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The Negative Effect of Christian Missionaries in the Guna Yala

I lived aboard my sailboat for several years and spent some of those years sailing in the Caribbean and along the coast Central America.

One of many idyllic islands in the Guna Yala of Panama.

One of many idyllic islands in the Guna Yala of Panama.

When Foreign Missionaries Cause Harm To an Ancient Culture

I would like to share my perspective on the impact of fundamentalist missionaries on one particular culture, that of the Guna people, (also known as Kuna), of the San Blas Islands of Panama.

In 1999 I left the United States on an around the world sailing voyage. I did not complete my circumnavigation but did discover one of the most beautiful corners of the world, the San Blas Islands of Panama and the wonderful Guna indigenous people who inhabit them.

In late 2001 I arrived in the San Blas Islands aboard my 33' sailboat on which I lived full time. I ended up staying almost a year and making friends with many of the Guna people who inhabit this paradise. The Guna's ancestral homeland stretches for almost a hundred miles along the Caribbean side of Panama, and encompasses more than 365 small islands, many of them uninhabited. It is a self-governing territory of Panama, where tribal laws overlap with Panamanian ones.

My first contact with the Guna people was a wonderful gentleman named Mr. Robinson, who was the chief of the community that lived on the island of Tiadup in the Hollandes Cays. I had just sailed into a lagoon outside his home island after an overnight voyage from Cartagena, Columbia. Chief Robinson collected the $5 anchoring fee, which allowed me at that time to stay for two weeks, and with my payment I also received a basket full of ripe mangoes.

I became a good friend of of Chief Robinson, and I routinely brought the tribe back requested medical supplies from faraway Colon, Panama whenever I left the San Blas islands to resupply.

Mr. Robinson, who is now deceased, was a Guna chief, tribal elder and the son of a well respected leader who started the very first schools in the islands. He taught me much about the culture and their traditions. I was able to go on several trips up into the lush jungle that is part of their territory to collect bananas, and was also invited on several dugout canoe fishing trips to the reefs surrounding the islands.

My Visits With Chief Robinson

My conversations with Chief Robinson were mostly in Spanish although he did speak some English. His father, the leader who'd founded the first schools in the Guna Yala, had worked on a coconut trading ship in the early 1900's and had lived for part of his life in the United States with the family of a ship captain, whose surname he took on. It was there he was educated in a school near Boston before returning to the islands. Chief Robinson's stories were fascinating and I always looked forward to the times when I was able to stop on the island of Tiadup and visit with him.

One one of my visits with Chief Robinson he told me about was how the missionaries from fundamentalist churches in North America were creating rifts between families, a new phenomenon in their ancient culture. Often a Guna family would join a newly introduced fundamentalist Christian religion, whose beliefs were radically different from another that members of the same family group had joined. Because the belief structures of the two religions were so different, and because the churches usually required family life to begin to revolve around its activities in some way or another, the family would eventually begin to split apart, start to feud with each other, or even move away from each other to opposite ends of the island. Some of the islands on which the Guna live are quite small and crowded, with centuries old agreements about who lives where, so you can see how this posed a problem.

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The rate of new converts, according to Mr. Robinson was directly related to how much free stuff, including eyeglasses, fabric for the women to make molas with, or medical care that the churches would give to their new converts. He told me sometimes the newly converted Gunas would even switch religions, especially if another missionary group was giving out better benefits. The cleverness of his people in this regard amused the old chief quite a bit, as he chuckled loudly while telling me this.

There were other issues, such as some of the new religions beliefs about foods, including ones like spiny lobster which were a part of the Guna diet. One of the new churches on the island had told their members to quit eating eating shellfish, which then caused those people to have to spend more time fishing for other seafood, or to buy expensive canned food. This was just one example of the kind of cultural conflicts that these churches introduced into the community.

My old sailboat and former home.

My old sailboat and former home.

The Gunas Already Have a Religion

My new friend the chief also told me that the Guna people had long worshiped "one god", a "Great Spirit" and that their original faith involved a deep respect for nature and animals. According to Chief Robinson, this was one of the reasons the San Blas were still forested and the coral reefs were still in fairly good condition. He worried that as that new religions start to take over, loss of the old faith, with its roots in deeply in nature, could spell doom for the ecology of the San Blas islands.

My Own View of Missionaries

I don't believe there are necessarily any "bad" religions, but I do believe that some fundamentalist Western religions may not be the best choice for an ancient culture that has thousands of years of traditions and culture behind it, and which already has an established religion already in place. When a relatively new religion asks their indigenous converts to give up all they have known before, it rarely leads to an improvement in their condition. If you look at the case of how Native American tribes across the American Southwest were treated after conversion to Catholicism, and their virtual enslavement in mission towns to farm and work for the Spanish, you might agree.

While making some of my many supply runs to Panama City, I've witnessed many planeloads full of young missionaries, coming from places like Utah, all singing in unison and practicing Guna words before heading out to the villages to gain new converts for their religion. I've often thought that these missionaries, coming from their own little North American towns and lives, knowing little about this peaceful native culture, have virtually no concept of what these people's souls needed.

If anything at all, I believe that the learning should be done by these fresh faced Americans, since there are hundreds more years of experience in spirituality among the "heathens" they were sent off to convert.

I'm sure many may take exception to my view of the effect of religious missionaries on native cultures. I'm quite sure that some good things have been brought by these folks to needy people in various parts of the world, however after seeing first hand some of the negative effects of missionaries, my opinion is that that a lot of harm also comes with the good.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Nolen Hart

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