Message of the molas

The Cuna Indians are a still-free (against all odds) tribe in Panama. They are among the smallest people on earth and said to be one of the fiercest. Instead of writing their history, the Cunas speak together each evening. Also they record their lives, their traditions, and their new Christianity in ''molas'': gaudy stories built of rough cotton from Colombia, layer on layer of applique and applique reversed, edges turned in neatly and secretly sewn down.

The whole tribe gathers every night by firelight, speaks together of their common lot: their fishing, their boats, their illnesses, their boundaries, their heroes, their history, their gods, their children, their marriage contracts, and their problems with the white people to whom they sell their molas. If, during the day, there has been a hurt done to any member of the tribe by another, the transgressed must stand and speak that very night, or else he loses forever his right to the justice of the tribe. Omitted wrongs cannot be recalled, rejudged, replayed: That is Cuna law.

As for the molas, each picture, like a museum diorama, is deep, smooth, and complete. The colors that the Cuna women use are the earth and the sea of their Caribbean world taken to extremes: true pink of fuchsia; the orange hibiscus in full sun; the green sharp, even violent, but natural; black the color of burnt mahogany.

The figures are simple and enthusiastic, like the happy hunters of Tarquinia more than 2,000 years ago. They are completely engaged in the things they do, though their activity involves no bony articulation, no muscular strain. Their faces are as inscrutable as stereotyped modern Oriental or ancient Etruscan or Greek. All the stories the molas tell are either reduced to a simple act in a single frame or are icons of the meaning of the act, like the medieval ''Seasons'' at Chartres.

Before I came to the northern mountain town where I live now, there was a woman here who energetically collected molas and distributed them among her friends. When I began to visit the homes of people I'd never met before and the offices of the town's professionals, I met the collector through the molas hung on a variety of walls, sewed to chair backs, and stuffed as cushions; small molas even stitched to teen-agers' backpacks and denim jackets: messages she'd sent all these loved ones and acquaintances from her journeyings, messages that have now become her memorials in the community.

As surely as one who studies the old runes intently learns to read their message in their shapes long before he knows their definition, of necessity I began to read the message in the molas: at a doctor's office a creation scene showed Adam and Eve radiantly covering their shame in pink, their archaic smiles reminiscent of Greek kores, noble and serene as gods; at a lawyer's office, Jonah with green scuba tank and white flippers swallowed by a whale (really a gap-toothed shark) swims eternally untroubled, his knife unsheathed but undeployed. The birds that launch themselves from half a dozen pillows on my neighbor's couch grin cheerfully, their geometric feathers outlined in green and blue, their eyes magenta, their talons hooked and ready.

I sometimes wonder if this donor whom I can never meet, never ask, knew the gifts she gave, the story she still shares: nature's glorious and embracing separateness, man's proper and transcending truth caught out of time for us to see. Or like most of us, the recipients of her heritage, was she first drawn by the fuchsia, the magenta, the apparent simplicity, the enthusiasm caught in act - and, like us, did she only later come to read the consolation in the color?

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