Thanks to the country’s role as a bridge between North and South America, people have always come from all over the world to settle in Panama. As a result, the cultures of Panama are striking in terms of their sheer diversity.
There are seven unique indigenous cultures of Panama, which make up about 13% of the country’s population (currently around 4 million). These cultures are typically divided into four major groups based on language, traditions, and locations. These are the Ngöbe-Buglé, the Kuna, the Emberá-Wounaan, and the Naso-Bribri.
These groups are spread out all over the country. Some own their own land, while others do not; but they each have largely autonomous governments. Most of Panama’s indigenous people live in areas known as comarcas—administrative regions where the majority of the population is indigenous. About 20% of the nation is made up of indigenous comarcas, and three of Panama’s provinces are themselves comarcas.
But not all indigenous communities are found in the comarcas. For example, 12 Wounaan communities are located outside comarca boundaries, and the majority of them have yet to receive collective title to their lands. Also, many of Panama’s indigenous people are increasingly leaving their native lands in search of greater economic and educational opportunities in the cities.
Learn more about their traditions in our overview of the indigenous cultures of Panama.
The Kuna (Guna) Indians of the San Blas Archipelago
The Kuna people migrated from South America to Panama sometime in the 15th century. They occupied an area of about 400 islands along the Caribbean coast, which is known today as the San Blas Archipelago. The Kuna currently number about 80,000, and most of them live on 49 major islands of the San Blas. Others live in the forest communities of the Chucunaque and Bayano.
The Kuna have a reputation for independence. Once driven to the remote coastal islands by the Spanish, the Kuna joined English and Dutch pirates to pester the Spaniards and maintain a large degree of autonomy. When Panama was still a part of Colombia, the Kuna were given the title to their own lands and left alone to manage them.
Once the nation of Panama gained independence in 1903, the new government sought to “settle” the Kuna. Needless to say, that didn’t go over so well. In 1925 the Kuna declared independence and, after a short and successful revolt, signed a peace treaty with the Panamanian government that gives them almost full autonomy. Today, the Kuna economy is largely based on agriculture and fishing, but it’s increasingly transforming to focus on ecotourism.
The Kuna are famous for their handmade blouses, which are known as molas. The molas are designs made with layers of cloth that are sewn using a reverse appliqué technique. They’re also known for having nose rings and a painted line down the center of their noses.
The Emberá and Wounaan Indians of the Darién
Somewhere around 31,000 Emberá live in the rainforest of Panama’s Darién Province, one of the most remote areas in the Western Hemisphere. In the same area, there are also about 7,500 Wounaan people. This territory overlaps the Darién National Park and Biosphere Reserve.
It used to be that the Emberá and Wounaan were known as the Chocó people, because each group spoke a variant of the Chocoan language family. Today they are seen as unique, but closely related cultures. Many live in the Emberá-Wounaan Comarca. But more than half of Wounaan communities (and 150,000 hectares of Wounaan rainforest) are not located within the comarca boundaries.
“This has left them more vulnerable to deforestation, putting at risk their livelihoods and culture,” says Marsha Kellogg of Native Future, a non-profit organization working with the Wounaan to help them protect their lands. "For decades, Wounaan—and many Emberá communities in the same predicament—have been struggling to defend their ecosystems from deforestation and degradation caused, principally, by illegal logging and the expansion of cattle ranching into their territories.”
Like the Kuna, the Emberá and Wounaan are relatively autonomous. Many of their communities still survive on hunting deer, peccaries, and several types of birds. The Emberá and Wounaan people are known outside of Panama for their unique basket-making and wood carving artistry.
Other Indigenous Groups
Among the other indigenous cultures of Panama are the Naso-Bribri people, which are the least populous. These tribes live in the Bocas del Toro area, along the Caribbean coast and the rivers of that region. They are also trying to secure legal recognition of their territory and to form a comarca.
For the most part, the Naso are subsistence farmers who occasionally supply handicrafts to nearby communities (in particular the city of Changuinola). Interestingly, the Naso is one of the very few Native American groups to have a monarchy. The Bribri live in matriarchal communities along the shores of the Yorkin and Sixaola Rivers, on either side of the Panama-Costa Rica border. They’re also subsistence farmers, but the Bribri are primarily known for their women’s cooperatives, which produce a highly prized organic handmade chocolate.
Finally, there’s the Ngöbe-Buglé people. While they’ve been grouped together based on their location and similar economies, each of these cultures is linguistically unique. They’re Panama’s largest indigenous group, comprised of about 260,000 Ngöbes and 25,000 Buglés. Most of them inhabit a protected comarca with its own political system in the mountains near Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, and Chiriqui, where they practice subsistence agriculture. They were forced to retreat to these isolated highlands after being decimated by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Buglé remain perhaps the most impoverished of all of Panama’s people.
Beyond subsistence agriculture, the Ngöbe-Buglé also supplement their income through their artwork. The chacara is a woven bag covered in abstract and colorful representations of animals from their traditional areas. Chaquiras are beaded necklaces often found in the tourist areas of Chiriqui. They’re also known for their naguas—bright, colorful dresses typically worn by the women. As with the Wounaan, the Ngöbe-Buglé struggle to retain their land. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Panamanian government finally recognized their territory.
Interestingly, the indigenous cultures of Panama control of about 45% of the nation’s rainforests. This puts them in a key position to protect both the region’s biodiversity and take the lead in using forests for carbon sequestration. By using collective property management, traditional institutions, and a system of administration based on a world-view that’s less inclined to exploit resources for short-term gain forests, indigenous lands have seen a much higher percentage of conservation as opposed to those under private control.
Jim O’Donnell is a freelance environmental journalist and conservation photographer. He is the author of “Notes for the Aurora Society: 1500 Miles on Foot Across Finland.” In addition to his blog, Around the World in Eighty Years, his writing and photography have appeared in National Geographic Maps, New Mexico Magazine, Perceptive Travel, and more