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ANCIENT CULTURE MEETS CYBERSPACE // A Stitch In Time

When darkness falls on the tiny island of Ustupo, silence quickly follows.

Undisturbed by modern technology, most of the island's 8,000 inhabitants retire to thatched, dirt-floor huts for the night.

No televisions, cars or telephones.

Just the sound of waves lapping against the shore.

Except in one corner of the island where the noise of a generator churns on late after everyone else is asleep. Under a few naked light bulbs, strung together under the roof of a small cooperative workshop, a dozen women dressed in brightly colored native dresses chatter and laugh as they hunch over their needlework.

The Kuna people of Panama, natives of this far-flung chain of tiny islands _ 365 in all off the remote east coast of Panama _ are the proud inhabitants of some of the least-known, least-visited and least-spoiled islands in the Caribbean.

The Kuna like it that way.

But in their struggle for cultural survival the Kuna have never been afraid to adapt modern ways to their ancient customs.

Now this largely barefoot, illiterate community of about 45,000 people is venturing into cyberspace. In a giant leap from the Third World into the First, the Kuna recently made their debut on the Internet.

The Kuna's experiment with the World Wide Web provides a fascinating insight into the problems faced by native peoples in their battle for economic subsistence.

The endurance of Kuna culture also gives a glimpse into the little-known lives of the people who inhabited the region long before the Spanish Conquest. And oddly enough, in the struggle to preserve their lands, the Kuna have become allies of another "colonial" power. The Kuna may be the least known, but among staunchest allies of the United States.

"Land is the key," said Andrea Carmen, director of the International Indian Treaty Council, an indigenous rights group to which the Kuna belong. "The Kunas are unusual, because most indigenous communities have been forced off their land."

Leading the way into cyberspace are the women at the needlework cooperative, who have earned international recognition for their hand-sewn, brightly patterned cloths known as molas.

An ancestral custom that the women learn at an early age, the molas are made from several layers of cloth, cut and stitched one on top of the other in geometric designs, as well as in scenes displaying the island flora and fauna. A complicated design can take up to two weeks to sew.

Part of the traditional Kuna dress, the molas are stitched onto the front of blouses, making each garment the unique work of art of its wearer. The outfits are worn with a head cloth and colored beads threaded in tightly wrapped geometric patterns around the arms and legs. Many women also wear a large gold ring in their nose and more gold on their fingers.

The sale of molas is an important source of income for Kuna households. Original Kuna molas are popular with tourists. Mass produced copies are also sold around the world, from plastic tablecloths in Japan to motifs on sports shirts.

But the Kuna women get little reward for their creativity and hard work. Price-gouging middlemen earn most of the profit from tourist sales in Panama City, which is 45 minutes away by light plane.

Now, with the help of Daniel Salcedo, an American advocate of "alternative trade," the women hope to use the Internet to remedy their commercial handicap.

By advertising their molas on a Web site created by Salcedo's Washington-based non-profit group, PEOPLink, the Kuna women hope to cash in on the growing trend toward online shopping on the Internet. Different designs and prices appear on an electronic catalog, and purchases can be made by credit card, enabling the Kuna to bypass the middleman and earn a larger amount from the final price of each cloth sold.

"We hope that the women will get at least twice as much income from their work," said Salcedo, whose project had been backed with funding from the Inter-American Foundation and the World Bank. He is also working with other artisans in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Haiti.

So far sales have been sluggish, but Salcedo says it's early. "Right now there isn't a lot of anything being sold on the Internet. But we want to be ahead of the curve when it really takes off."

PEOPLink seeks to create new ways for the Third World to tap into the wealth of richer societies. "The key is access to the market, which is very, very difficult if you live on an island out of touch with the rest of the world," Salcedo said.

The Internet has given them that ability. "To us it's a convenience tool, but to these people it's a vital means of sustainable development," Salcedo said.

The Web site can be constantly updated by electronic mail. Salcedo has taught the Kuna to use digital cameras and computers to relay images of new product designs to his Washington office, where they can be posted on the Kuna Web site. Although there are no telephones on the islands, the women's cooperative has a sales office in Panama City run by two Kuna women, graduates in business administration and accounting.

Despite their limited exposure to modern technology, Salcedo says the Kuna quickly latched onto the concept.

"The Internet is really very simple to use. You just grab a mouse and click," he said.

"When you are dealing with graphics, the whole thing becomes much more intuitive. Once they see their own images (on a digital camera or a computer screen), it doesn't take much reasoning for them to understand."

The project did require overcoming some cultural hang-ups. The Kunas are suspicious of cameras. Lacking a word in their vocabulary, they are warily referred to as, "the machine that steals your soul."

The computer remains a mystery to some. One islander recently asked a computer-literate Kuna if the Internet could be used to find his mislaid national identification card.

But among the mola women, superstition has been forced to take a back seat to sales talk.

"We may be illiterate, but we are organized," said Balbina Denis, former president of the cooperative. She is featured on the Kuna's Web site, where she explains the technique of sewing molas.

She laughs when she recalls seeing a digital image of herself for the first time.

"The Internet interested me because of the opportunity it offers us," she said. "If a client wants to see where the women are who make molas, they can find us in half an hour. This way we can inform people who don't know what a mola is. We want everyone to see our molas."

A tenaciously independent people, the Kuna are immensely proud of their history. Descended from the Carib Indians who peopled the region long before the Spanish Conquest in 1492, they once fished and hunted the region known today as the Darien Gap, an almost impenetrable area of thick rain forest and jungle separating Panama and Colombia.

According to Kuna oral history, with the arrival of the Spanish they retreated from the mainland of Central America to the San Blas archipelago, or Kuna Yala _ the Kuna lands on the Caribbean coast.

In the 17th century, the Kuna engaged in a lucrative trade with French and Scottish settlers, harvesting lobster and coconuts. They also traded with British pirates; cloth for their molas and guns and ammunition for their protection.

But when first the French, and then the Spanish, attempted to exploit Kuna labor, they rebelled and drove all foreigners out of their lands.

In 1903, Panama became an independent nation, and the new government again attempted to subdue and "civilize" the Kuna "savages."

Panamanian authorities imposed a governor on the islands, set up schools and police stations and banned the Kuna's own political-cultural meetings.

Kuna women were prohibited from wearing mola dresses and rings in their noses. Missionaries were sent to suppress sacred Kuna ceremonies where chicha _ a potent local cane wine _ is drunk in large quantities.

But all attempts to subdue the Kuna failed.

Led by Nele Kantule, a respected soothsayer, the Kuna revolted on Feb. 25, 1925, and slaughtered a garrison of Panamanian soldiers. The Panamanians prepared to retaliate with force, threatening to wipe out the Kuna.

But with the skill of a true statesman, Kantule had wisely foreseen this. Before the uprising, a Kuna delegation was sent secretly to Washington to make contact with the Calvin Coolidge administration, according to Kantule's grandson and Kuna historian Jesus Smith-Kantule. "Kantule's message was that a massacre was about to happen," said Smith-Kantule. "The U.S. had a responsibility to prevent the extinction of the Kuna race."

The United States was sufficiently impressed by the plight of the Kunas that a U.S. warship _ the USS Cleveland _ was sent and the Panamanian counterattack was intercepted before a shot could be fired.

Instead, with the United States acting as mediator, a peace agreement was reached.

As a result of the 1925 "revolu-tion," the Kunas won the right to keep their native dress and traditions, as well as a large degree of political autonomy. In 1938, the region was officially recognized as a Kuna reserve and a constitution was later added. It banned non-Kuna from purchasing, renting or otherwise using land within the territory.

Kuna relations with the United States were cemented in 1930 when a U.S. military plane crashed in the islands and its crew was rescued by the Kunas. Two years later, U.S. military forces in Panama signed a labor agreement with the Kuna, which granted them special job rights on U.S. military bases.

Kunas still work on the bases and U.S. ties remain strong. In the office of the locally elected sayila, or chief island administrator, a U.S. Army South plate hangs proudly on the wall, bearing the inscription Defense and Fraternity.

Smith-Kantule said many Kunas working on the bases have adopted the last names of American officers they befriended. Previously the Kuna traditionally had only a first name. "My father took the name Smith from an American colonel he knew," he said.

But now the United States is closing its bases and the Kunas are losing a valuable source of income. Local fishing and agriculture isn't what it used to be either _ the coconut crop has never recovered from a blight some years ago.

Increasingly, the Kuna have come to depend on the sale of molas. But organizing the cooperative's output isn't easy. Its 1,500 members live on 14 different islands.

For travel between the islands they depend on canoes with outboard motors. But contact is frequently cut off by rough seas.

Recently, as the Kunas celebrated the anniversary of their revolution, the mola women danced and chicha wine flowed.

Over three days young Kunas re-enacted the events of 1925. A banner adorning the main square recalled the words of the soothsayer Kantule: "A people who knows its history is a people that knows how to defend its present and will know how to defend itself in the future."

Nele Kantule died some years ago. Some may wonder how long the Kuna way of life can survive in the modern world.

Community leaders say they face new challenges all the time. To combat Colombian guerrilla activity and drug traffickers who smuggle cocaine up the coast in speed boats, the government wants to build a naval base on Kuna land.

But the Kuna are worried about the consequences of allowing a military presence on their territory, close to Kuna farmland.

"We don't want to become part of the drug war," said Nicanor Gonzalez, a member of the Kuna congress that represents the islands.

"So far we've been left alone because everyone knows we are unarmed and we are not a threat."

The Kuna are under pressure to allow private hotel operators to build resorts along this stretch of virgin beaches. Investors are also seeking mining concessions to dig for gold and other minerals.

Many Panamanians are scornful of the Kuna's primitive ways and regard them as obstacles to progress. But Kuna leaders say they are not opposed to Western-style development and point to the Internet as an example.

"We accept ideas, but we reserve the right to absorb them and develop them according to our own needs," said Valerio Nunez, another congress member.

"If we hadn't resisted, where would we be now."

On the Internet

The Kuna Women's Cooperative of Mola Producers can be found on the World Wide Web at:

www.peoplink.org

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