On the small reef island of Wichub Huala, men, children, and women in bright, intricately embroidered clothing file into a dirt-floored congress house, where the town elders sit astride hammocks. One of the local leaders, or shilas, begins to sing in a droning chant, signaling the town meeting is under way.
In meetings like this across 50 islands, the Kunas, perhaps Latin America's most autonomous Indian tribe, decide many of their own affairs according to customs practiced before Columbus.
They have voted recently to have their region's name officially changed from San Blas to Kuna Yala, and to prohibit any additional "foreign" religions from setting stakes in their territory. While countries across Latin America confront the issue of autonomy for their tribes, Panama's Kuna Indians are practicing a self-rule that in some respects lets them operate more independently from Panama City than a US state does in relation to Washington. But even as other tribes look to them as an example, the Kunas say their autonomy is being challenged
by squatters invading their forests, guerrillas and drug traffickers coming across from Colombia, mining companies, and even the Panamanian government. At the same time, growing dissension within their own population over how to manage relations with the "outside world" is posing a new threat.
Indian autonomy is a hot topic in Mexico, where indigenous groups have been calling for more freedom to govern themselves according to traditional customs, especially since the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas State.
The Mexican government says it favors stronger guarantees of Indian rights but has set a go-slow course on autonomy. It worries about too broad a definition of the term: Just as Mexico is strengthening its democratic practices and working harder at guaranteeing human rights, officials say, virtually sovereign Indian areas could perpetuate customs that are antidemocratic. Signaling a determination to stop the autonomy issue from spinning out of control, on Saturday Mexico moved to break up one of 32 autonomous Indian municipalities the rebel Zapatistas have declared in Chiapas.
A particular area of concern is women's rights. However, in Kuna Yala women have risen to become shilas and are often their families' chief breadwinner because of the embroideries, called molas, they sell to tourists. The Mexican government also doesn't want to lose control of natural resources in heavily Indian areas - an issue the Kunas are also confronting.
The Kunas were never subjected to colonial or Panamanian rule, in part because of the isolation and impenetrability of their territory, which stretches from east of the city of Coln to the Colombian border. In February 1925 they won a decisive battle against Panamanian forces - an event they consider the "Kuna revolution." Since then, their autonomy has been fortified by a series of Panamanian laws demarcating their territory and recognizing their right to govern themselves.
Indians make up about 7 percent of Panama's 2.7 million people. Four other tribes have achieved varying degrees of recognition, but none matches the political sophistication and weight of the 35,000 Kunas. Since 1978, the Kunas have had two designated seats in the national Congress. (They have also had a special relationship with the United States government since construction of the Panama Canal early in this century. Some historians maintain the US abetted the Kuna insurrection of 1925.)
"We're enough of an example that many brother Indians from other countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Colombia have come to see what we have accomplished," says Rogelio Alba, one of the Kuna members of Congress.
Unlike in other Central American countries, the absence of violent conflict in Panama in recent decades allowed the Kunas and other tribes to make important progress, some observers say. "Indians and their practice of self-government have been able to advance in Panama because of a certain social stability," says Atencio Lpez, president of the Napguana Indian advocacy organization in Panama City and himself a Kuna.
Still, even government officials say problems remain in the practice of Indian autonomy and in Indian-government relations. According to Mr. Lpez, Panama's 1972 Constitution is less specific about Indian rights than the 1941 Constitution. "The autonomy we have is still threatened by a constitutional weakness," he says, "and that has left the door open to a disregard for our laws."
Echoing the centuries-old complaint of Indians across the Western Hemisphere, Mr. Alba says, "The government makes promises, but they are not kept." A commitment to promote bilingual education in Spanish and Kuna has gotten off to a slow start, he says, and squatter invasions of Indian lands routinely go unpunished. "I'm from the governing party," adds Alba, "and even I find doors closed to me."
Perhaps the most serious threat to the Kunas today is the issue of mineral rights. The tribe's "fundamental law" says Kunas are sovereign over all land, including below ground, but the government does not recognize this provision. "We maintain that underground resources are the property of the state," says Julio Merida, acting director of the National Indian Policy Office.
Panama has signed a contract with a Canadian mining company to explore the extent of Kuna Yala's gold deposits, but so far no work has begun.
On Wichub Huala, first shila Miguel Rodriguez says the issue could lead to another confrontation. "We know this gold mining would mean the contamination of our rivers and the spoiling of our lands, so we say no," he says. "We are ready to fight if what is ours is not respected."
William Prez, a secretary of the Kuna congress, agrees that the mining issue is so sensitive that it could lead to violence. But he also says that the Kunas themselves need to reevaluate what autonomy means in a globalized world.
"We demand autonomy, but at the same time the government pays our teachers and maintains our airports," says Mr. Prez. "We have Kunas who don't trust what other Kunas will decide with the government on the mining project. Perhaps our biggest challenge," he adds, "is that Kunas are now fighting among themselves about balancing autonomy and outside relations."