Tag Archives: San Blas Islands

Caribbean Travel Stories: Cuna Basketball

The Cuna people live on the San Blas Islands, just off the Caribbean coast of Panama and enjoy a limited self government within their traditional homeland. Most of them stay within their Cuna culture, but some have found temporary work on U.S. military bases. It is there that many Cuna young men learned the love of a typically North American sport, basketball.

My Friend Craig at a Cuna Village

Upon returning to their native villages, the Cuna wanted to continue playing and to teach the sport to their friends, but they faced a serious obstacle: Every square inch of land was accounted for — either for crop cultivation or for housing. There was simply no space to put a basketball court.

The Cuna, who had solved greater problems than this, soon came up with the obvious solution — make the island bigger.

There was a shallow coastal area adjacent to the island that could be filled with rocks and then covered in concrete to make a basketball court.

Needless to say, this would not be an easy task. Rocks would have to be transported by canoe from the mainland some five miles away. These canoes, called cayucos, are carved out of a tree trunk and their rounded bottom makes them unstable.

The rocks would have to be hand-gathered on the mainland, loaded onto the cayucos in quantities small enough to allow a marginally safe crossing, and unloaded at the future basketball court site. As vast quantities of stones would be needed, this would be a monumental task. Where would this intense amount of labor come from?

The problem was approached in typical Cuna fashion.

Many cultures throughout the world have established laws, rules and regulations that are routinely disobeyed. The Cuna had such a law. Unmarried people of the opposite sex were forbidden to have any contact with each other, even speaking to one another was prohibited.

As you may imagine, this was a law that was just about 100% sure to be broken, human nature being what it is, and Cuna teenagers would secretly meet their sweethearts after dark in prearranged locations. Actually it was not so secret, for the parents and elders of the village had broken the same law, in the same places and in the same manner.

The proponents of the basketball court construction decided to harness the reliable power of teenage sexual energy and use it for a means to accomplish an end. A strict enforcement of the law was called for, and a new punishment was established, which was to gather, transport and deposit one cayuco-load of rocks for the first offense, two for the second offense, three for the third and so on.

The idea was successful! Just one year after the passage and enforcement of the new law, the citizens of this tiny crowded island in the San Blas archipelago were able to enjoy spirited games of basketball on their very own, brand-new basketball court.

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