Siabebe, a young Kuna Indian girl, sits beside her mother on the earthen floor of their palm-leaf hut. Like her mother, she takes a needle, thimble, and scissors and sets to work with brightly colored cloth. For many weeks now, Siabebe has clipped and tucked and stitched. She’s eager to finish her work, yet careful to make perfect stitches she and her mother can be proud of.
In one more week, Siabebe will attend an important celebration with her family and all the people of her village. She and her mother will wear the lovely mola blouses they are making. Siabebe’s is a tutu (flower) mola; her mother’s a yauk (sea turtle) mola.
Because of their brilliantly handmade molas, Kuna girls and women are often called the most spectacularly dressed Indian women in the Americas. In addition, they adorn themselves with gold necklaces, earrings, and nose rings, bright beads, armbands, leg bands, and sarongs. At the age of seven or eight, the girls begin learning to make molas. But it takes several years of practice to become highly skilled in the art.
Visitors writing about these San Blas Islanders have usually spelled their name with a C, but the preferred spelling for their tribe is with a K.
The Kuna Indians are an attractive dark-haired and dark-skinned people who live on the San Blas Islands, off the east coast of Panama. They travel from island to island in kayukos, canoes the men carve from logs.
At home, the girls learn how to sew from their mothers. They also unload boats, do laundry by hand, and prepare food. The boys, dressed plainly like their fathers, help cultivate crops and gather coconuts, firewood, and materials for weaving baskets. However, many Kuna children also attend primary school.
Kuna couples marry young and live with the girl’s family for the first several years. The boy learns from his father-in-law how to work with wood, carving objects such as wooden seats, medicine dolls, animal figurines, and cane-like scepters used as badges of office by tribal dignitaries.
Even though Kuna girls and women wear beautiful molas for everyday attire, a single well-made mola is considered a prized possession by art collectors and museums the world over. The mola is considered to be a comparatively new art form that originated about 125 years ago.
At one time, the Kuna people simply painted their bodies for ceremonies and special occasions. They used bright colors and interesting designs—birds, animals, trees, and people. Next, the paintings were done on cloth. And finally, the women began using layers of different colored material. The layers are carefully cut, one at a time, turned under, and stitched to expose underlying colors, a process sometimes called reverse applique. However, Kuna women still paint their arms, legs, and faces.
Most of the mola designs reflect the Kuna environment—birds, animals, sea-life, plants, and flowers of the islands. The sea turtle is a favorite motif, since the turtle is used as food, and the Kuna believe it was the first animal created by their earth mother, Oliotilisobe.
Monsters, devils, spirits, and other fearful creatures from Kuna Indian legends also appear on the molas. For example, a dragon-like monster eating the moon is often used. He is thought to be responsible for eclipses of the moon.
Two special ceremonies are held for every girl who grows up in a Kuna village: when she officially leaves childhood behind and is declared an adult (usually around the age of twelve) and another time a couple of years later when she is presented as being ready for marriage. Then the village members celebrate with music, dancing, and storytelling. It is during these ceremonies that the finest molas are worn. And it is for Siabebe’s own coming-of-age party that she and her mother have worked so hard to make theirs the loveliest of molas.