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Panama Culture: Panama's Native Cultures

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San Blas
KUNA INDIANS - text by Sherry Thorup

The Kuna Indians are a strongly-knit tribal society living on a chain of islands called San Blas Archipelago, on the Atlantic side of the Republic of Panama. Believed to be decendents of the Caribs, the Kuna Indians tribe still live in much the same manner as their ancestors.

A Cuna Lady the San Blas Island in Panama CentralAmericaThe San Blas people 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 Kuna have a matriachal 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 Kuna people are prized because they will eventually bring additional manpower into the family.

For some unknown reason, there is a high rate of albinism in the Kuna men. Because of the intensity of the sun in Central America, the albino men are not able to do the work expected of a Kuna man. In order to contribute to their community, they assume duties traditionally assigned to the women, including mola-making. Although encouraged not to marry, the albino men are accepted in the community and their work is respected by their peers.

There is a traditional division of labor within the families. The husband gathers coconuts, cultivates the food, provides firewood, repairs the house, makes his and his son's clothes, weaves baskets and carves wooden utensils. The wife prepares the food, collects fresh water from the mainland rivers, unloads the boats, sews female garments, washes the clothes and cleans the house. The Kuna 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.

Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui and Veraguas
NGOBE-BUGLE (formerly known as GUAYMI) INDIANS

The Ngobe-Bugle Indian men's ancestors were the formidable fighters the conquistadors rated among the most skilled of all the 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 keep aloof from people not of their own culture and retain many of their aboriginal customs and practices.

The Ngobe-Bugle's chaquira was first mentioned by European historians in documents dating back from the early part of the 17th Century. It was quite different from today's ornament. The colors were dull and it was not so tightly beaded... it was fashioned of pebbles, pieces of bone, seeds, and sea shells which the Indians colored with homemade dyes. The brightly colored beads and varied designs of the modern-day chaquiras reflect the Indian's present-day ability to buy beads of whatever shape, size, or color needed.

Darien
EMBERA AND WOUNAAN (formerly CHOCO) INDIANS

The Emberá
With an estimated population of 15,000, the Emberá inhabit the Darien rainforest of Panamá. This tribe along with the Wounaan were formerly known as the Choco because they migrated from the Choco province of Columbia in the late 18th century. Both the Emberá and the Wounaan have a similar river basin culture.

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

Defying change, the Darien indians 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, and usually make their own laws. They are the Indians most often maligned in stories about the Darien. Possibly because of their savage appearance, they have stirred the imagination of the mythmakers. They are, however, more friendly than their Kuna cousins.

Both men and women go about practically nude. The men have a muscular frame, an abundance of straight black hair and wears earrings. The rest of the attire of the men 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.

They are semi-nomadic and dwell independently in small one or two family groups. They build their shelters along the banks of rivers which serve as their highways and source of livelihood. The dwelling is a platform raised on posts several feet above the ground.


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Embera Community