In 1963, conditions were again favorable to reopen missionary work on the San Blas Islands. These are a group of 365 coral islands on the east coast of Panama which extend about 100 miles from the Colombia border to the Canal Zone. in 1963, about fifty of the islands were inhabited.

Valden L. O'Donnal was a missionary in the Central American Mission during 1963, and returned to Panama in 1972 to 1975. He explains:

These Islands are situated just a few hundred yards off the coast. The Cuna Indians live on the islands because they are cooler than the mainland and the insects don't bother them as they do on the mainland. They did farming on the mainland. Looking at the islands from the air was quite a sight! They were entirely covered with houses! with a couple of exceptions, the air strips were located on the mainland and travel from the air strip to the islands was by cayuco (dugout canoe).

At times, the temperatures were so high and the air so thin at the air strips that the single-engine Cessnas we used to fly back and forth from the Canal Zone could not get off the short runway at Ustupo with more than one passenger.

The islands themselves are only a few feet above sea level. On the Pacific side of the isthmus the tide rises and falls several feet twice a day, but on the Atlantic side where these islands are located, the tides are only a few inches. Otherwise the islands would be inundated twice a day. (E-mail to David Crockett on 6 Jan 1998).

During 1962, Brother Donald Cross, a serviceman in the Canal Zone and Elder Wadsworth started to teach some Cuna Indians at Fort Kobbe, on the mainland. One day, Iguaniktipipi, the most influential chief among the Cuna visited Church on the mainland. A Mutual Class was being conducted and they asked the chief many questions. Brother Cross said:
We found many similarities between their traditions and the Book of Mormon. For instance, we found that they believed in a time when there were nine days of darkness in which all the wicked people were killed, just the righteous people survived and they were visited by a man called Ibiorgun, which means "Man of Light," and that Ibiorgun taught them their way of life, how to get along with their neighbor." (Transcript of tape from Donald Cross to Leslie O. Brewer, September 18, 1963).
Iguaniktipipi spoke of a belief in a pre-earth life, that all lived with God when the world was created. The Cuna believed that God is in the form of man, a glorified personage. They believed in different levels of heavens. Iguaniktipipi was impressed with the similarities between the Church's teachings and his traditions. He returned to the San Blas islands and generated a great deal of interest in the Church.

Later, Donald Cross and Aurelio Munoz visited the island of Ailigandi. This island is about as big as four city blocks and was populated by about 1,500 people. They were asked to speak before a council of the Indians to tell them about the Church. The people were very interested and desired to have a branch of the Church established.

Soon, people on the island of Carti Tupili also became very interested. One of their group, sixteen-year-old Miguel Martinez joined the Church on the mainland at Colon. Two or three weeks after his baptism, he returned to his people on Carti Tupili to tell them about the Church. He spoke before the island's council for several hours and then was invited to go from house to house, teaching individual families. The people were amazed that within just a few weeks, Miguel had learned so much about the Bible and their traditions. The leaders on the island sent a party of several people to meet with the Church leaders in Colon, asking that the Church be brought to Carti Tupili.

In 1963, Brother Cross visited the islands with local leader, President Brenner and found the people to be extremely interested. Full-time missionaries Jay C. Sandberg and Marion P. Tanner were brought to the island along with district (local) missionaries Aurelio Munoz and Lorenzo Garrido. The brethren rowed twelve miles to the island which took about four hours. Brother Cross recalled:

We arrived at the island and they received us very well. The first full day was taken up in talking to the council and arranging for the stay of the two local missionaries. . . . Second day we began to give classes. The first class was to the children of school age, the primary school. The very first class we had a little over fifty children present, and also some adults were standing in. . . . While President Munoz was giving the class, the children actually sat there with their mouths open at the things that Elder Munoz was teaching them. I suppose for most of them it was the first time that they had ever heard of Jesus Christ. As he told them of the life of Jesus Christ the children were enthralled. (Ibid.)
Classes were also held with the women. It was harder to meet with the men because they worked during the day and met in the council house for business in the evening. Teaching after dark was difficult because there were only a few lanterns.

Elder Sandberg later wrote:

While we were over there the people of the island after listening to us elected to have the Church, or to adopt the Church as part of their island. And they have chosen two-possible places where they are thinking of building a Bamboo house where the missionaries can teach their people and where Church meetings can be held. We had a very successful trip, largely due to the district missionaries who taught their people in their own language, the Cuna language. (History written by Elder Sandberg.)
The full-time elders stayed on the island for four days and the local missionaries remained for another week. The people on the Carti Tupili did not want them to leave and wanted to have Elders with them all the time. Elder Sandberg said, "Even though we have hardly done anything on the island itself, two or three of the nearby islands have already expressed a desire to have the gospel taught to their people." Within six weeks, the elders baptized about twenty Cuna on the mainland.

Branches were organized on several of the islands. Many of the inhabitants of Carti Tupili and Ustupo were baptized. The first meeting house was completed in April 1970 on the island of Ustupo.

Valden L. O'Donnal shared with LDS-GEMS:

While I was in Panama from 1972 to 1975, unfortunately all of the San Blas Branches except the one in Ustupo had been closed due to inactivity. There were two full time Elders assigned to Ustupo and we (the District Counsel and District Presidency) visited the Ustupo Branch at least once a month. Sometimes we stayed over night with the Elders in the hut that the Branch had built for them next to the Branch President's home. When we stayed over night, we slept in hammocks. . . . Toward the end of my family's tour in Panama, the Elders were taken off the Island due to lack of progress. I don't know what happened to the Branch after we left.
A 1990 Census indicates there are 40,000 Cuna Indians on 40 major populated San Blas islands. See some WWW pages on San Blas: