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Indigenous Cultures of Panama,
Panama Native Indians

Emberá Wounan
The Kunas
The Ngöbe Buglé
Related Links

Last update: December, 2009

Indigenous groups make up 5.3% of the total population of the republic. The most important Indian tribes on the isthmus are: The Kunas who are found on the islands of San Blas, and also in the jungle of Chucunaque and Bayano; the Ngobe Buglé (also known as Guaymíe) who live mainly in the mountainous areas of Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, and Chiriqui; the Emberá and Wounan (tribes of the Chocoes group) who live in the Darién jungle and the Teribe and Cricamola in the province of Bocas del Toro.

Emberá Wounan

At first sight, the culture of this Native American group, which migrated to Panama from South America around the same time that Spanish conquistadors first set foot on the Isthmus, might seem rather primitive to the average visitor. Whereas men and boys wear loin cloths, the daily attire of women and girls consists of a lively-colored skirt, body paint on their nude torso, a necklace made with coins and a crown of flowers. A closer contact will yield a different impression: cell phones, children learning world history in school and a tourist committee with enough knowledge of English to make you feel at home.

A one-and-a half to two hour boat journey on the Chagres River to the tiny village of Embera Drua is the closest spot to Panama City to visit this group.

Nestled in the thick rainforests of Chagres National Park, Emberá Drúa and its residents are taking more and more visitors from northern climes travel several centuries back in time.

Since the birth of Panama's cruise ship industry ten years ago, Emberá Drúa has become one of the most popular destinations for luxury vessel passengers on the Isthmus. The average visit includes native dances, an authentic Emberá lunch (featuring fried fish and patacones -fried, green plantain medallions), lectures on the town's history and culture and "crash courses" on how to make the Emberá's excellent handicrafts, including their woven baskets, and carvings made with vegetable ivory and cocobolo wood.

The Kunas

Nobody knows for sure when they arrived in Panama from South America, but by the 16th century, they had already occupied the 360 islands known today as the San Blas archipelago, pushed towards the Caribbean coast by enemy Native American tribes and the Spanish conquistadors.

The Kuna are a nation within a nation which has struggled for centuries to keep its culture and traditions alive. During the colonial period, they joined European corsairs and pirates in a number of successful attacks against the Spanish, who had vowed to eliminate them. As the Spanish empire dwindled, they became entrenched in the regions of present-day Darién and San Blas, in Panama, and western Colombia, which granted them lands and legal recognition towards the end of the 19th century. Panama, which back then was a Colombian province, declared independence in 1903 and ignored the agreements, although most of the Kuna population was on the Panamanian side of the border, a fact that made many inhabitants of San Blas side with the Colombian government just as Panamanian authorities sought to "civilize" the Kuna.

Resentments reached a climax in 1925, when Richard O. Marsh, a Canadian adventurer, motivated the Kuna to declare independence from Panama by creating the "Republic of Tule". A peace treaty was later signed, and the Kuna agreed to acknowledge Panamanian sovereignty only after the "wagas" (the non-Kuna) granted them a good measure of autonomy.

Today, Panamanian authorities rarely interfere with Kuna government and have created three special comarcas (autonomous territories) for them. Known as a culture based on equal treatment for men and women, an egalitarian barter economy and their colorful molas (reverse appliqué creations famous around the world) the Kuna are a tourist attraction in their own right, and their traditionally-dressed women are an important element of Panama's urban scene, offering their handicraft at the city's main tourist venues.

The Ngöbe Buglé

Formerly know as the Guaymie, the Ngöbe Buglé inhabit the highlands of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí and the arid plains of Veraguas. Women wear gowns of bright colors sewn in geometric shapes while men’s dress is basically modern. However, during their ceremonies of balseria, where the strongest triumph, they will dress themselves with exotic bird feathers and paint their faces with geometric shapes, usually black, white and red.

They live in huts near rivers or in valleys. The Ngöbe Buglé fish, hunt, raise dogs, cattle, chickens and pigs. Some of their more famous items are chaquiras, bead neckalces of geometric designs and bold colors. The Ngöbe Buglé impose severe punishments for adultery and celebrate a number of annual ceremonies. According to the 2000 Panamanian census, there is a total of 110,080 Ngöbe Buglé Indians in Panama, representing 63.6% of the country's indigenous population. The Ngöbe Buglé Comarca (reservation) was officially created on March 7, 1997, with territory formerly belonging to the provinces of Chiriquí, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro.

Related Links

Art & Culture in Focus Panama
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