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ETHNONYMS: Catío, Chamí, Chocó, Cholo, Citarâ, Meme, Tahamí


Identification. The Emberá are a South American Indian group located in Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. Called "Chocó" by Spanish settlers, they call themselves "Emberá," a word that signifies "people."

Location. When the Spaniards arrived, the Emberá occupied the upper basins of the Atrato and San Juan rivers in what are today the departments of Chocó, Risaralda, and Antioquia in western Colombia. Their modern habitat extends over more than 1,000 kilometers along the Pacific coasts of Panama, Colombia, and northern Ecuador, areas of superhumid tropical jungle that reach to the eastern slopes of the Colombian Cordillera Occidental, including various enclaves in the interior of the country.

Demography. The Colombian census of 1958 listed 41,653 Emberá. It is estimated that there are an additional 8,000 in Panama and Ecuador; in 1600, 1768, 1793, and 1951 their numbers were put at 50,000, 36,000, 15,000, and 5,800 respectively.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Emberá, markedly Carib, has been classified as belonging to the Paezan Language Family. Nine dialects have been identified: Saija, Baudó, Río Sucio, Tadó, Chamí, Catío, San Jorge, Río Verde, and Sambú.

History and Cultural Relations

Certain cultural and mythical characteristics suggest a possible Amazonian origin of Emberá culture. Before contact with the Spaniards in 1511, the Emberá were surrounded by other ethnic groups: Cuna, Burumiá, Chanco, Idabaez, Suruco, Waunana, and Orocomira, among others. Hostility and war characterized their relations with these peoples, and the Emberá expanded territorially at their cost, also taking them as slaves. Setting out from Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién, Santa Fé de Antioquia, and Anserma and entering by the San Juan and Atrato rivers, the Spaniards repeatedly traversed Emberá territory. Their aims were to enslave this large population and to open up the region for the exploitation of gold, using Black slaves as laborers. They intended to conquer these "warlike Indians" who attacked already-pacified groups and threatened Spanish settlements in Anserma, Cartago, Toro, and Nóvita; to settle them in new villages; to make them pay tribute; and to evangelize them.

Because they cohered as a single ethnic group and because of the segmentary nature of their social organization, the Emberá were able to resist final colonization of their territory for more than three centuries. They either confederated under the authority of temporary war chiefs or dispersed, escaping into more inaccessible areas. Several expeditions, such as those of Gómez Fernández in 1539, Melchor de Velásquez in 1588, and Martín Bueno in 1638, were annihilated by the Emberá. The Spanish policy of burning the Indians' houses and fields and the loss of a considerable part of their population owing to war, slavery, and contagious diseases such as measles had a debilitating effect on the Emberá. Finally, they began to tolerate the establishment of European settlements, the exploitation of gold, and the relatively free transit on rivers and trails within their territory. There was an increase in the number of Emberá who submitted to paying tribute and who established commercial ties with Spanish centers in the interior.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, a policy of missionization replaced open warfare; this was initially very successful and achieved the almost total pacification of the Emberá. Beginning in 1680, however, a crisis developed because of the abusive behavior of some missionaries. Almost all the Indian villages were burned or abandoned, and the Emberá left for the more isolated and desolate headwater regions of their habitat, where they formed autonomous nuclei in an effort to survive. This is one cause of their current dispersal over such a wide territory. The Spaniards responded with new armed incursions to put down the rebellion, but it took them twelve years of military campaigns to consolidate their control over the area and its inhabitants. There continued to be local uprisings throughout the eighteenth century.

From the beginning of contact, the Emberá have resisted intermarrying with White or Black settlers, with the exceptions of the Emberá of some areas such as the interior slopes of the Colombian Cordillera Occidental and the Chocó, where there are large concentrations of people. As a result of Spanish occupation, the Emberá fought with the Cuna, whom they displaced toward the north, despite the fact that the two groups had many cultural and especially religious patterns in common. With the Waunana to the south, the Emberá share 50 percent of their linguistic roots and a large number of suffixes, as well as numerous important cultural elements such as shamanism and mythology. In the late twentieth century the Emberá coexist with Whites who have settled in the peripheral zones of Emberá territory, in the interior of Colombia. In some places, such as the department of Caldas, there is little difference between Indians and Whites, and even the Emberá language is losing ground. There exists a close relationship between the Emberá and the Black population on the Pacific Coast. The degree of cultural assimilation varies, however, and the ethnic situation is too complex to be described in terms of assimilation.


In precontact times the majority of the Emberá population lived in dispersed settlements along the rivers. There was a difference between the Emberá of the alluvial plains, who settled on high terraces of the river banks, and the Emberá of the slopes, who, because of the uneven nature of the terrain, settled on the median and high parts of the hillsides, as well as on the scarce fertile flood plains of some rivers. Spanish chroniclers also recorded a number of nucleated villages on the Río Atrato. The necessity of letting fields lie fallow after cultivation is the basic condition of Emberá shifting cultivation, imposing a pattern of accentuated mobility over large tracts of land. In some peripheral areas the Indians have experienced a scarcity of land and traditional horticulture has deteriorated. Efforts by missionaries and the Organización Regional Emberá y Waunana (Regional Organization of Emberá and Waunana) have resulted in the construction of villages of between ten and fifty houses. There are schools, shops, health clinics, and, sometimes, a church and electricity. Occupation is not on a permanent basis; each family lives in the village for only a portion of the year. Most of their time is spent on their remote upriver plots, several hours away by canoe. The tambo, their traditional house form, is a large pile dwelling several meters above ground, with a rectangular floor of palm stems or bamboo and a conical roof of palm thatch that reaches down between 0.5 and 1 meter above the platform, obviating the need for walls. On the floor there are one or several hearths of clay. The Indians are slowly adopting rustic houses made of boards, with zinc, bamboo, or asbestos-cement roofs and earthen floors; there are walls and windows and several interior rooms separated by wooden dividers.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Emberá are tropical-forest horticulturists who hunt, fish and gather as complementary activities. Maize and bananas are the basis of their diet. Tapir, peccaries, pacas (Coelogenys paca), and armadillos are the most highly prized game animals. From the Spaniards they adopted the raising of domestic animals, especially pigs and chickens, which they use as trade items rather than for consumption. On inland slopes they raise cows and horses. During the nineteenth century, depending on the characteristics of each region, the Emberá have adopted commercial cultigens like coffee, cacao, rice, and sugarcane. In the Chocó they cut timber, floating rafts of logs downriver to be sold to White-owned lumber mills, located at the estuaries. In areas of White colonization, many Emberá have become temporary or permanent agricultural wage laborers. Crop production for sale and wage labor provide cash income that enables the Emberá to participate in the market economy. Products such as food, clothing, radios, tools, and other items have become indispensable to the Emberá. In some places, families or single individuals complement their income with the manufacture and sale of handicrafts in markets characterized by uncertain demand and low prices. Especially in mountainous regions, the government has promoted and financed the formation of cooperatives (e.g., to produce brown sugar, process gold, raise cattle). Such enterprises are small in scale, however, involving only a small sector of the population.

Industrial Arts. Emberá material culture is well known for the variety of its basketry, which, rich in form, is woven of plant fibers and has predominantly geometrical designs. Canoes, staffs, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic carvings of fine woods, ceramics, textiles made from the bark of balsam wood, and blowguns for poisoned darts are also important items of their material culture (stone tools, however, disappeared in the mid-twentieth century).

Trade. There is no evidence of Emberá trade with other ethnic groups during the pre-Columbian period, but internally the subgroups exchanged common and regionally specialized items such as gold, blowguns, and toad poison for blowgun darts. From the beginning, Spanish colonialists forced the subjected groups to participate in commercial activities. The Indians supplied the White settlers and Black crews of gold extractors with food and bought merchandise imported from Spain, especially products made of metal and cotton. Since the nineteenth century, commerce has become an integral part of the Emberá economy. Except in a few instances, however, the Indians do not dominate the market.

Division of Labor. Women were traditionally responsible for harvesting crops, making baskets and pots, preparing food, carrying water and firewood, gathering plant and animal foods, fishing with baskets, and caring for children. Men's work traditionally included clearing of land for planting, hunting, woodworking, making blowguns, obtaining toad poison, and conducting warfare. Planting, fishing with barbasco poison, building houses, and making necklaces and ornaments are shared activities. Nowadays, the production of handicrafts for the market is an almost exclusively female task, whereas it is mostly the men who take charge of marketing the artifacts. Commercial agriculture and wood extraction are men's work. The care of domestic animals falls to the women and children, with only minimal male intervention. Girls and boys participate from an early age in activities that pertain to their sex. In areas of White settlement, young women are recruited to work as domestic servants. In the mid-to late twentieth century, some young men and women have become teachers or low-level government functionaries. Shamanistic activitity is open to both sexes, but in practice most practitioners are men.

Land Tenure. In former times, a whole river or a segment of it was occupied and owned by a group of relatives whose members were entitled to cultivate, hunt, fish, and gather within its territory until it was exhausted. The dispossession of Emberá lands since the Conquest has changed this tradition. During the colonial period, the Spanish Crown created indigenous resguardos or reserves, in recognition of the communities' collective property; these resguardos were only a fraction of their ancient lands and they were administered by an indigenous council, or cabildo, consisting of a captain, a chief, and a governor appointed by the Spaniards. The Republic of Colombia recognized these resguardos, and this form of landownership still obtains. In the Chocó plains, the natives maintained possession and usufruct of lands that the Colombian state considers wasteland. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many resguardos were divided into parcels and dissolved, and the Emberá became private owners of the resulting plots. In other instances, they became tenants on their ancient land, now in the hands of landowners. Since 1970 the Emberá have struggled to regain their land, forcing the Colombian government to reconstitute former reserves and create new ones, especially on the Pacific coast, to guarantee the communities' collective ownership of their territories. Councils, now formed and designated by the natives, assign families the necessary land for their activities, keeping other tracts for common use. In 1983 the Panamanian government created the Comarca Emberá del Darién, recognizing Emberá rights to collective ownership of their land and prohibiting its private appropriation and transfer. The land is under the management of native authorities, and the right of the Emberá to exploit its resources is recognized.


Kin Groups and Descent. A group that settles on a river or on a section of it is composed of personal kin of the cognatic type, centered on a grandfather or grandmother, according to specific conditions; it can also be formed around an uncle, almost always maternal, and his married nephews. Frequently, this grandfather or grandmother functions as the kin group's shaman. The river group is exogamous, linked to others by an extensive net of marriage exchange.

Kinship Terminology. Some subgroups have been described as using Hawaiian kinship terminology, others a modified Eskimo type. There is always a classificatory term for cousins and brothers, which, in the Chamí area, also includes uncles and nephews.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There are no marriage prescriptions, but unions between first- and second-degree consanguineal relatives on both sides are disallowed. Only in some very isolated groups are there unions between first cousins and between aunts or uncles and nephews or nieces. A man will ask a woman's father for permission to live with her, and the couple will do so without any further ceremony. In some places, missionary influence has made Catholic religious marriage ceremonies common. Monogamy is the rule, but polygyny is permitted and is frequent in some places. Sometimes a man will marry two sisters or a woman and her daughter. Residence is virilocal or uxorilocal, mainly according to land and economic conditions. Divorce is permitted on the initiative of either of the two parties, but it is held in low esteem and can lead to problems between the two families.

Domestic Unit. Upon their arrival, the Spaniards encountered large groupsfrom eighteen to seventy personsinhabiting a house as the basic domestic unit; this was the pattern until shortly after the mid-twentieth century. Since then there has been a strong emphasis on the nuclear family, although, with few exceptions, parents usually remain in the home of one of their married children. The size of local groups has diminished. Since precontact times, couples appear to have had an average of five living children.

Inheritance. Personal goods are handed down from parents to children of the same sex. Where land is private property, sons and daughters have equal rights to it, but if the size of the property is small, there is a tendency for women to be passed over. If there are neither spouse(s) nor children among the survivors of a man, other kin and relations can inherit his property. Where spatial mobility is maintained, children tend to cultivate anew the lands that were once worked by their parents.

Socialization. For the first years of their lives, boys and girls are taken care of by the members of the extended family. Later, each parent takes care of the apprenticeship of his or her children of the same sex. Permissiveness is the norm, and only in extreme cases is corporal punishment meted out. Shame is an important formative mechanism. In almost all settlements it is common for children to attend public schools or missionary boarding schools. This is an impediment to the processes of traditional enculturation.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The highly segmentary character of Emberá society has not permitted the formation of organizations above the level of autonomous kin groups. There are records of slaves being taken from other ethnic groups in pre-Columbian times. Women have gradually lost their influence within the society and become subordinate to and sometimes tyrannized by men, who beat them frequently. Recent struggles for land have brought back women's relevance because they assume important roles in such struggles. The acculturative work of missionaries and teachers has created a small group with greater formal education that eschews traditional life and considers itself superior. At the same time, in peripheral areas, commercial agriculture has produced a group of people with higher economic status. Both groups have begun to assume new leadership roles within their communities, becoming agents of the programs and models of the behavior of White society.

Political Organization. Kin groups were originally autonomous units. They organized temporary confederations to resist conquest. Colonial redduciones (mission-run settlements) united various kin groups under the leadership of imposed chiefs. During the ninteenth century many recovered their autonomy, but in settled areas they remained under missionary authority, as defined by law. Struggles initiated in 1970 gave rise to new cabildos (town councils) headed by indigenous governors with authority over an area within a preserve, and frequently over various communities. In Panama, the military government encouraged the formation of a centralized Emberá political organization consisting of, as the highest authority, a general congress with legislative powers and the power to name a supreme general chief, under whom there are regional chiefs and local leaders. This has been in existence since 1969. In Colombia, there is an organization above the town councils, the Organización Regional Emberá-Wauna del Chocó (OREWA), which particularly unites the Indians of the Chocó. In the 1980s native police inspectors were named in some places. In some areas, like Chamí, town councils have fallen under the control of Catholic missionaries. In the late twentieth century the penetration of guerrilla groups into various Emberá settlements has resulted in new external political pressure on the communities.

Social Control. Since aboriginal times, shame and sorcery have been important mechanisms of internal control, although they have been losing importance because of the intrusiveness of White laws and authorities. Blood vengeance in cases of homicide and serious injury still occursvengeance is not only a right, but an obligation on the part of the victim's relatives. Town councils play a role recognized by Colombian law; they adjudicate minor problems like boundary disputes, stealing, fighting, drunkenness, and other crimes that are punishable by fines, incarceration, and pillorying.

Conflict. White intrusion has created a conflict of major proportions among the Emberá, pitting against each other those who accept that intrusion and wish to integrate themselves into the White world and traditional forces who advocate indigenous continuity, the autonomy of their communities, and change on an ethnic basis. The strength of each faction varies according to place and time, but occasionally the disagreement between the two becomes so acute that it produces the dissolution of groups. Sorcery and rivalry between shamans are also sources of conflict, generally resolved by segmentationa shaman and his followers move to another river. Since the Conquest, territorial defense has generated permanent friction between the Emberá and the settlers, sometimes culminating in violence. The participation of the Emberá in Colombian national party politics has led to constant clashes between rival factions. These clashes are stimulated by the simultaneous actions of Catholics and evangelicals, giving rise to sectors that are irreconcilable.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Emberá religion is centered around shamanism based on invisible forces called jai. These constitute the essence of things, natural phenomena, animals, and people, and are manifested as animals. They belong to nature, and only the shaman (jaibaná ) can see and control them. Emberá life and society stem from an original closed singularity containing everything that exists, but that was separated in primordial times. Illness occurs when these elements, which must be kept separate in everyday life, unite; they must then be separated anew by the shaman. Myths describe Carabi, the Moon, as the giver of culture, and some refer to him as the creator, but the moon as a mythical being does not play a role in life today. In varying degrees, missionaries have superimposed Christian religious belief. White people interpret the jai as spirits because they are purported to exist invisibly. The Emberá are emphatic in their belief that the jai are material forces or energies. The same is true of other beings that inhabit the water, the forest, or the underworld, several of which are monstrous and fierce guardians of these places. Noteworthy is the belief in "mothers" or "root stocks" of animalsfor example, the mother of fish or of peccaries. The human body is inhabited by several shadows that leave the body during sleep or at death.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman is both respected and feared for his ability to do good as well as to cause harm. His knowledge and control of nature through his visionary powers makes him indispensable in the processes of producing food and managing natural phenomena. During the Conquest, Shamans were one of the most potent means of fighting the Spaniards; they, or the forces under their control, served to attack them effectively. Besides his professional duties, a shaman performs the same regular daily chores as any ordinary man. Only non-Indians are priests and nuns.

Ceremonies. Ritual or ceremonial activities are linked to the life cycle and to shamanism. In the past, female initiation was celebrated by confining a girl to a small room built in the tambo and holding a great feast at the end of the confinement. Ceramic pitchers for brewing chicha beer played a principal role in this ceremony, which in the late twentieth century has almost disappeared. Among shamanistic rituals are chicha cantada (chicha singing) at the time of the maize harvest; the "healing of the earth" during planting; and the "song of the jai" when curing illness. In many communities Christian religious ceremonies are celebrated.

Arts. The shaman communicates with his jai by means of lengthy songs, unaccompanied by musical instruments. In the ceremonies, dance plays a minor role. Body and facial painting, which are very sumptuous among the Emberá, are also part of shamanism but do not pertain to it exclusively.

Medicine. The Emberá differentiate between two kinds of sicknesses: those of the Whites, which arrived after contact and are cured with Western medicine, and those they had previously recognized, stemming either from magic or natural causes. Sickness by magic is produced by the jai that penetrate the body or steal its shadow. This type can be cured by the shaman. Natural sickness responds to treatment with medicinal plants.

Death and Afterlife. The Emberá bury their dead in shaft tombs with a lateral room, located under their dwellings. Bodies are wrapped in bark cloth or bamboo matting. At the wake, female relatives sing songs of lament that proclaim the deceased's virtues as well as the faults that caused his or her death. These will be repeated during burial and for months and years to come, in the same house and at the same time that death occurred. In Christianized areas, missionaries force the Embera to bury their dead in cemeteries, but even so, traditional tombs are still frequently made. The shadow of the dead person is transformed into a jai and roams the earth until a shaman takes control of it. A shaman who follows certain prescriptions in life can turn in death into a being half-man and half-jaguar with superhuman powers, which is greatly feared.


Pardo, Mauricio (1983). "Transformaciones históricas en los indígenas chocó." Boletín de Antropología 2:17-19.

Ulloa, Elsa Astrid (1987). "Pintura facial embera: Expresión de indentidad." Trabajo de Campo. Bogotá: National University of Colombia.

Vargas Sarmiento, Patricia (1984). "La conquista tardía de un territorio aurífero: La reacción de los embera de la cuenca del Atrato a la conquista española." Graduation thesis, University of the Andes (Bogotá).

Vasco Uribe, Luis Guillermo (1985). Jai banás: Los verdaderos hombres. Bogotá: Banco Popular.

LUIS GUILLERMO VASCO URIBE (Translated by Ruth Gubler)