Chiefs, Scribes, and Ethnographers: Kuna Culture from Inside and Out

Chiefs, Scribes, and Ethnographers: Kuna Culture from Inside and Out

Chiefs, Scribes, and Ethnographers: Kuna Culture from Inside and Out

Chiefs, Scribes, and Ethnographers: Kuna Culture from Inside and Out

Synopsis

The Kuna of Panama, today one of the best known indigenous peoples of Latin America, moved over the course of the twentieth century from orality and isolation towards literacy and an active engagement with the nation and the world. Recognizing the fascination their culture has held for many outsiders, Kuna intellectuals and villagers have collaborated actively with foreign anthropologists to counter anti-Indian prejudice with positive accounts of their people, thus becoming the agents as well as subjects of ethnography. One team of chiefs and secretaries, in particular, independently produced a series of historical and cultural texts, later published in Sweden, that today still constitute the foundation of Kuna ethnography.

As a study of the political uses of literacy, of western representation and indigenous counter-representation, and of the ambivalent inter-cultural dialogue at the heart of ethnography, Chiefs, Scribes, and Ethnographersaddresses key issues in contemporary anthropology. It is the story of an extended ethnographic encounter, one involving hundreds of active participants on both sides and continuing today.

Excerpt

Three episodes and three texts, all of them from past centuries, all precursors of the texts and events treated in this book: the first episode dates from the late seventeenth century, when British pirates were coming and going across the Darién, the easternmost and least settled region of Panama. In 1681, one of these adventurers, Lionel Wafer, was scorched by an accidental explosion, and his fellows, being pirates, left him behind to recuperate as best he could with their native guides. Before rejoining his vessel, Wafer spent four intense months with the Indians, and on returning to England, he wrote an absorbing account of his adventures (Wafer 1970), with vivid descriptions of the region and its native inhabitants, all of which received great attention even before the manuscript’s publication in 1699.

A century and half later, in 1850, an American merchant captain named Jacob Dunham wrote a memoir of his trading voyages in Central America, which included several visits to the Coast of San Blas, the northern, Caribbean shore of the Darién. Some of the San Blas Indian “boys” were accustomed to shipping out on trading vessels, and on one voyage, Dunham took two men known to him as Billy and Campbell to New York. There a local doctor, whom Dunham had previously supplied with curiosities from his voyages, arranged for a public examination of the visitors, and after looking down their throats and examining their heads, the doctor opined that Billy and Campbell “belonged to the same species as those who inhabited the Sandwich Islands and a part of Asia” (Dunham 1850, 134–139). Afterwards, his students offered the boys a donation of eight dollars.

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