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Emberá and kuna—Two indigenous groups of Panama

How many different indigenous groups would you guess live in Panama today? What language do they speak? Panama is home to seven distinct indigenous groups, each with its own unique language, history, culture, and customs. All of these groups are striving to preserve their traditions, languages, values, connection with the earth, and independence in face of a growing modern industrialized world. Two of Panama’s major indigenous groups are the emberá and the kuna. If you plan to visit any of these native peoples, brush up on your Spanish, because many of them speak Spanish as well as their native language.

CREDIT: Andrew Payti

Emberá women performing ceremonial dance

Most of the emberá live in the rain forests of the Darién region in southeastern Panama. Some emberá, however, have migrated to Lake Bayano and even farther to the Chagres River and Lake Alajuela in Chagres National Park. They live in thatched-roofed huts called bohíos, built on stilts to help protect them from flooding and wild animals. Emberá villages also have a casa comunal for official meetings and ceremonies. They grow gardens of herbs and plants for medicines, as well as vegetables and fruits for dyes. Most villages also have a school, although in the villages closer to cities, some children go to the city during the school year and return to their village when school is done. The emberá live by hunting, fishing, and farming, and their main staples are fish, plantains and other fruits, coconuts, and root vegetables. During social gatherings and ceremonies, they perform music and dance, with movements inspired by animals. The emberá make beautiful woven baskets from chunga palm and nahuala plant fibers, tiny delicate animal figures from tagua nuts, and fine wood carvings from the rich brown-red wood of the cocobolo tree. They also carve out tree trunks to make their piraguas, or canoes. While the emberá still rely on the rivers of the Darién for travel, carrying cargo, and fishing, the Pan-American Highway has opened up this sparsely populated region to loggers, ranchers, and peasant farmers, threatening the indigenous population and the rain forest.

CREDIT: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc./Barry Barker, photographer

Kuna woman sewing a mola, San Blas Islands

Most of the kuna people live in Kuna Yala, the autonomous comarca, or indigenous territory, that comprises the San Blas Islands and a narrow strip of forest land along the Caribbean coast of Panama. The kuna also have small settlements in the rain forests of the Darién. Their livelihood depends on coconut harvesting, farming, fishing, handicrafts—especially the colorful molas for which they are well known—, and tourism, which they limit and regulate. The San Blas Islands, with their soft white sand, turquoise waters, and coral reefs, offer a variety of activities and a relaxing view of nature, while at the same time tourists can experience the culture of the kuna people. Despite adapting to tourists and the modern world, the kuna have succeeded in preserving their traditional customs and ethnic identity through their organization, cohesiveness, and autonomy. They have the most advanced political system of any indigenous group in Latin America. A saila (sahila) is both the political and spiritual leader of each village. Regular meetings are held in the casa comunal to discuss village matters. On a higher level, the Kuna General Congress meets twice a year, bringing together representatives from all the villages in the comarca. The congress drafts legislation and manages numerous social and environmental projects. It also maintains an office in Panama City and actively negotiates with the Panamanian government on various issues.

If you were to visit an indigenous village in Panama, what would you most like to observe or experience?

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