By Mike Power
ISLA TIGRE, Panama (Reuters) – When Kuna Indian medicine man Mandiuliguina Flores speaks, everyone listens. For his dark-skinned indigenous audience, the albino shaman’s milky white skin gives him special powers.
In a quirk of history and genetics, Panama’s Kuna tribe has one of the world’s highest occurrences of albinos, revered as an elite group that the Kuna call “the children of the moon.”
Kuna mythology puts albinos — who have pale skin and white or ginger hair due to pigment deficiency — at the heart of creation, teaching that God sent his albino son to Earth to teach humans how to live.
Even today, the Kuna see albinos as highly intelligent and some even claim they have supernatural powers.
“I can heal any snake bite,” said healer Flores outside his thatched hut on tiny Isla Tigre island, his pale-yellow eyes flitting around in their sockets, a side-effect of his albinism, and his ginger hair peeping out from his pork-pie hat.
“I attend to women in childbirth. I can remove stuck fish bones from your throat with this pill, and I can cure headaches by touching your head,” he said.
“He can tell your future, too,” whispered one bystander.
The Kuna, known for their colorful and intricate woven fabrics and indigenous dress, live on a string of remote islands running 200 miles along Panama’s Caribbean coast toward Colombia.
They moved here from the rain forests of eastern Panama in the mid-1800s to avoid mosquitoes, snakes, diseases and territorial rivalry. They farm on the mainland and sleep on the islands, an autonomous territory known as Kuna Yala.
Charles Woolf, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, says the incidence of albinism here is higher than any comparable population on the planet.
A BLESSING, NOT A CURSE
In the United States, among white people of European descent, albinism overall occurs at a rate of 1 in 30,000-40,000. On some islands in Kuna Yala, the rate stands at 1 in 165.
Anthropologists attribute the high frequency to cultural protection of albinos and the slaughter wrought by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
The Spaniards devastated the Kuna with attacks or diseases, reducing the islands’ founding gene pool to only 5,000 people from a population that once hit 750,000.
While Kuna warriors fought off the Spanish and carried out revenge attacks, albinos would stay indoors to avoid sunlight.
They survived where their compatriots were slaughtered by Spanish muskets.
Albino skin is sensitive to sunlight and burns easily, and the genetic disorder could easily be seen as a curse in the blisteringly hot tropics.
But to be born albino in Kuna Yala is to be born into a revered group whose importance is enshrined in Kuna cosmology.
In a self-fulfilling prophecy, many albinos in this culture become community leaders, medicine men, shamans, politicians or entrepreneurs.
“With advancing civilization and the availability of economic opportunities for albinos out of the sunshine that were not available previously, they have done well in some cases, with some becoming high achievers,” said Woolf.
The head of the Kuna General Congress of Culture, IkwaYokkiler Ferrer is albino. He commands widespread respect in Kuna communities for his work preserving their culture and traditions.
BRINGERS OF LIGHT
Weegi Baller, a 12-year-old albino on Rio Sidra, is one of seven albinos on this tiny, cramped island of more than 1,000 people. His sister Elederis, 13, and is also albino.
Weegi helps his mother with chores around the house as his skin is too fair to venture outdoors. But once, during an eclipse, he showed his powers, says his mother.
Her young son climbed onto the roof of the hut with a bow and arrow and fired it at the moon which was covering the sun. “The sun suddenly came out,” she said, beaming proudly.
Saila Aurelio Meza Smith, the chief of Isla Tigre, where the Kuna violently overthrew Panamanian forces in a 1925 rebellion, says albinos’ powers can be supernatural.
“I saw an albino grab an angry snake by the neck. It did him no harm. I saw the same albino smash a wasp’s nest open, but he was not stung. The same albino once dived from a high tree into a shallow river. He swam out, laughing. That is the power of an albino,” he said.
This respect wasn’t always apparent, however. Anthropologists say in the past some parents even killed newborn albino babies.
“Marriage discrimination against albinos and infanticide of albinos were common during the early part of the 20th century,” said Woolf.
Nowadays, though, it seems revered albinos have only themselves to fear.
Medicine man Flores says the powers of a few moon children are waning. “Some of them go to dances and are involved in drugs and chase women, so they have lost some of their powers,” he said.