Indigenous People of Panama: The 7 Groups and Cultures Guide

Panama is a paradise for tourists, but it belongs to its People. Some People have been in Panama since the dawn of time and the natives of the country. They are the Indigenous Panamanians, the native owners of this bountiful land.

Panama has seven indigenous groups that comprise their entire native people. These are the Guna, the Ngäbe – Buglé, the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Bribri, the Bokota, and the Naso Tjërdi. Many of these people shared fertile regions, with their native lands divided into five comarca indigena.

If you’re trying to delve deeper into the history of the people who own the land, this is for you. Today, we’ll talk about each of these indigenous people, who they are, their language, and their history. We’ll tell about their stories, their origins, and their individual plights.

Let’s take a look.

Challenges to the Indigenous People of Panama

Before we talk about each people, we need to understand the challenges that they face. The indigenous people of Panama experience encroachment of their traditional lands. The Panamanian government only recognizes the five comarcas, sidelining the claim of many other indigents.

There’s also the implementation of hydroelectric dams in the area, specifically in the lands of the Ngäbe – Buglé and the Naso people. The dam under construction in the Ngäbe – Buglé land is without consent, destroying sacred lands.

The most significant challenge to the indigents, however, is their continued subsistence farming. Their lack of sources of income and education gives them an obvious disadvantage in negotiations.

Indigenous PeoplePopulation (2010)ComarcaPercentage of the Population
Ngäbe 260,058
62.3%
Buglé 24,912
6%
Guna80,526Guna Yala, Madungandí, Wargandí19.3%
Emberá 31,284Emberá  7.5%
Wounaan 7,279Emberá 1.7%
Naso4,056
1%
Bokota 1,959
0.5%
Bribri1,068
0.3%

The Guna People

The Guna are the indigenous people of Panama living along the Guna Yala coastline. They were also known as Kuna before an orthographic spelling reform in 2010. They live as far back as a few villages along Colombia. There are also Guna people who live in Panama City, Colon, and small islands in Guna Yala.

The Guna people live along the coast, along several comarcas (regions) such as:

  • San Blas Islands
  • Kuna de Wargandi
  • Kuna de Madugandi

The Guna people have their traditional Kuna language and Spanish as a way to communicate. There are about 50,000 of these people who live in these locales. Because of the perfect beauty of the coastline in their area, the Guna People are among the most visible indigents.

History of the Guna People

Much of the culture of the Guna people revolves around their pride and independence as a people. They will fight wars against people who encroach on their territory. These people include colonial Spaniards and other tribes like the Emberá-Wounaan. The Guna will even resist the government, which they did in a 1925 Revolt.

Amongst the Guna people, a village leader called the saila handles political units. The saila are the political and religious leaders of their communities. Some of their duties include remembering the traditional songs of their people.

Most of the decisions within the community come from a discussion. These meetings are the Onmaked Nega or the Ibeorgun Nega, equivalent to a House of Congress. What the saila does in these situations vary.

In an Onmaked Nega, the saila will sing songs that relate to the oral histories, legends, and laws of the Guna people. The saila will have interpreters and counselors, known as the voceros, who are there to advise. Their job is also to relay the saila’s recitations, which are in a complicated vocabulary, to simpler language.

The Culture of the Guna People

There are special things that differentiate the Guna. For starters, they are matrilineal and matrilocal, which means grooms marry into the bride’s family. The groom will also take the bride’s surname.

Gunas have differing outlooks on tourists, with some believing people should pay to visit the comarca. Their pride helped preserved much of their culture, asking respect more than economic viability.

Female members of the Guna wear molas – bright-colored textiles with appliques and reverse appliques. The specific word for a mola blouse for women is the Tulemola or “Kuna people’s clothing.” Guna women also wear strings of beads around their legs and forearms, together with gold nose rings.

The Guna people are among the second shortest people in the world, second only to the Pygmies of Africa.

The Ngäbe – Buglé People

The Ngäbe – Buglé people are some of the indigenous inhabitants of the Ngäbe – Buglé comarca. The comarca encompasses a wide span of locales. These places include Bocas Del Toro, Chiriqui, and Veraguas. There are around 260,000 Ngäbe people who speak their native Ngäbere language. The Buglé people speak Buglére and are about 24,000 in number.

Many of the Ngäbe – Buglé live in the same locale as the Buglé, even if they have different languages. A good number of the Ngäbe people have moved to Costa Rica. This migration is a result of looking for work in coffee estates.

The Ngäbe – Buglé people are also called Guaymi. This name is an outdated epithet from the Spanish colonists of old. Their other name for the Ngäbe is Ngobe, as the Spanish people don’t have an “ä” in their vocabulary.

The History of the Ngäbe – Buglé People

The Ngäbe – Buglé are traditional farmers, working on millions of farms or living as separate families. The Ngäbe – Buglé are prideful of their culture, preserving most of it through the centuries. Their political autonomy gives them a good representation in Panama’s legislation.

Most of the Ngäbe – Buglé people are below the poverty level, living on subsistence agriculture. They don’t own modern technology, but the government provided them cell service and solar power. Most of their products are simple crops like corn, yuca, rice, and livestock like chickens and pigs.

To make ends meet, most of the Ngäbe people work in cash economies for easy money. Many of them work in coffee plantations, cattle ranches, and even chocolate plantations for cash. You will also see them sell trinkets and beads on the side of the roads.

Some will also do handicrafts that they can sell to tourists. You will see many of the Ngäbe people on the ocean, either spearfishing or commercial fishing.

The Culture of the Ngäbe – Buglé People

There are many curious traditions within the Ngäbe – Buglé people. For starters, a woman is “sick” when they are pregnant and treated as such. The pregnancy does not undergo discussion for its duration. Once the baby is healthy, it is only then that people acknowledge the pregnancy.

Ngäbe – Buglé women wear a unique dress called naguas. This dress extends from the neck to the ankles, usually colored bright. The dress also has a distinctive dragon scale-like pattern called dientes, representing the mountains. Most of its use came from Catholic missionaries in the 1960s, often for the sake of modesty.

Their religion is Roman Catholic and many of its denominations. Their beliefs came from the 1600s when the first Spanish colonists brought Christianity with them.

One of the most significant events among the Ngäbe – Buglé is the Balseria, which is a four-day festival. This festival is a traditional sport and is an intertown event. A player will carry a big plank of balsa and throw it at an opponent’s leg. The objective is to hit the opponent below the knee until they can’t continue.

The Ngäbe – Buglé are among the lowest in human development, education, and life expectancy in Panama.

The Emberá People

The Emberá people are a tribe of indigenous people who live both in Panama and Colombia. They come from the Darien Province in Panama but lived in the upper Atrato and San Juan rivers in Colombia. The word “Emberá” means people in their language. They also share the collective name of Chocó with the neighboring Wounaan.

The Emberá number at around 31,000 and live in small villages. Each village will have about 5 to 20 houses each, residing along the Chucunaque/Tuira/Balsas River watersheds. Most of the Emberá people live in the Emberá comarca. These span the territories of Chepigana and Pinogana districts in Darién Province.

Two districts make up the Emberá comarca. To the east is the Cemaco, which has the Union Choco as its capital. Its corregimientos or subdivisions include Cirilo Guaynora, Lajas Blancas, and Manuel Ortega.

To the southwest is the Sambú District, with the capital of Puerto Indio. Its corregimientos include Río Sábalo and Jingurudo.

The History of the Emberá People

Emberá people live along rivers, creating housing along the banks. Fish is a staple in the daily diet of the Emberá, together with crops like plantains. Most of their everyday life revolves around the river, with fishing and boating as their means of sustenance.

Emberá housing style uses traditional materials to keep structural integrity. They tend to use wood, Jira bark, and palm leaves as roofing. Modern materials updated their housing, replacing Jira with wood and palm leaves with aluminum roofing.

Boats are crucial to the life of an Emberá tribesman. Creating dugout boats serves as a rite of passage to these people, especially to young boys and men. It is a tradition to have enough skills to make a boat to marry or as a representation of adulthood.

Emberá people have an egalitarian society, not following and tribal leaders or chieftains. The center of their traditional ceremonies comes by way of a shaman. This shaman is in charge of both duties as the local doctor and their spiritual leader.

The Culture of the Emberá People

One crucial detail among the Emberá people was their practice of female genital mutilation. They are the only tribes doing so in Latin America and considered a deep secret and taboo. The controversy and awareness from this tradition, however, is starting to reduce this tradition.

The clothing of Emberá women comprises of a traditional patterned skirt, made of different colors. They tend to stay topless, with tattoos all over their bodies. These tattoos come from the black dye of the jagua fruit, creating geometric patterns. The Emberá women also have adornments like different beads and metal necklaces.

The traditional men’s wear is a loincloth and an adornment of body tattoos. They will sometimes wear bead necklaces around their bodies in a cross pattern.

If the Emberá people have visitors, they offer to create the jagua tattoos. These don’t wash for one week, so they last as long as a henna tattoo.

The Wounaan People

The Wounaan people are the other tribe that makes up the Chocó people, the other being the Emberá. They are almost identical in culture with the Emberá people, but they speak a different language. Their traditional name is the Wuanana tribe, and some of their other names include Wound Meu, Chanco, and Chocama.

The Wounaan traditionally resided along the lower banks of San Juan River in the 1600s. They entered Panama around the 1940s.

The History of the Wounaan People

Much of the Wounaan people have robust political autonomy in Panama. Outsiders, however, tend to overlook them. Being culturally similar to the Emberá people, people tend to mix both tribes. While they have almost the same economy and tribal structure, they are still different.

Most of the Wounaan, in pursuit of economic options, start moving outside of Darien. Many formed communities along the Río Chagres, becoming tourist destination communities. Most of these communities, however, are beginning to lose their cultural identity from outside exposure.

Among the best skills that the Wounaan people have is basket weaving. They make them using chunga leaves and create geometric patterns. They have a tradition of using either black and white colors or vivid natural dyes. Their baskets are so tight that people claim they can hold liquids without any trouble.

Most of their economy comes from farming, including products like yucca, rice, cocoa, and fruits. They wear the same colorful loincloths as the Emberá people. They also like wearing flower crowns on their heads and beads across their necks.

The Culture of the Wounaan People

The Wounaan people follow a cacique or chieftain and do their best to not rely on the government. They don’t like depending on the Guardia National (Panama Police). They also don’t intermarry with outsiders, following a matrilineal society.

They also use the jagua fruit to create tattoos on their bodies. This helps them repel insects while hunting in the wild. Women do not cover their torsos unless in an outsider town. They wear nothing in their upper body in their villages other than coin necklaces and beads.

The Wounaan people received attention after they participated in two Hollywood films. These are The Mission by Roland Joffe, and 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Ridley Scott. Because of their analphabet status, most of their acting was natural.

The Bribri People

The Bribri people are indigenous people who have moved from Costa Rica to Panama. They come from the Cordillera de Talamanca, which is a mountainous Carribean coast area. They made their way into Northern Panama, around Bocas Del Toro.

As most of the Bribri people stayed in Costa Rica, only a few thousand live in Panama. Their primary language is native Bribri and Spanish, most living in subsistence agriculture. Their connection to their language has allowed their culture to stay intact. The problem is their lowered access to healthcare and education due to a language barrier.

Non-profit organizations are working with the Bribri people to help them. These non-profits try to help families become self-sufficient, providing educational opportunities. Many Bribris also live in non-protected areas in the region.

They have a population of only 1068 people.

The History of The Bribri People

Agriculture is the primary source of income for the Bribri people. Because of their low numbers in Panama, they live in isolation from the other indigents of the country. They developed an intricate bartering system amongst themselves.

Their other sources of livelihood include hunting and fishing. Over the past few years, the Bribri people started welcoming outsiders. Many of these are there to help the tribe get a more sustainable source of income.

Much of the newer income sources the locals focus on empowering the women. These include creating tourism jobs that allow outsiders to see the culture of Bribri people. Ecotourism enables people outside the Bribri to sample their products and explore their organic farms.

The interaction with different people from other countries is helping the community grow. It helps reconnect the younger Bribri to their cultural connections while creating income. It is also creating a renewed interest in the sacred traditions of their people.

The Culture of The Bribri People

Much of the culture of the Bribri people tie back in their mountainous home in Talamanca. Most form clans together with their extended family, following a matrilineal society. Women have an essential place in their social strata. Only they can inherit lands and prep the cocoa drink crucial for rituals.

Many of the roles for men get their definition under their culture. Many of these roles are ceremonial in nature, like the “awa” or shaman. A vital male role in the Bribri community is the “oko,” spiritualists who are the only ones allowed to touch the dead. They also prepare the food in funeral rites and sing funeral songs.

Cacao is a crucial part of the Bribri culture, believing it as a woman turned into a tree by Sibú (God). Their reverence goes as far as not using cacao branches as firewood and used as a rite of passage. To help in their livelihood, women from the Bribri produce hand-made chocolates from their cacao.

The Bribri has a unique conical house called a palenque, acting as the center of spirituality. It is a representation of the universe. Its eight pillars signifying the animals that helped Sibú (God) make it.

The Naso Tjerdi People

The Naso Tjerdi people are indigenous Panamanians and Costa Ricans living in Northwest Panama. They reside along the Bocas Del Toro Province, with a tiny population of 4056. They speak Spanish and their native Teribe language, part of the Chibchan language family.

The Naso people occupied the mountain jungles of west Bocas del Toro. To the Spanish speaking people, people know them as the Teribe and live along Rio Teribe. They have around 11 active communities and have connections to the land ever since the 16th century.

 Most of the Naso people have conflicts with the Spanish colonizers in the day. The Naso moved further back into the thicker jungles of Panama, moving as far back as Costa Rica’s highlands.

The Spanish tried to bring Catholicism to the indigenous people. At the same time, they also brought smallpox to the Naso people, which many of them were unable to survive. Much of their culture remained untouched even after all the encroachment.

The History of the Naso People

Like many other indigenous people of Panama, the Naso live as subsistence farmers. Bocas Del Toro is mountainous, which prevents extensive farming practices. Their apparent isolation for decades prevented them from moving away from their older traditions.

Much of their income goes back to their agricultural products. These cash crops include cocoa, plantains, and oranges sold together with livestock like pigs, chickens, and ducks. They also sell lumber like Spanish elm and Spanish cedar, among others.

Another source of income that the Naso people have are handicrafts sold in nearby cities. Because of their geographical isolation, they are unable to get as many visitors.

The Culture of the Naso People

Much of the culture of the Naso people is unique, even as indigenous people. For starters, they are the last tribe in Latin America who still has an active monarchy. A king governs all of the Naso people, and even then, they don’t have a traditional line of succession.

The traditional succession of the Naso monarchy is generational. It starts with the king, who is the eldest among his siblings. Once the king dies, the succession passes to his younger brother until their generation finishes. The crown will then move to the son of the first king and progress within their family.

By the 80s, however, the succession came by way of a democratic vote by the adult population. If there is an existing dissatisfaction amongst the people, a member of the royal family can call for an election. Men and women can run for the leadership position. In 2004, King Tito went into exile after approving a controversial hydroelectric dam.

Much of the family unit of the Naso people, however, is matrilineal. They follow their traditional religion with Sibö as the supreme ruler and creator. Some moved towards Roman Catholicism, but they are still far and few in between.

The Naso people stopped wearing traditional clothing, preferring Western clothing.

The Bokota People

The Bokota people are the least numerous indigenous people of Panama. They are a number below 2000 and live in the same general area as the Naso people. You can find them in Bocas Del Toro and around northwest Veraguas. They have an ethnic connection to the Ngäbe – Buglé people via marriage.

They speak their traditional Bokota language, which is a dialect of the Buglere. There are a lot of unknowns about the Bokota, at most because of their small size and relative isolation.

A general misunderstanding is that Bokota people and Buglé people are the same. While their language is a Buglere dialect, they are two different ethnic groups. For starters, they live further away from the traditional comarca of the Buglé people. Also, the Bokota are very few, while the Buglé people still number more than 24,000.

The History of the Bokota People

The current economy of the Bokota people revolves around fishing, livestock, and hunting. They are weapon hunters, using spears, bows, arrows, and fishnets for hunting.

Another source of income for the Bokota is their handicrafts. They make vegetable fiber hats, backpacks, and baskets. They also make a local daily dress called Cobo from the same vegetable fibers.

Their houses comprise of traditional materials shaped as rounded homes. The homes stand up on stilts to prevent wild animal attacks.

The Culture of the Bokota People

Much of the local culture of the Bokota people is a mystery because of their relative isolation. The Bokota were an isolated tribe until the 1970s due to the lack of roadways in the area. They maintained their own language and culture, keeping their old traditional religion.

Men of the Bokota people wear “manta sucia” clothing, which is natural fiber cloth. Their women dress the same as the Ngäbe with their long dress called a naguas. Together with these clothes, they wear black and red face paints, along with shiny combs.

The Bokota household is monogamous in general. They have a history of intermarriage with people from the Ngäbe – Buglé. Even then, there are still families within the Bokota who are full-blooded, maintaining much of their traditions.

One of their most famous traditions is the ceremony of lightning, which prays for preventing lightning strikes in their homes.

Conclusion

There are 7 indigenous groups in Panama, each with their unique culture and history. They are the traditional owners of the isthmus and go back from the discovery of the country.

Understanding the culture of these native Panamanians is crucial. As the traditional people of the land, their history and culture define who Panama is today. These people experience challenges brought about by modern living.

The progress of the traditional people of Panama is progress for everyone. Respecting their culture, providing their historical birthrights, and preventing encroachment of their lands is the most we can do for them. Helping them keep their traditions alive and educating ourselves with their plights is our prime responsibility.

Are you visiting any of these tribes soon? Which ones are you interested to see? We’re sure you would fall in love with these people and how they take care of their community.

Give them a visit and see for yourself!

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

Recent Posts