The small Isthmus of Panama is a truly diverse place where people of many origins live peacefully together and share this beautiful tropical land of two oceans. About 3.5 million people live in the country and of that total some 400,000 are indigenous peoples who mostly live on reservations (called comarcas) throughout the country.
Within the comaracas, the indigenous tribes apply their own political and administrative structure. The five comarcas established by law are: Guna Yala (1953), Emberá Wounaan (1983), Kuna-Madungandi (1996), Ngöbe-Buglé (1997) and Kuna-Wargandi (2000). The main indigenous tribes of Panama are Guna, Buglé, Wounaan, Ngäbe, Bokota, Teribe, Emberá and Bri-bri.
Guna Indians are perhaps the most recognized tribe with their beautiful hand applique designs called “molas” – originating with the tradition of Guna women painting their bodies with geometrical designs, using available natural colors which in later years were woven in cotton, and later still, sewn using cloth bought from the European settlers of Panama. Nobody knows for sure when they arrived in Panama from South America, but by the 16th century, they had already occupied the 360 islands, some of them just a few meters across, known today as the San Blas archipelago, pushed towards the Caribbean coast by enemy Native American tribes and the Spanish conquistadors. San Blas beauty is breathtaking. Its scattered islands, crystal-clear waters and original Guna style of living attract more and more tourists each year. Tourism, along with agriculture, fishing and handicrafts is the main source of economy of the Guna.
The Emberá and the Wounaan speak different languages and live in different communities but share the same physical environment and, for the moment, the same authorities and institutions. Whereas men and boys wear loin cloths, the daily attire of women and girls consists of a lively-colored skirt, body paint on their nude torso, a necklace made with coins and a crown of flowers.
They focus primarily on agriculture combined with trade in products such as bananas, along with hunting, animal rearing, fishing and gathering. They are native to the Colombian Chocó area and, for this reason, were previously known as Choco Indians. In Panama, they live primarily in the Emberá-Wounaan comarca and in 40 communities spread throughout Darién Province, in the eastern forests of the country.
The Ngäbe and the Buglé were previously known as the Guaymi, the most numerous indigenous people in the country. Although they are divided into two ethnic groups speaking different languages, they are for the moment considered as the same people. The Ngäbe and the Buglé can be found in the west of Panama, in a mountainous region, where they grow rice, yam, maize, beans, bananas and coffee. The Ngäbe-Buglé women wear gowns of bright colors sewn in geometric shapes while men’s dress is basically modern.
The Bokota are one of the smallest and least well-known indigenous groups from the west of the country. Their language is called Buglere and so some people consider them to be part of the Buglé group. They inhabit small disparate communities in the east of Bocas del Toro and in the neighbouring regions in the north-west of Veraguas.
The Naso Teribe are a small group living in the west of the country, in La Amistad International Park, very close to the border with Costa Rica. Since 1973, they have been attempting to establish an indigenous comarca which, as of now, has still not been recognized.
The Bri-bri live along the banks of the Yorkin/Sixaola River on the border with Costa Rica. This is a minority group that was not recognized until 1911 because, prior to this, they were considered as Guaymi, Ngäbe or Bokota. Some Bri-bri are also calling for their own comarca.