There are six, some say seven, tribes in Panama but I’m only going to discuss the three that have easily identifiable outward appearances. The first nation sometimes mistakenly called Choco but that is a geographical region not a tribal group. These 3000 censused Embera and Wounaan peoples reside in the Darien rainforest of Colombia and Panama. They live in what some consider idyllic conditions in raised pole, open-air, thatched roofed huts in the tropical forests of Southern Panama. They dress as their ancestor did, except instead of making natural fabrics from jungle plants they now purchased them, for centuries; bare-chested in simple loincloths and wrap around skirts. These small well-formed people embellish their skin with an ink like substance processed from the berries of the genip tree that wear off naturally in a few weeks much like henna in Hindu cultures. They also implement achiote paste, the spice that imparts the yellow color to Mexican rice, for personal adornment. They rarely leave their one or two family encampments, which are usually located close to a river and exist pretty much too themselves except when they put on the dog for the tourists. As amongst most of the other interior native groups in Panama, their existence is primarily a substance one with the exception of tagua nut carvings, strung Chinese beads masquerading as indigenous and some stunning baskets for the gawking tourists who come to see how the rainforest inhabitants live. These people constitute some of the last hunter gathers on the planet, an interesting and sobering thought, and their rejection of modern acculturation is atypical for many postmodern observers and their perceptions of the ”half-clothed rain forest native.”
From circa 1955 may be Embera or Wounaan
The Guaymi-Ngobe Bugle tribe is the most prolific of the six recognized indigenous nations in Panama numbering around 165 thousand members. The modern icon of the Ngobe Bugle is the Mou Mou like brightly colored and geometrical appliquéd dress of the women. Early missionaries found all the peoples of Panama, because of the gentle climate, relatively unclothed and proceeded to import machine woven fabrics to cover their sinful dispositions. The male fashion statement is a beaded collar called a chaquira. However, it’s best you remember that with no white man there were no manufactured beads or cloth. Native dress transitioned from simple to elaborate as seen by the geometrical design gracing the dresses of Noble Bugle women. Contact with the white man and his trade goods, originally limited to settlements that where close to Christian enclaves, increased dramatically after completion of the canal.
The Kuna are the most colorful tribe, actually it’s only the women, in Panama. The Kuna, again another white man’s name, have about thirty-six thousand tribal members who have maintained both their culture and semi-autonomous tribal form of government by moving to the Islands off Panama’s Atlantic coast (see Friday, December 31 map post). As a Gringo, it’s virtually impossible not to stare at these diminutive splashes of colors as they make their way through the streets of Pandemonium City or the lanes of El Valle. Before my pictorial narrative about these proud people let me offer a few factoids about the Kunas fascinating gene pool. They have the highest rate of albinism of any ethnic group in the world and these “white” Kunas, known as moon-children amongst the tribe, have certain proscribed ritual duties and privileges. Secondly, next to the African pygmy groupings, they are the shortest people in the world. There’s really so much to write about my favorite cousins but suffice it to say they, the women, wear molas, gold nose rings, beaded leggings and decorate their skin with patterns. They also are as the best native cooks in Panama putting them even closer to my heart. Of course, like all the indigenous peoples of Panama these costumes are relatively new addition to the culture.
There are in reality seven indigenous peoples or nations living in the Republic of Panama: the Ngäbe, the Kuna, the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Buglé, the Naso Tjerdi and the Bri Bri. According to the May 2010 census, they represent 12.7% (417,559) of the total population of 3,405,813.
When their territories were demarcated, the legal form they were given was the comarca [reservation] where each group developed their own territory and political/administrative structure. There are five comarcas established by law: San Blas or Kuna Yala in 1953; Emberá-Wounaan, 1983; Kuna-Madungandi, 1996; Ngöbe-Buglé, 1997; and Kuna-Wargandi, 2000. The Naso-Tjerdi (previously known as the Teribe) territory still remains to be legalised. There are communities that live outside of the comarcas, such as the Emberá and Wounaan of Darién, and the Ngäbe and Buglé in Chiriquí and Bocas, and they are still seeking the legalisation of their lands.