Most indigenous groups in Panama still live on ancestral lands in semiautonomous reservations called comarcas. The three largest comarcas – the Ngöbe-Buglé, Emberá-Wounaan, and Guna Yala – are the equivalent of a province, while the two smaller comarcas – Madungandí and Wargandí – are considered municipalities.
Indigenous people tend to make a living through a combination of subsistence farming, fishing, hunting, and the sale of handicrafts. Some groups are beginning to experiment with tourism (especially ecotourism), and have had varying degrees of success. The most experienced are undoubtedly the Guna, as they have allowed tourists to visit their pristine archipelago in the Caribbean for several decades.
Still, most indigenous groups in Panama are extremely poor. It’s estimated that 95% live in extreme poverty, trying to get by on just $1 a day. As such, their infrastructure is basic and largely consists of materials harvested from the natural landscape. Illiteracy and health problems persist, as many comarcas lack steady financial support from the Panamanian government. Potable water is generally not available, and as a result water-borne disease is rampant and widespread.
The Guna (pop. 62,000) live along the eastern Caribbean coast in the picture-perfect San Blas Archipelago. The unbelievable natural beauty of this place has drawn tourists for decades, and as such, the Guna are one of the most visible indigenous groups in Panama. Their territory not only includes this string of 400 islands but also a mountainous strip of forest on the mainland. This area runs along the Caribbean slope of the Darién all the way to Colombia.
The Guna go by many names. Until only recently they were referred to as the Kuna, but in 2011 their name was officially changed to better reflect their native tongue, which lacks a “K” sound. Somewhat comically, the Guna don’t refer to themselves as Guna – it’s just the name they let huaga (foreigners) call them. Within their own circles, they are known as the Tule (pronounced TOO-lay).
The Guna are a fiercely independent people. They have fought wars with the Spanish and Emberá-Wounaan, and in 1925 won a revolt against the Republic of Panama, earning them the semiautonomous status that they enjoy today. Indeed, outsiders have been trying to steal their home for centuries, so it’s not surprising that the Guna are somewhat wary of outsiders. This is reflected today in their attitude towards tourists, which is somewhat mixed. Many welcome the economic opportunity of tourism, but hold strong to their belief that visitors should pay for the privilege of visiting their comarca (even taking a photo of a Guna will cost you $1). This reticence, however, has helped preserve their culture, and with the right amount of respect and understanding visitors can get a wonderful glimpse into their world.
Most Guna live on the islands in the archipelago, although a sizeable number still live on the mainland in the Darién forest. The mainland Guna, who live in the comarcas of Madungandí and Wargandí, see fewer visitors than the island Guna, as they live in remote areas and have an even stronger suspicion of outsiders. They are more traditional than the island Guna and cling tightly to their ways.
It’s easy to recognize the female members of the Guna tribe, as their traditional dress is beautiful and ornamental. The most notable feature is the mola, an intricately woven cloth panel that decorates both the front and back of the woman’s blouse. Art collectors around the world prize these molas for their colorful designs and intricate patterns. Travelers can buy molas in Guna territory or at markets in Panama City. The women also wear tight strings of beads around their legs and forearms, as well as gold rings in their nose.
Interestingly enough, the Guna are also the second-shortest people in the world (after the pygmies of Africa) and have the highest rate of albinism in the world. The reason for this is not known and has fascinated scientists for years. The albinos, who are known as “moon children,” are seen as special within the Guna culture, but have one of the highest rates of skin cancer and tend to live shorter lives.
The largest indigenous group in Panama is the Ngöbe-Buglé (pop. 188,000). The Ngöbe-Buglé (pronounced NO-bay BOO-glay) is actually comprised of two different, but culturally similar, groups – the Ngöbe and the Buglé. There are some ethno-linguistic differences between the two, but by and large the distinction is small, so they are often referred to in conjunction with one another. Traditionally this group was known as the Guaymí, but the name is used less nowadays.
The Ngöbe-Buglé won the rights to an enormous comarca in 1997, which is formed from parts of the Chiriquí, Veraguas, and Bocas del Toro provinces. Most members of the group live in the mountains in western Panama.
Similar to the Guna, the Ngöbe-Buglé have largely resisted outside influence and has done well to preserve their culture. This is in part because their communities are scattered along huge, undeveloped tracts of land. Also like the Guna, they have maintained political autonomy while also enjoying representation in the Panamanian legislature.
The Ngöbe-Buglé survive on subsistence agriculture. The men use slash-and-burn techniques to produce corn, rice, bananas, plantains and cassava. During the coffee season, many men travel to plantations near Boquete to help with the harvest and bring back income to their families. The women raise the children and make handicrafts. Two of the most common handicrafts are the naguas (a hand-sewn, traditional dress made of appliqué) and the chacara (a bag woven from plant fibers). These crafts can often be found in markets and shops throughout the Chiriquí province.
Similar to the Ngöbe-Buglé, the Emberá-Wounaan is comprised of two groups who are culturally similar but speak different languages. Although they are lumped together into one group these days, they were originally different people with different languages; some within the group still prefer to be thought of as separate peoples. They number around 29,000 and live mainly in comarcas along the Caribbean and Pacific slopes of the Darién. Anthropologists believe that the two groups (the Emberá and Wounaan) emigrated from the Chocó region of Colombia thousands of years ago.
The Emberá-Wounaan survive on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Historically they were slash-and-burn farmers and hunters, but these days that practice is restricted due to their residency within a national park. Rice and maize plantations have popped up in the Darién in recent decades, thus allowing members of the group to work as seasonal laborers.
The Emberá-Wounaan have strong political autonomy in Panama, although they are beginning to feel the force from outside influences. Latinos are beginning to settle on their lands, and loggers are destroying much of their rainforest. What’s more, there is pressure to finish the Interamerican Highway all the way to Colombia. Their cultural cohesion will ultimately depend on whether this highway is completed. If it happens, it will be difficult for the small groups living within the forest to avoid assimilation. There are, however, a number of roadblocks (including environmental issues and border conflicts with Colombia), and it doesn’t look like the highway will be finished anytime soon.
In the last few decades, some Emberá-Wounaan moved from the Darién to communities along the banks of the Río Chagres, which empties into the Panama Canal near the Gatún Locks. Many of these communities welcome tourists (most notably Parara Puru). Although the people living still here cling to traditional ways, some communities can feel put-on and kitschy. Visits to rural communities in the Darién can be made as well, but says in these communities are certain to be bare bones, bug-friendly affairs.
The Emberá-Wounaan are renowned for their artistic ability, particularly their baskets and carved statues. The baskets are crafted from the leaves of the chunga (black palm) and often contain geometrical patterns or scenes with animals. Some baskets are black-and-white, while others use vivid natural dyes. The highest quality baskets are woven so tightly that it’s said they can hold water. Both tagua nuts (a seed from tropical palm trees) and cocobolo (a type of rosewood) are carved into statues depicting forest animals. They make fantastic gifts.
The Emberá-Wounaan occasionally decorate themselves with temporary tattoos made from the black dye of the jagua fruit. The liquid from the fruit’s pulp is painted onto the skin in geometric patterns from the waist up. At first it is clear, but as it dries it becomes black and the tattoo emerges. Nowadays most Emberá-Wounaan only use the jagua tattoos for special events, but will offer the tattoos to visiting tourists. The tattoos are undoubtedly unique, but be warned: the dye doesn’t wash off for at least a week.
The Naso are a small indigenous group that lives in the northeastern reaches of Panama in the Bocas del Toro region. They are spread out in eleven communities along the Río Teribe, and are one of the last indigenous groups in the Americas that have a traditional monarchy.
According to records from the colonial Spanish empire, the Naso were present in mainland Bocas when the explorers arrived in the 16th century. Not surprisingly, conflicts arose, and the Spaniards drove the Naso off their land and into the highlands near the Costa Rican border.
It is estimated that there are only a few thousand Naso remaining in Panama, although some live in southern Costa Rica as well. The Naso have remained isolated and relatively autonomous for decades, but these days their culture is threatened by youth migration, missionary activity, the encroachment of tourism, and a massive hydroelectric project.
Unlike other indigenous groups in Panama, the Naso have not been granted their own comarca. This is serious because two forces are currently threatening their ancestral land – a developing ecotourism scene in Parque Internacional La Amistad (where many Naso live) and the construction of a massive hydroelectric project along the Río Teribe. The hydroelectric dam is a major source of controversy within the Naso community. Many members fear that it will mean the disintegration of their culture, while others favor it as a source of income. The current king, who is recognized by the Panamanian government, favors the project.
The Naso are also referred to as the Teribe, or Tjër Di. Tjër is the Naso’s principal god. Her name means Grandmother Water and forms the root of the word Teribe, the name of river that runs through this region.
Naso homes are built on stilts and have thatched roofs. Families often share a house or a cluster of houses, and cook simple meals of rice, beans, and some type of vegetable. Visitors to these communities will likely be offered small crafts – animal figures, jewelry, and small baskets. Most Naso are bilingual, speaking Naso and Spanish, and wear Western-style clothing. Many older Naso hold strong to traditional beliefs, although nowadays most Naso practice some form Christianity.
The Bri Bri are another indigenous group that live within the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. This group originated in the Talamanca reserve of Costa Rica and some made their way to northern Panama; many Bri Bri, however, still live in Costa Rica. Only a few thousand live in Panama, and they speak both Bri Bri and Spanish. Most live without running water or electricity, and survive on a mix of subsistence agriculture, hunting and fishing. Their relative isolation has allowed them to maintain their cultural identity, but has also resulted in less access to education and health care.
The Bri Bri live in clans that are composed of their extended family. The clans are matrilineal, which means that a child’s clan is determined by which clan his mother belongs to. Women have an important role in Bri Bri society, and are the only ones who can inherit land or prepare cacao, a sacred drink that is used in rituals and ceremonies. As with other indigenous groups in the area, the cacao tree has a special place in Bri Bri culture. It is believed that their god, Sibö̀, turned a woman into the tree, and these days cacao branches are never used for firewood. Aside from its use in ceremonial practices, Bri Bri women also use cacao to make organic chocolate, an additional source of income.