Nobody knows for sure when they arrived in Panama. Modern theories suggest they probably arrived from South America and other contradicting theories mention they did it from the Caribbean Lesser Antilles. By the 16th century, they had already occupied the 365 islands known today as the San Blas Archipelago or “Guna Yala” in ther native language. Pushed from mainland towards the Caribbean coast by enemy Native American tribes and the Spanish conquistadors. Today, The Gunas are mainly found on the islands of San Blas, but also in the jungle of Chucunaque and Bayano.
The Gunas have struggled for centuries to keep its culture and traditions alive. During the colonial period, they joined European corsairs and pirates in a number of successful attacks against the Spanish, who had vowed to eliminate them. As the Spanish empire dwindled, they became entrenched in the regions of present-day Darién and San Blas, in Panama, and western Colombia, which granted them lands and legal recognition towards the end of the 19th century. Panama, which back then was a Colombian province, declared independence in 1903 and ignored the agreements. Although most of The Guna population was on the Panamanian side of the border, a fact that made many inhabitants of San Blas side with the Colombian government just as Panamanian authorities sought to “civilize” the Guna.
The Guna women wear skirts and hand sewn blouses known as “Mola”, they paint their faces with rouge annatto seed and usually wear a gold nose ring. Men generally wear a traditional shirt and less traditional pants or shorts. The Molas have their origins in body painting, but after the contact with the Spanish conquerors, the Gunas started to transfer their traditional designs on cotton. After the attempt of the Panamanian government to “westernize” the Gunas in the beginning of the 20th century by forbidding their customs, their language and their traditional dress, a huge wave of resistance arose. This resistance movement culminated in the Guna revolution of 1925 where, after heavy battles, the Panamanian government had to make the concession of giving the Guna people the right to govern their own territory autonomously.
The resentment started after the Panamanian military incursion established to force The Gunas to adopt Hispanic culture. A peace treaty was signed after, and agreed to recognize to the Gunas Panamanian sovereignty only after the “wagas” (non-guna) grant them a good deal of autonomy. Today, the Panamanian authorities rarely interfere with Guna government and created three special “regions” for them.
The Gunas have the most advanced political system than any other indigenous group in Latin America.