The Kuna, Mother Earth & Photography

April 8, 2018

For the Kuna people, who live on about 60 of the 300 islands of the Caribbean San Blas archipelago on the Atlantic coast side of the Panama, "Mother Earth does not belong to us. We belong to her because she has brought us forth, therefore, we have to share her fruits with all her children - humans and animals. Sharing is important because: Anmar belagwable gwenatgan - we are all brothers and sisters" ( "Goldmother Bore Human Children into the World: The culture of the Kuna," Antje Olowaili). 


The creation story of the Kuna, the Anmar Danikid Igala, or translated: "Path on which we have come," Nana (the word for mother) Dummad, the Great Mother, gave birth to human children. Baba (the word for father) Dummad, the Great Father, is the word for God, but differing from the Christian belief, this word also includes mother. In spiritual songs handed down since primeval times, Baba and Nana are always mentioned together, and the belief in God as creator also includes the existence of a Goddess who gives birth to life in this world. "All nature is created in this way: flowers, trees, animals, and humans. This is what the old Nele (spiritual guides, healers granted with particular powers) have sung to us and we continue to sing for you: Father is inconceivable without Mother." 


Baba and Nana are a unity, a creative pair. They created the earth, a joy for all beings, and for the plants and animals that live on her. At the very end they created Olodule - gold humans, which is what the Kuna call themselves - as guardians and protectors of the earth. They put the Olodule onto the fertile Mother Earth so that they could sow and harvest her and bring her into blossom. * The Kuna seem to appreciate the value of the color gold, its importance lying in its connection between us, humankind, and Mother Earth, our own mothers and the transcendent mother, or Great Mother, a topic we'll explore at another time. 


To those of us, however small in number, who feel a sense of responsibility to the Earth, and to our children, whose responsibility it will ultimately be, perhaps we have forgotten an aspect of guardianship that the Kuna people are still intimately connected to. A practice of daily gratitude to the Mother Earth, for She does not belong to us, we belong to Her, and she gave us life, and supports our life still. As a teaching artist, and an advocate who believes in the potential the arts play in creating a more altruistic, and empathetic society, perhaps this calls for a different approach to our creativity, especially photography?


Our philosophy, if indeed we have one, to photography is in the taking of the photograph, or the photographic shoot, or the insatiable obsession with sharpening, saturization, and digital manipulation, which hardly encourages a a sense of reverence or nurturing pathos, and belies our current, and adverse, use of a medium, which I believe is not its highest purpose.


Photography, in its therapeutic and prosocial use then, should nurture a sense of giving, so that every photograph becomes an act of gratitude to Mother Earth, to Her, a moment immortalized, not for profit or art for art's sake, but as a way to encourage reverence to nature, and empathy for others, through creativity. Photography is such a special medium, and can help us rediscover our giving abilities, be practiced as an offering, and above all remind us, and others, of our innate humanity, a "golden thread" we seem to have lost our hold on. 

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