Indigenous Communities in Panama

The Embera (Darien and Panama Canal Basin)

With an estimated population of 15,000, the Embera People live in the Darien of Panama and the department of Choco in Colombia. In Panama, they inhabit the same areas as the Wounaan with whom they share many cultural similarities. Due to overwhelming outside influences, many Embera communities are now working in an effort to revive their culture and traditions, preserve their language and values, and find economic development ideas to supplement meager income from farming. The Embera traditionally built their houses very high on stilts, up to ten feet. At those heights, the house was protected from wild animals such as the feared jaguar, wild boar, rodents etc. It also offered protection from flooding and even from other people. Houses today are still built on stilts but not as high, just a few feet of the ground to avoid the flooding of the rainy season and to prohibit the invasion of the insects that nest and congregate in the grasses. People climb into their house using a log in which they carve small steps. Traditional houses are composed of a single room with the fire pit at one end and living space at the other. One or two sides are closed with walls of bamboo or other wood. Walls offer some privacy but by leaving half of the house open, breezes serve to cool the house and keep insects from congregating. The roofs are made of thatch. Women are usually bare-chested, wearing only a skirt they call paloma. Women, like men, used to cover their bodies regularly with the black dyes of the jaguar fruit, a practice still used for ceremonies. They cover their chests with intricate plastic bead necklaces and ornamental collars made with dozens of coins. Women also like to add a bit of red color on their faces with the natural dye of achiote.


The Guna (San Blas)

The Guna Indians are a strongly-knit tribal society living largely in 42 settlements scattered throughout the San Blas Archipelago, on the Atlantic side of Panama. Believed to be descendants of the Caribs, the Guna Indians still live in much the same manner as their ancestors. They have cleverly managed to retain their tribal identity and contentedly lead a moral balanced life, free from the complexities of modern, highly-organized societies. The Guna have a matriarchal society in which the line of inheritance passes through the women. A young man, after marriage, must live in his mother-in-law’s house and work for several years under apprenticeship to his father-in-law. Divorce is uncommon, although it requires no more than the husband to gather his clothes and move out of the house. The daughters of the Guna people are prized because they will eventually bring additional manpower into the family. They cultivate coconut, their main staple, as well as corn, rice, cocoa, and yucca. Essentially, they are fishermen.

The women are noted for the colorful blouses, called molas, that they stitch and wear, though outside the islands the molas are considered works of art and are framed or made into pillows or other decorative items. The method used in creating molas is a reverse appliqué, in which several rectangular pieces of fabric of different colors are sewn together, and then the layers are slit and stitched to allow the different colors to show through in the finished design. Mola design has traditionally represented such things as Guna legends, customs, and daily life, as well as nature and historical events. The Guna have a custom for every event and happening in their life and these customs are passed on to their children through dances and chants. These events are also documented in their Molas.
The Guna language (until recently, unwritten) is spoken throughout the community, however, Spanish is fast becoming the second language. Due to the United States influence since the building of the Panama Canal and with the influx of tourists frequenting the San Blas Archipelago, English is also being spoken by an increasing number of Guna.


The Ngobe-Bugle (Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro)

The Ngobe-Bugle Indians’ ancestors were the formidable fighters the conquistadors rated among the most skilled warriors in the Western Hemisphere. No longer the fierce warriors of yore, the present-day Ngobe-Bugle live under the laws of Panama in the provinces of Veraguas, Chiriqui, and Bocas del Toro. Their children attend Panama schools, but they still retain many of their aboriginal customs and practices. When Panama broke away from Spain and joined Colombia in the early 19th century, the Ngobe-Bugle remained in oblivion in their mountain villages. Slowly they are now being incorporated into the national fold. Ngobe-Bugle teachers and law-enforcement officers help the effort. While the typical chaquara purse remains a symbol of the Ngobe-Bugle culture, it is no longer a treasured warrior’s ornament fashioned painstakingly by female hands within the closeness of the family circle, but a vastly sophisticated commodity to which mass production techniques are being applied. Its production is an established source of income for the Ngobe-Bugle.


The Chocoes (Darien)

Defying change, the copper-colored Chocoes live in the wildest, most primitive existence, very much as the Spaniards found them early in the 16th century. Scattered along the banks of the many rivers that crisscross the Darien, far from the comforts and problems of civilization, they seem to be in complete harmony with their surroundings. Proud, peaceful, honest, but suspicious of outsiders, they live a day-to-day existence in which there are few economic pressures. Ignoring government procedures and regulations, Chocoes usually make their own laws. Both men and women go about practically nude. Males have a muscular frame, an abundance of straight black hair and wear earrings. The rest of the attire of the Chocoe man consists of a small G-string and a generous coating of dark body paint made from the dye of a native berry from the genip tree. They also use a red paint made from achiote, the orange-red seed pod which is commonly used to give color and flavor to Panamanian cooking.


The Wounaan (Darien)

There are about 2,600 Wounaan Indians who also live in the Darien rainforest. In 1983, the government of Panama recognized the Comarca Embera-Drua, a semi-autonomous Indigenous territory for both tribes. This territory overlaps the Darien National Park and Biosphere Reserve.