is based on agriculture, fishing and clothing manufacture, with plantains, coconuts, and fish as the basis of their diet. Kuna tradition emphasizes respect for the land. They believe that all things come from La Madre Tierra, Mother Earth, and that all people have the responsibility to preserve it healthy and unpolluted. These beliefs are incorporated in the symbols of mola handicrafts, which Wago presented in an exhibition onboard Peace Boat. He also organized workshops in which participants could learn how to make these beautiful artworks themselves.

A mola representing 'unity, solidarity and brotherhood' with the rainbow

During the 114th Voyage, Wago hosted a community based tourism programme to learn first-hand about the Kuna community. Here, participants could experience the Kuna way of living, and learn about their traditions and daily life deeply related to the natural environment. The Kuna community’s sustainable tourism initiatives are grounded not only in sharing their culture, but also in thinking together about actions in the face of the climate crisis. During his presentations Wago expressed his fear that San Bias Island, where Kuna preserve their unique way of living, could be uninhabitable due to sea level rise by the end of the 21st century, and the need to incorporate indigenous knowledge and nature-based solutions into climate change mitigation and adaption measures.