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What Makes the Gunas dules?

Reflections on
the Interiority and the Physicality of People,
Humans, and Nonhumans
By
Mònica Martı́nez Mauri
Universitat de Barcelona

Resumen
El propósito de este artı́culo es abordar el papel que juega la fisicalidad—especialmente
la sangre como fluido corporal—en la conformación de personas y humanos en la
sociedad Guna de Panamá. Para ello analizaré las nociones—relacionadas con el mundo
intangible, la interioridad—que según la literatura etnográfica disponible parecen ser
necesarias para hablar de la noción de persona. En concreto me centraré en: (1) el
concepto de gurgin (traducible por cerebro, inteligencia, habilidad, sombrero, persona,
individualidad, o elemento mediador entre humanos y no humanos; (2) niga (fuerza,
vitalidad o energı́a); y (3) el concepto de burba (alma o doble). Me propongo investigar la
conceptualización Guna de persona (dule) y humano (categorı́a sin aparente traducción
en dulegaya) para reflexionar sobre la pertinencia de la dualidad interioridad/fisicalidad
en este contexto etnográfico. Se trata de averiguar si los elementos fı́sicos y los intangibles
son pensados como propios o compartidos con otros seres no humanos y hasta qué
punto en este caso la materialidad condiciona la interioridad. [identidad, pueblos
indı́genas, Panama, Guna, sangre, ontologı́a]

Abstract
This article considers the role played by physicality—especially blood as a bodily fluid—
in conceptions of people and humans in Guna culture (Panama). It analyzes Guna
concepts of the intangible world—the interiority of persons—of the sort called for in
recent Amazonian ethnography. Specifically, it focuses on three concepts: (1) gurgin
(translatable as brain, intelligence, skill, hat, person, individuality, or mediating element
between humans and nonhumans; (2) niga (strength, vitality, or energy); and (3)
burba (soul, spirit, shadow, or double). I explore Guna conceptualizations of person
(dule) and human (a category absent from the Guna language), and the inherent

The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 52–69. ISSN 1935-4932, online ISSN
1935-4940. 
C 2018 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/jlca.12310

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duality between interiority and physicality. The question is whether these physical and
intangible qualities are conceived of as uniquely human or whether they are shared
with nonhuman beings, and to what extent material characteristics condition the inner
world. [blood, Guna, identity, indigenous people, ontology, Panama]

The question posed by the title of this article—“What makes the Gunas dule?”—
focuses on ethnonyms—the words designating ethnic groups. Cuna or Kuna—
now officially Guna—is an exonym, that is a name imposed by Spanish-speaking
outsiders. Lacking the pejorative connotations typical of many exonyms, it en-
compasses the indigenous inhabitants of several reserves or comarcas in Panama
(Gunayala, Madungandi, and Wargandi), urban migrants from those comarcas,
and small numbers of indigenous populations on both sides of the Colombian
border.1 The word dule, in contrast, is an autodenomination, that is, it is the name
members of a group use to refer to themselves. It is commonplace to hear people
state in Spanish: “Soy Guna” (I am Guna), and in their own language “An dule”
(I’m a Guna). Outside the context of ethnic labeling, dule means “person” or
“individual.” Sometimes applied to nonhumans (familiar spirits, and some avian
species), it is never used for non-Guna humans.
This article contributes to the growing body of ethnographic literature on
personhood in the tropics of Central and South America. These works treat
Amerindian persons as relational, processual, and accumulative beings (Lagrou
2007); as composite beings (McCallum 2001); or, as Viveiros de Castro (2001) sug-
gests, as dividual and thus composite beings in which self and alter are opposed.
This literature, however, gives insufficient weight to the significant role played
by body substances in the physicality and interiority of indigenous persons. To
address this, I consider the elements (visible and invisible) of Guna ontology that
make a human or nonhuman being a dule (person).
The work below begins with a brief introduction to the social and political
context of Guna life in Panama, followed by a discussion of the so-called ontological
turn in social anthropology, and in particular how it reconstructs relationships
of alterity between human and nonhuman beings, and why it is important to
distinguish between interiority and physicality. I then place this argument in the
context of Guna culture, analyzing the way in which humanness and personhood
are understood in terms of shared physical and interior elements.

Interiority and Physicality of People, Humans, and Nonhumans 53


The Ethnographic Context

The Guna are an indigenous people of Panama (with a population of 80,526) and
Colombia (1,290); they speak a Chibchan language. Since at least the early seven-
teenth century they have been living at the center of the “Chibcha area” (Kirchhoff
1943), which is also called the “intermediate area” (Haberland 1957), and the
“Isthmo-Colombian area” (Hoopes, Oscar, and Fonseca 2003). Their presence
on the eastern isthmus was first noted in the early seventeenth century, when
they were called, for example, Tunucuna, Bugue-Bugues, and later, Cunacuna.
Over the next several centuries they interacted with Spanish colonial and national
powers and with English, French, Dutch, and Scottish interlopers, sometimes
peacefully, sometimes in war, but they were never fully pacified or subjugated
(Gallup Diaz 2002).
In 1938, the Guna secured legal recognition of an autonomous territory, the
Comarca de San Blas; from 1998 this was officially known as Kuna Yala; since
2011 it has been Gunayala. In recent years this area has provided a model for
other indigenous comarcas in Panama. Gunayala constitutes a long thin strip of
land along the Caribbean coast backing onto mountainous boundaries with the
Province of Darién and northwestern Colombia; it encompasses 50 villages, 402
small islands, and an indigenous population of 30,000.
Guna political organization, which has proved unusually effective in both self-
management and external relations, is based on a form of village council—the
onmagged or congreso local; it also has regional conclaves and a governing body
known as the Congreso General Guna. Village councils meet several times a week
(Howe 1986), regional conclaves every few months, and the General Congress at
least twice annually. Each village is headed by several elected chiefs, and the General
Congress is headed by three ranked sagla dummagan (great chiefs). These leaders
and governing bodies are supplemented by commissions, temporary and perma-
nent, which address specific needs and tasks (Moore 1981); by urban capı́tulos
(centers) linked to island communities; and in recent years by indigenous NGOs
and a burgeoning bureaucracy associated with the General Congress (Martı́nez
Mauri 2010).
In the comarca, the Guna support themselves through agriculture, fishing,
tourism, salaried official positions, and small-scale commerce; in the city (where
more than half the population now lives), they earn a living through wage labor
and salaried jobs. By no means a homogeneous collectivity, the Guna have been
characterized by friction between modernizers and traditionalists, as well as by
residential mobility and variable contact with outsiders. The great majority, how-
ever (99.5 percent in the 2010 national census), continue to self-identify as Guna
in the comarca.

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The Ontological Turn: Physicality and Interiority

This article reflects on the attributes and processes that, according to the Guna,
identify a being as a human or a person (dule). The Guna language lacks a term
equivalent to “human.” This lexical absence, which became apparent to me over
the course of more than a decade of fieldwork, is also apparent in the bilingual
dictionary Gayamar sabga, prepared by the Guna linguists Reuter Oran and Aiban
Wagwa (2011). This dictionary lacks any word that could be translated as “hu-
man,” in a lexical gap typical of many indigenous American languages, provoking
questions about how the Guna conceive of the differences between humans and
nonhumans, or between human persons and human beings. Is the notion of dule
(person) equivalent to that of human? What beings are classified as dules? Do Guna
consider that certain nonhumans are dules?
These questions go to the heart of what has been called “the ontological turn”—
a movement or trend in anthropological theory examining the concepts of human
and nonhuman in the indigenous cultures of lowland South America (Henare,
Holbraad, and Wastell 2007). This movement is identified primarily with two
leading figures: Philippe Descola (2005, 2010) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
(1992, 1998, 2002, 2009). Work in this area suggests that the naturalistic ontology
typical of Western thought, which posits a radical break between nature and culture
(however closely the two may be linked in European philosophy) (Lussault 2014:
14), constitutes only one of the possible ways of being in the world.
Descola argues that the Achuar people of Ecuador and Peru conceptualize cer-
tain natural beings not as resources for consumption, but rather as social beings
(partenaires) with souls. Descola’s Achuar ethnography suggests that some non-
humans (e.g., plants, animals, and some objects) are thought to share a human
interiority and subjectivity, as well as the capacity to communicate among them-
selves and with humans in dreams (Descola 1986). Such conceptions run contrary
to Western naturalism, which attributes to humans a unique interiority and sub-
jectivity, associated with reflexivity, conscience, language, and different symbolic
capacities, radically distinguishing them from nonhumans (Descola 2005). West-
ern naturalism and indigenous animism differ fundamentally in that the former
perceives humans and nonhumans as physically similar but spiritually different,
while the latter posits shared interiority and differential physicality (see Table 1).

Table 1: Scheme based on Descola (2005)


Ontological models Interiority Physicality
Naturalism ࣔ =
Animism = ࣔ

Interiority and Physicality of People, Humans, and Nonhumans 55


Within a few years, the ontological turn has encouraged new ways of un-
derstanding the relationship between humans and nonhumans, suggesting that
naturalist distinctions are culturally contingent rather than universal (Ventura
Oller 2011: 127). Agreement on this point, however, is not universal. Some an-
thropologists doubt whether nonhumans, just because they possess a spirit, should
be conceptualized as human, casting doubt on the idea of “extending personhood
as a category of human-like subjectivity to nonhumans” (Brightman, Grotti and
Ulturgasheva 2012). In this debate, now running for several years, Terence Turner
(2009) rejects Descola’s notion of animism, suggesting that possession of a soul
cannot automatically be equated with full humanity. Even if, as Descola insists,
possession of a soul is for the Achuar an essentially human quality—endowing
humanity in plants and animals—this conclusion, according to Turner, cannot be
generalized to other Amazonian cultures.
The debate has expanded beyond Amazonia. In a complex argument based on
ethnography of the Yukpa of Venezuela and Colombia, Ernst Halbmayer (2012)
argues that in some supposedly animistic societies, one finds not an expansion of
humanness into nonhuman realms, but rather a gradual process of personification
and nonpersonification based on perceptions of intent, conscience, and the ability
to communicate. Halbmayer adds that physicality comes in different forms, and
that other aspects of being can mark personhood in animistic ontologies.
The present article extends this discussion to Guna ontology, examining the
dichotomy between physicality and interiority in terms of the way life is concep-
tualized. It examines the principles constituting persons, paying special attention
to blood, a basic physical substance shared by dule humans, plants, and animals,
and a bodily fluid through which memory and thought circulate (Belaunde 2005).
Blood provides the vehicle for understanding certain physical components of Guna
personhood. The questions addressed are: Does blood make the Guna, as well as
some objects and animals, dule? Does blood differentiate dule from nondule hu-
mans? More generally, what is the significance of physicality in lowland American
societies?
In this article, far from contradicting the ontological perspective or validating
the great modernist divide between nature and culture, I draw on Tim Ingold’s
(2006) notion of “heterogeneous monism.” For Ingold, animacy is not a prop-
erty of persons imaginatively projected onto the things with which they perceive
themselves to be surrounded. Rather, it is the dynamic, transformative potential
of the entire field of relations within which beings of all kinds continually and
reciprocally bring one another into existence. The animation of the lifeworld is not
the result of an infusion of spirit into substance, or of agency into materiality, but is
rather ontologically prior to their differentiation. As Laura Rival (2012: 131) notes,
this perspective is in harmony with a recognition that if the distinction between
object and subject disappears, “nature” as it is usually understood yields to a widely

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inclusive “environment composed of humans, non-human persons, material ob-
jects and the dynamic relations . . . [among] all these constitutive elements.” In the
Guna experience of life, blood represents both interiority and physicality, erasing
the binary contrast established by the ontological turn between these two realms. It
is an element in which the material qualities are culturally and historically variable
(Carsten 2013), showing the process-based and relational properties of materials
(Ingold 2011).
Rival notes that “we know very little about what life qualities humans share with
non-humans, or what images, metaphors, techniques or experiences are mobilized
to express culturally what organic life is about” (2012: 139). In addition, Beth
Conklin laments (2001: 146) a lack of systematic study of body substances in Latin
American indigenous societies: one exception focuses on blood and arrows. Among
the Awá-Guajá, according to Uirá Garcia (2010), arrows feed on the blood of prey
animals, but if the arrows taste human blood they endanger people. Similarly,
Vander Velden (2011) observes that among the Karitiana, arrows can lose control
in contact with human blood. Overall, however, ontological studies have paid
much less attention to bodily substances than to animals, plants, and objects.
In the following section, this exploration of blood centers not only on viewing
the human body as a source of information on the constitution of personhood
and difference: in the Guna ethnographic context, blood is a crucial element in
addressing personhood distinctiveness and human diversity. This analysis relates
to the mutual constitution of things and persons (Santos Granero 2009): as things,
body substances have a subjective dimension that plays an important role in the
production of persons.

Following the Trail of Blood

As a material, blood highlights cultural variability in concepts of bodies and


persons. Its circulation and transfusion illuminate not just human relationships,
but also people’s conceptions of life. As Carsten (2011: 29) states: “its flow within
and from the body is closely bound up with life itself.”
As crucial as blood is to Western conceptions of family relations, little is known
about its importance in indigenous societies in the transmission of cultural traits
or in the creation of political alliances, or even about its place in disease and
healing. Animistic regimes discourage or forbid sharing of blood between humans
and nonhumans, which raises the question of whether blood is a substance seen
to be shared by all human beings. In the case of the Guna, the question is: do they
share the same physicality with non-Guna? In seeking to answer this, I focus on
violent bloodshed, medical transfusions, and “mixed-blood” children.
My interest in the ontology of blood grew out of a diverse set of observations,
and especially the part played by blood in external relations. Guna mentioned

Interiority and Physicality of People, Humans, and Nonhumans 57


blood in voicing their aversion to violence. In marked contrast with Panama-
nian stereotypes of the Guna as fierce and aggressive (largely because of their
rebellion in 1925), the Guna view themselves as a peace-loving people, which is
confirmed by national statistics showing very low levels of violent crime.2 They
believe that anyone who kills another in a bloody fashion will soon die them-
selves. During the 1925 rebellion—the Revolución Dule—rebels killed a num-
ber of police agents, some of them in sanguinary ways (wielding axes and ma-
chetes) (Howe 1998). Some of these killers later died prematurely, which was
believed to be because they were contaminated by the blood of their victims.
The following passage is concerned with the fate of men who cut up police
bodies:

The anger gripping the butchers must have been tremendous to have so completely
overcome Kuna aversion to shedding blood, which polluted anyone who touched it.
The killers, and even more the men who cut up bodies, put themselves at terrible risk
from the souls of the dead men. In later years, whenever one of the ex-combatants
sickened, curers were likely to diagnose the effects of 1925, and it was said that
many stained with blood died before their time. (Howe 1998: 271)

This illustrates the Guna perception of the polluting character of blood and
butchering. As in Amazonia (see Conklin 2001), when a man kills an enemy his
blood and/or the victim’s spirit enters the killer’s body. Among the Guna, the taboo
on blood extended even to some nonhumans,3 as seen in the ancient practice of
detaching sea turtles from their shells and sending them back to the sea (Puig 1946:
16–18).
Also revealing was the Guna aversion to blood transfusions. For many con-
ditions the Guna today resort in eclectic fashion to traditional curers or modern
medicine, or both at once. Although most are open to some aspects of modern
medicine, transfusion is not one of them. I observed Guna from my field site in the
Gardi region avoiding the local hospital because of a fear of blood transfusions—
and specifically a fear of unknown donors. According to Panamanian Law 17 of
1986, which regulates blood banks and blood transfusions, donations must be
voluntary and anonymous. Although families are always required to donate blood
equal to a patient’s anticipated needs, that blood is always used, anonymously, for
other patients. The Guna know that if they are hospitalized and require transfu-
sion, the blood will come from a stranger, almost always a non-Indian, from a
donor with unknown qualities.
During my frequent visits accompanying Guna friends to medical centers
in both Panama and Gunayala, doctors often mentioned Guna fears of blood
transfusions and asked me the reason for it: what does a stranger’s blood have that
inspires this rejection? The answer to this question lies in the capacity of blood—a
physical element—to mark the character of a being.

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Finally, the subject of blood also arose frequently in discussions about the off-
spring of Guna with outsiders. Called “mixed” (mestizos) in the Hispanic world,
among the Guna they are not seen as mixed. The Guna classify the world in terms
of monoethnic categories. They do not tend to use notions derived from combi-
nations. One either is or is not a waga, a mergi, or a dule. Nonindigenous people
are classified in two large groups: the mostly Spanish-speaking wagas (mestizos)
and the wai sidnid (black people) who live just beyond the borders of Gunayala;
and the mergi,4 who are North Americans, zonians,5 or white tourists who do not
speak Spanish. In other words, language is the primary ethnic marker, and skin
color, although important, is not decisive.
Other indigenous groups in Panama and America are conceptualized (at least
in recent years) as dule, but until recently the Guna used to call their Emberá
neighbors nia (devil) or bila (war). The indigenous category, or the extrapolation
of the title dule to Ngäbe, Bugle, Naso, Bribri, Emberá, or Wounaan is of recent
use among the Guna.6
When Guna speakers talk about children from mixed unions between Guna
and waga, they do not refer to them as dule; rather, they identify them with the
non-Indian parent’s group. They always remember that one parent is Guna, but
they identify the offspring as mergi or waga. To sustain this, they invoke the blood
of these children, which has not been mixed or diluted but has simply lost its
identity. The apparent impossibility of racial mixing in such offspring contrasts
sharply with the understanding of procreation otherwise prevalent in Guna society.
As shown by Chapin (1983) and Margiotti (2010), the role of men and women
in procreation is equivalent: according to the Guna, gestation occurs after vaginal
fluid and semen mix in the maternal uterus.7 Given these ideas, it is interesting to
note that the impossibility of interethnic combinations would seem to derive from
the contaminating power of non-Guna blood, rather than with issues relating to
conception.
In intercultural contact of this sort, blood is seen as important. Guna blood
cannot be mixed with that of non-Guna; alien blood, moreover, is considered to be
contaminating, even lethal, for the Guna. How is one to understand the negative
effect of foreign blood on dule identity? Is it not a physical substance shared by all
human beings on the planet?
According to the Guna, dule identity implies a way of being and behaving in
the world, which can be altered by sharing substances with other peoples. When an
individual shares food, drink, and disease with non-Guna, and when he or she is
surrounded by such people for long periods, they are susceptible to incorporating
substances from outsiders and gradually transforming into them. Guna identity is
maintained by, among other things, ingesting dule masi (dule food, or food for real
persons). This food, along with other substances, makes them different from the
others (white people, mestizos, foreigners, and tourists). In this way, the Guna, like

Interiority and Physicality of People, Humans, and Nonhumans 59


certain Amazonian groups, understand cultural encounters as embodied; in other
words, Guna bodies can experience change as a result of diet or other customs.
None of these substances have quite the same power as blood, however. In addition
to condensing all these meanings into one entity, blood differs from food or even
semen and mother’s milk, because it concentrates not just physicality but also
interiority.
These three examples suggest that Guna and non-Guna humans (mergis, wagas,
or other indigenous groups) do not share the same physicality, because they do
not pay attention while alive to their spiritual dimension. They do not feed their
body with appropriate food, they do not take baths containing medicinal plants,
and they do not chant to the spiritual elements inside their bodies.

Interiority and the Physicality of Life

When the Guna—and for that matter, people in other societies—talk about life,
they typically refer to physical principles and elements as much as to spiritual
ones. In the Guna world, physicality is manifested in vital elements such as blood,
reproductive organs, and the body’s exterior—its physical covering or wrapping.
Interiority, on the other hand, is discussed in terms of intangible qualities, and
spiritual and cognitive principles, as well as mood and physical strength.
My understanding of this domain was clarified during an extended interview
(on 7/06/2015) with Gilberto Arias, sagladummad (high chief) of the Guna General
Congress during the first decade of the twenty-first century, and argar (spokesman)
of the community of Mandi Ubigandub. Our long conversation focused in par-
ticular on notions of burba, gurgin, and niga. These notions have been identified
as integral to Guna spirituality by ethnographers of Guna culture such as Erland
Nordenskiöld (Nordenskiöld et al 1938), who was among the first to document
the centrality of these notions in the 1920s in his ethnographic research.
The word burba, like others in this set, is polysemic. It means soul (conscious-
ness, spiritual principle), and at the same time, shadow, reflection on water, echo,
culture, essence, or way of being. Qua soul, it is intangible and found in all living
beings. For most anthropologists who have worked in Gunayala (Chapin 1983;
Nordenskiöld, Pérez Kantule, and Wassén 1938; Severi 1981, 1987, 1991, 1996),
the concept of burba translates into soul or double. According to Nordenskiöld,
Rubén Pérez Kantule, and Wassén, there are many burbas (burbagana) in different
parts of the body: burbagan of the hair, fingers, heart, and so forth (1938: 334).
Most Guna today discuss burba as unitary, but as having behavior similar to the
multiples described by Nordenskiöld and Pérez Kantule.8
Nonhuman beings and entities can have burba. Aggwanusa, for example, which
are ritually potent river rocks used in curing, are considered to be alive: they
have burba and can communicate with humans and each other. Medicinal curers

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sometimes say that plants in the forest call to them, asking to be picked for
medicinal use; before a cure can take place, the medicine man (inaduled) must
admonish the medicines to activate them. In practice, however, the Guna do not
invariably treat all nonhuman entities in terms of a burba or personality: they fell
trees, kill animals for food, and collect rocks for filling house sites—all with few, if
any, restrictions or precautions. Having a burba, moreover, does not consistently
mean that a being is credited with a personality or social nature—qualities that
are consistently attributed less to plants and animals per se, than to the numerous
spirits in the world, including the spirit kings (errey) or masters of the animals
(ebabgan).
For humans, their burba is vital: sickness results if a burba is weakened by
laziness or lassitude, or if it is turned off. Both conditions must be treated by
ingesting or bathing in medicines. A burba can also be detached from the body
by a shocking or upsetting experience, and then carried off by a malevolent spir-
itual being—typically, the spirit master of a dangerous animal such as a shark or
crocodilian, or by a siren (ansu) or devil (nia). To recover a kidnapped burba and
reinstate it in the patient’s body, a chant curer (igar wised) sends a cohort of helpful
familiars to the offending spirit and negotiates the soul’s return (see Chapin 1983).
Each burba is first sent to its holder at birth from a heavenly spirit realm called
sabbibenega. At death, the burba outlasts the body, leaving behind its physical
wrapping and starting a long voyage back up to Babnega, the heavenly dwelling
of the deities, Bab Dummad (Great Father) and Nan Dummad (Great Mother),
completing the cycle that began at birth.
The burba is the most important element in the intangible world—and
one reason why that world is called the ney burbaled—and existence itself is
characterized by the phrase, burbar anmar sedidi (our existence is spiritual). There
are other such elements, however, such as gurgin—a life-constituting principle that
applies only to humans. Like burba, the word gurgin is polysemic. Adults attempt
to conceal pregnancy from children with the euphemism that a woman “gurgin
nigga” (has a gurgin). In physical terms, gurgin refers to a hat, a headdress, or the
brain. More abstractly, it most often means knowledge, intelligence, gift, ability, or
destiny. According to Gilberto Arias and others, it is the element that determines
life choices, trade, ritual specialization, and even the fate with which each person
is born.9
Like the burba, the gurgin is subject to treatment. If affected by knowledge
overload or intense study—as often happens to ambitious students in university or
secondary school, or to apprentices in one of the many ritual specialties maintained
by the Guna—the gurgin may close up or fill to overflowing, and medicine baths
or a chant cure (or both) may be required to reopen it. Patients remain quietly at
home in semi-isolation for days or weeks, taking aromatic baths and listening to
chanting.

Interiority and Physicality of People, Humans, and Nonhumans 61


In contrast with their unanimity concerning the notion of burba, anthropolo-
gists disagree on how gurgin is best translated. For Nordenskiöld, Pérez Kantule,
and Wassén (1938: 363–68), it means brain, intelligence, or ability. According to
Severi (1981: 72), it refers to the idea of person or individuality. Chapin (1983)
points out that people can have gurgin for being a chief, for chanting, or for hunt-
ing, for example, and in the past those trying to become igarwismalad (knowledge
owners) took gurgin ina (medicine) to become adept chanters. For Fortis (2010),
it is a mediating element between humans and nonhumans. James Howe (personal
communication, 3/2/2016) emphasizes the element of fate or predestination. In
any case, it should be noted that only humans have gurgin. Animals, plants, and
some objects seen by westerners as inanimate possess burba, as noted above, but by
definition they cannot possess gurgin. Among humans, gurgin is found in people
of all ethnicities.
Another purely human spiritual quality is known as niga. Like the other two
principles, it inheres in the intangible world of spirit—the ney burbaled. Niga is
the force that motivates dule to walk, eat, act, and feel; it is a force that can wax
and wane. When, for example, a person lacks interest in sex it is attributed to
diminished niga: nig agude. As with gurgin problems, the patient must be treated
with medicinal baths and/or a chant cure. One of the most popular, especially
among men, is niga oganoed ina, niga-strengthening medicine. Unlike burba but
like gurgin, niga ends with its holder’s death.
In physical terms, human life has several constituents. In talking about the
physicality of people and other living beings, Guna invoke two key notions, ugga
billi, the skin or body wrapping, and abgan, the sexualized body or sexual organs.
According to traditional taboos, now on the wane, different terms are required
in reference to animals: their bodies are typically discussed in terms of san, sana
(meat, flesh). None of these physical elements survive death, when the body rots
and disappears.
Another key physical element crucial to life, discussed above, is blood (abe
or ablis). As Gilberto Arias emphasized in our interview, blood conditions mood
and health. When specialists diagnose that ablis dingude, it means the blood is
diminished and as a result the person feels weak, requiring treatment. In the
world outside, doctors add more blood to the body through transfusion, but this
procedure is unacceptable to some dule. If they were to accept blood from others
it would change their personality: blood from a shy person, for instance, would
make one timid. In effect, alien blood transforms the burba, altering character,
personality, interiority. The Guna have medicinal cures—ablis balega—to “fill up”
and reconstitute the blood, or to abe owiloe (increase/deepen the blood), but they
refuse to practice or accept transfusion. As in Amazonia, incorporating techniques
aim to introduce into the body positively valued substances that alter the quality of
blood (Conklin 2001: 148). According to both Gilberto Arias’s testimony and my

62 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


own observations, in the Guna cultural universe blood can be damaged or ruined
(abe isgusa) as well as debilitated, which happens when a person commits a crime
or comes in contact with other blood. In such a situation no cure or remedy is
possible—only death will result.
Some animals and trees play a key role in certain blood treatments. Although
the form of their bodies differ, they are regarded as having blood, just like humans.
Specialists sometimes recommend the ingestion of animal blood and meat, often
of birds, to promote the acquisition of desirable abilities. Animal remains of several
sorts can be used as medicine, just as plants and inanimate objects are, although
Chapin (1983) notes that Guna medicine men (inaduled) consider such treatments
risky. Blood is thus an element capable of transmitting a donor’s essence and,
conversely, of affecting the recipient’s being in the world.

Physicality and Interiority: Blood, Dules, and Other Living Beings

Consideration of these key essences (burba, gurgin, niga, and blood) raises ques-
tions about differences between human identity and animality in terms of physical
being and interior state. There are, in Guna ontology, important points of resem-
blance between humans and animals, as well as social relations between the two,
similar to those highlighted in recent Amazonian ethnography. Some animals,
notably certain birds, have human-like capabilities (Martı́nez Mauri et al. 2014:
32–40); a handful of spiritually dangerous, tabooed species are seen as resembling
human ritual practitioners; and some traits like chiefdom and community living
are attributed to social mammals and fish (Howe 1977; Martı́nez Mauri 2011),
and even more so to numerous spirits living in mountain strongholds (galu), and
on other levels of the universe (Howe 1986). Guna ritualists, moreover, may in
certain contexts deal with spirits or animals in the idiom of human sociality: a
chant used by hunters (biseb igar) attracts animals by attracting them sexually; and
seers (nergan) may hold short-term unions with spirits to acquire their secrets. The
familiar spirits (suarnusgana) who stand guard over Guna households have dis-
tinct individual personalities, and when those familiars are dispatched to retrieve
souls, they negotiate and contend with the spirits in social dialogue. Overall, the
idioms of human personality and human sociality are projected onto the world of
nonhuman beings, tangible and intangible.
However, the Guna insist that in essence humans and animals are radically
different. Animals are called “things” (ibmar), “forest things” (sabbur ibmar), or
“living things” (ibmar dula). In the remote past, the dangerous and ambiguous
beings that inhabited the world, the ibmardulegan (animal people), combined
human and animal exteriors, and many of them enjoyed potent spiritual power.
The great hero Dad Ibe overcame those beings, however, banishing some to other

Interiority and Physicality of People, Humans, and Nonhumans 63


realms of the universe and transforming others into animals.10 In subsequent ages
uncivilized semibestial peoples, whose blood is often described as durud (unripe),
were, in one case, defeated by a martial hero in the same mold as Dad Ibe (Howe
1986: 62–63), and in other instances, taught civilized behavior by a succession
of heaven-sent prophets and teachers. Eventually, these peoples gave way to the
Olodule (Golden People)—the Guna.
The dule are thus unique. They are the Olodule, but also the ina ibgan, the
owners of medicine, and they speak dulegaya (differently from the language of
spirits). Non-Guna, such as mergis and wagas, share elements that differentiate
humans from animals, but they are not the same as dule. They are considered
humans, but nonhuman persons. Their burba and their blood have a destructive
power over dule burba and blood. Burba in this way resembles the anthropological
notion of culture11 (a concept the Guna have in recent years adopted enthusias-
tically): all humans have culture, but each culture is unique. It makes us human,
but differentiates us from other humans. The Guna see blood and burba in much
the same way: Guna, mergi, and waga have blood and burba—elements confer-
ring identity and essence. Where one starts, the others end, which is why they
cannot be diluted by mixing. In this context, blood constitutes the main vehi-
cle of both human equality and human difference. Blood generates relationships
that unite humans as much as they divide them into human persons and human
beings.
In today’s Gunayala the body is important as a marker for the fragile borders
of personhood. In this context the body is not only physical; it is also social and
results from spiritual interaction. It constitutes a complex entity that throughout its
existence is not always individual. It originates with the union of two physical bodies
of the opposite sex, from which a gurgin is born, providing human personality,
along with a niga that provides vitality, and a burba that provides spiritual life and
allows it to interact with nonhuman persons, and then dies and survives as spirit. In
the Guna world, the body is a physical entity, made up of wrapping, reproductive
organs, and blood, but the physical is intertwined with the social and the spiritual.
In this ethnographic context, one is born human, but not dule. The dule identity is
acquired upon learning to speak, to cultivate knowledge, and strength of spirit. All
these processes require collaborative work between the couple (as well as other kin)
and medicine, which is why dules call themselves ina ibgan (medicine owners).
Without them, there is no treatment, and without treatment there are no persons
(dules).
Finally, it is crucial that plants and animals are considered to be medicine. They
have a central role in Guna people-making processes. In the treatments that make
it possible to cure illness or to acquire or strengthen certain abilities (studying,
fishing, paddling canoes, or hunting, e.g.), ingesting and bathing in animal and

64 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


vegetable substances is important. This use and appropriation—physical but also
social—of nonhuman beings and things denotes a relationship of dominion of
dule over the nonhuman world, at the same time as it depends on interactions that
recognize the agency of those beings. Animals and plants are therefore persons,
although of a special and limited sort, distinctly different from the Guna dule—the
fully human beings.

Conclusion

It is possible to talk about persons and humans in Gunayala, but not in the same
way as in the naturalist world. In a society like the Guna, notions such as dule and
waga are conceived as antagonistic. To say a waga is a dule is impossible. In our
long conversation with Gilberto Arias, we tried to find a notion that could translate
the concept of human, and it was impossible. Part of this impossibility related to
a resistance to recognizing in white people the same principles of physicality and
interiority that exist for the Guna.
In the Guna monist experience of life, the idea of physicality versus interiority
does not seem to correspond to two completely separate spheres. Spiritual prin-
ciples can be contained within physical substances, and physical substances have
the capacity to contaminate intangible elements. This means that physical “things”
have burba, including rocks, birds, humans, and so forth: the world of substance
(neg sanaled) is undergirded by the world of spirit (neg burbaled). As ethno-
graphic evidence shows, among the Guna, blood is conceived as a fluid embodying
personal spirits, strength, and thought. Blood operates both within people’s bod-
ies and outside them, and it has a transformational effect upon lived experience
(Belaunde 2006).
This monist experience of life has some effects on the Guna understanding
of humanity. Similar to the worldview of the Chachi people (Praet 2013), for the
Guna, humanity is both restricted and open. It is open because it is not pre-
established in the womb, and the human being is not classified genealogically by
species membership. However, it is also restricted, because it is something to be
achieved: it is limited to those who have earned it. The Guna experience suggests
we should think of humanity not as a fixed and given condition but as a relational
achievement that may question the division between biological and social realms
(Ingold 2013).
In the Guna context, and perhaps in other indigenous societies of the isthmo-
Colombian area, animacy is not a property of persons projected onto animals,
plants, and things, but rather occurs ontologically prior to their differentiation.
They find the meaning of life in what Ingold (2006: 11) terms “the original openness
to the world.” In other words, life in the animic ontology is not an emanation but
a generation of being. As a consequence, animic societies always face a world in

Interiority and Physicality of People, Humans, and Nonhumans 65


formation—a world composed of material and spiritual principles, interacting and
generating being. In the Guna worldview, more than an expansion of humanness
into nonhuman realms, there exists a process of personification based on shared
interiority (burba, as a perception of conscience and an ability to communicate)
and physicality (the “blood” of plants and animals as medicine for the Guna).
These findings are in line with Santos Granero’s (2012) approach to native on-
tologies and social praxis. From a Yanesha perspective, all beings possess composite
anatomies and subjectivities. It is possible to communicate with persons, and it is
this quality that makes human persons “at one” with many other living beings. As
we have also seen above, subjectivity in the Guna experience can be shared in a
number of ways: it can be passed on, for example, through the sharing of bodily
substances, such as blood. Being part of a subjectivized body, this substance, among
others, participates in the subjectivity of the body that produces it, and to be ef-
fective, this kind of transference requires a degree of ritual manipulation by which
the agency of nonhuman or human substances is activated for the benefit of the
recipient.
Differences between humans and nonhumans persist among the Guna, but
also between human persons (the olodule, the ina ibgan) and other human beings
(wagas, mergis, and other indigenous groups). This differentiation is indeed eth-
nocentric: the Guna recognize other beings as persons and humans, but only their
life (material and spiritual) makes them fully human beings. Humanness, rather
than being a condition, is a path—a dynamic one. As noted at the beginning of this
article, heterogeneity in the Guna society of today is a reality. Everyone in Gunayala
is aware of internal and cultural change: few people dare to describe themselves as
“true guna” (dule sunnad), except in nervous jest (Howe 2009: 248). Nevertheless,
they all reject shedding another human’s blood; most are loath to receive other
people’s blood; and when a Guna woman or man mixes her or his blood with that
of a non-Guna, they do not (with a very few recent exceptions) live in a traditional
community.

Acknowledgments

This work was supported by Secretaria Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologı́a (SENA-


CYT), Panamá, CVP11-013. Fieldwork in Panama was conducted in 2015 under
the research project Estudio antropológico comparativo de las nociones de ser hu-
mano (HUMANT) (Ref. HAR2013-40445P), founded by the Spanish Government
(I+D+I Proyectos de investigación fundamental). Preparation of the paper was
supported by the research project Etnicidad material: expressiones culturales tan-
gibles y propiedad intellectual founded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and
Competitiveness (Ref. CSO2015-62723-ERC). In Panama, as always, I am grateful
to my Guna friends Gardi Sugdub, Gilberto Arias, Inaiduli, and Congreso General

66 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


Guna. Thanks are given to James Howe for his useful readings of draft versions
and for his encouragement. Ernst Halbmayer and Julia Velasquez-Runk both pro-
vided significant comments on an earlier draft. For his comments and criticisms,
I especially want to thank Mac Chapin and the two anonymous reviewers.

Notes

1 In Colombia they are also called Gunadule.


2 For example, in Ministry of Health data for 2012, the Gunayala comarca is the only region in
Panama that did not register a single death as a result of homicide (see MINSA 2014).
3 James Howe, personal communication, February 2, 2016.
4 Although the etymological origin of these notions is uncertain, the late guna Father Ibelele Davis,

according to one of my sources during the 2000s, believed that waga may derive from walker (explorer),
which was what the English called the Spaniards, who walked across the Isthmus, or from the Guna
notion of wa (smoke). The latter would be motivated by the abundant body hair of the Spanish
colonizers. The notion of mergi, according to Guna speakers, would correspond to a deformation of
American.
5 A North American resident of the Panama Canal Zone (1903–2000).
6 James Howe (personal communication, 3/2/2016) has heard Guna speakers refer to Emberá and

other indigenous peoples as dulegimala (like Guna), indicating affinity with themselves but not identity.
7 On the burbaled level, it is the burba ginid of the woman that mixes with the burba sibugwad to

form the (spiritual) fetus. Thus, on the sanaled (physical) level, a women’s menstrual blood mixes with
a man’s semen (Mac Chapin, personal communication, June 2016).
8 For Chapin (personal communication, June 2016), the burba is both a unit and broken down into

components. Guna people can lose one or more of their burbagan—the immarwisismalad (knowers of
things) often say everyone has eight—and the more they lose, the more serious their ailment. It is the
task of the chanter to sing chants to find them and return them to the patient, and then stuff them back
inside his collective burba.
9 One of the anonymous reviewers states that gurgin also relates closely to the concept of personal

path (igar)—a vocational avenue that may be bestowed upon a foetus before birth by “the grandmother”
(muu)—the spiritual custodian of unborn infants.
10 See Chapin (1989), especially the chapter, “Baluwala, the Salt Tree.”
11 This anthropological notion of culture relates to the formidable difficulties involved in making

sense of cultural diversity without losing sight of shared humanity (see Stolcke 1995).

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