What does it mean to be Indigenous?

In January 2014, as part of a team of graduate students from New York University's Wagner School of Public Service, Eli traveled with Land is Life to the community of Ustupo located in Kuna Yala, an independent Indigenous territory in northeastern Panama. The trip was a part of a year-long project that aimed to address the issue of waste and plastic disposal in Ustupo. He is currently serving as a Program Coordinator with Land is Life.





Those of us in the modern world tend to imagine Indigenous peoples living as their ancestors had for generations before them: the same long-established cultural practices, customary clothing, and way of life. We categorize them as traditional, dichotomizing these activities and values from our modern lives.

Yet aside from the relatively small number of people that live in voluntary isolation, in many Indigenous communities around the globe the line between the “traditional” and “modern” is often blurred. Many Indigenous communities have incorporated a variety of non-native, “modern” elements into their societies.

During my visit to the community of Ustupo, the island with the largest population in the Comarca de Kuna Yala (the semi-autonomous region of Panama governed by the Kuna people) I observed this first-hand. I saw women wearing the colorful molas as well as women wearing leggings and t-shirts. Each morning, I visited the home of a Kuna medicine man and drank a tea he prepared designed to strengthen my blood, and each afternoon I drank a soda with lunch. I ate standard Kuna dishes, with conejo del monte (mountain rabbit) meat and vegetables brought from the mainland—a 15-minute ride by canoe—and I also ate hamburgers with beef that was transported in coolers on a five-hour motorboat trek from outside the Comarca. Many homes boasted newly installed solar panels and there was free Wi-Fi outside of the spiritual and political center known as the Congreso. 

These experiences contrasted with my own assumptions prior to the trip. The Kuna, and particularly the people of Ustupo, have been exposed to many elements of the modern world, and incorporated some of them with their unique way of life. These cases illustrate the paradoxes of being an Indigenous community in today’s increasingly interconnected world. While the Kuna have literally fought and continue to struggle to keep their traditions and way of life, are they somehow less Indigenous if they take advantage of new technologies and ideas to improve their quality of life and strengthen their ability to govern their land and people? Are they losing their Indigenousness? 

I propose the opposite. During the revolution of 1925, it was the Kuna’s keenness to negotiate with the US that proved critical to their establishment of the Comarca as a semi-autonomous territory. Today, they are one of the few Indigenous communities that have this level of sovereignty and are looked up to as leaders of the international Indigenous rights struggle by many communities around the world. 

In the specifc context of Ustupo, I met multiple men who had lived for extended periods outside of the Comarca—not only in Panama but in Europe, Asia and Africa—and returned home to live the conventional Kuna lifestyle: rising before the sun and canoeing to the mainland to hunt and harvest fruits and vegetables. 

This idea of a polarized traditional vs. modern way of life is a fallacy. We in the “modern world” ought to realize that there are many ways of being Indigenous; in fact, there is no universally accepted definition of “Indigenous peoples”. Moreover, as the environment is increasingly under assault from the effects of climate change, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities could learn from the success of the Kuna people and how they have adapted through changing times.