Emberá and Wounaan

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Emberá and Wounaan

ETHNONYMS: Baudó, Catío, Catru, Chamí, Chocama, Chocó, Chocó, Citará, Dabeiba, Embená, Emberá, Empená, Emperá, Epera, Himberá, Humberá, Katío, Noanabs, Noanamá, Noanes, Nonamá, Nonameño, Río Verde, Saija, San Jorge, Tadó, Waunama, Waunan, Waunana, Wounan


Identification. The Emberá and the Wounaan form a cultural group residing in eastern Panama and adjacent areas of Colombia. "Chocó"the common geographic misnomer for the Emberá and the Wounaan Indianshas been used to refer to both the lands and peoples of the Pacific lowlands of Colombia and Panama since the mid-sixteenth century (Ortega Ricaurte and Rueda Briceno 1954). Many other names (e.g., Sambú, Nonama, Baudó) derive from words designating local rivers or other geographic features. Today, although the Indians recognize these terms, they identify themselves as "Emberá" and "Wounaan," both of which indicate the individual or the broader group. This article is concerned primarily with the Emberá and the Wounaan who live in Panama.

The Emberá and the Wounaan have similar material cultures, including post-and-pole dwellings, spoked kitchen fires, and the use of dart poisons that characterize Amazonian tribes. Traditionally, women wear a short wraparound skirt (paruma), formerly of bark cloth and now of brightly colored yard cloth, and men wear a slender loincloth (guayuco). Both sexes paint geometric designs and color their skin with indigo-hued jagua (Genipa americana ) or red-hued achiote. Silver coins are fashioned into necklaces or pounded into bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. Today men wear Western clothes, but women maintain traditional dress. Plantains, bananas, yams, and rice are the staple foods of the Emberá and the Wounaan. Drinks, often fermented, are made from maize, sugarcane, and fruits.

Location. Eight Emberá groups and the Wounaan live in the Colombian Chocó. Their population in the early 1980s was estimated to be 20,000 (Botero 1982): the Katío (pop. 4,500) and Citará (pop. 3,500) live along the Río Atrato; the San Jorge (pop. 1,000) and Río Verde (pop. 1,000) live northeast; the Baudó (pop. 2,000) are named after their Pacific-slope river; the Tadó (pop. 1,000) are along headwaters of the Atrato and San Juan; the Chamí (pop. 2,000) are east on the Río Marmato; the Saija (pop. 1,500) are along the south coast; and the Wounaan (pop. 3,500) occupy San Juan Basin. Another 10,000 Emberá and 2,000 Wounaan lived in Panama, also in the early 1980s, most along the Jaqué, Sambú, Balsas, Tuira, Chucunaque, Sabanas, and Congo rivers of Darién Province the easternmost province of Panama, with smaller numbers west along the Pacific slope and in the Bayano and Panama Canal basins.

Demography. Fifteen thousand to 20,000 Emberá and Wounaan lived in Panama in 1993, 13,000 of them in nearly eighty villages in Darién Province, which borders Colombia. Of those in Darién, 82 percent were Emberá and 18 percent Wounaan (Congreso Emberá/Wounaan 1993, unpublished data). Probably over 50,000 live in Columbia. The Colombian census recorded over 40,000 (94 percent Emberá, 6 percent Wounaan) in 1985.

Linguistic Affiliation. Emberá and Wounaan are classified as either Carib or Paezan languages, but contain loanwords from Chibcha, Arawak, Quechua, and Spanish. Loewen (1963) divided the Emberá language into nine Colombian dialects plus the "Sambú" dialect in Panama, where no Wounaan dialects are recognized.

History and Cultural Relations

It is uncertain whether Emberá and Wounaan speakers lived in Central America during pre-Hispanic times. The Darién region of eastern Panama was Kuna territory between the late sixteenth century and eighteenth century. It was there that the Spaniards established El Real in 1600 to protect the upriver route from the Cana gold mines, once reportedly the richest in the Americas. Another fort was built near the mouth of the Río Sabanas and small placer-mining settlements developed elsewhere. In 1638 the missionary Fray Adrián de Santo Tomás helped agglomerate dispersed Kuna families into villages at Pinogana, Capetí, and Yaviza. The Kuna resisted Spanish demands that they work in mining operations and fought, sometimes alongside pirates, to destroy mission settlements during the 1700s. The Spaniards enlisted "Chocó" (with their feared blowguns) and Black mercenaries in the counteroffensive; the Kuna were pushed into Darién backlands and began their historic migration across the continental divide to the San Blas coast. As a result, the colonization effort failed, and the Spaniards dismantled their forts and left the region in the late eighteenth century.

Emberá began settling Darién during the late eighteenth century, and by the early 1900s had occupied most of the river basins. Some Europeans eventually resettled there, forming new towns, which are now dominated by Spanish-speaking Blacks. The Emberá settled away from these towns and the two remnant Kuna areas. Emberá were found as far west as the canal drainage by the 1950s. Wounaan families had entered Panama during the 1940s.

Emberá and Wounaan life changed dramatically in Panama during the mid-twentieth century. Desire for Western products brought them into cash economies. They traded with Black, Spanish-speaking businessmen, exchanging crops and forest products for cash. Among the hundreds of manufactured goods now important are machetes, ax heads, pots and pans, rifles, bullets, and cloth. Village organization sprang from the need to speak Spanish with these outsiders. Emberá elders petitioned the national government to provide teachers for their riverine sectors, and schools were established at Pulida, Río Tupisa, in 1953 and at Naranjal, Río Chico, in 1956. Initially, "villages" were simply a few households clustered around thatch-roofed schoolhouses. Sustained missionary activity began about the same time. Mennonites, sponsored by Panama's Ministry of Education, began a literacy program designed to record the Emberá and Wounaan languages so as to produce translations of religious materials with which to teach the Indians. Indian families grouped around missionary homes at Lucas in 1954 and El Mamey on the Río Jaqué in 1956. Three "school villages" and three "mission villages" existed in 1960.

A philanthropic adventurer, Harold Baker Fernandez (nicknamed "Peru"), who began living with the Emberá in 1963, adopted Emberá and Wounaan ways, learned their culture from an insider's perspective, and taught them about securing land rights. He advised them that, by forming villages, they could petition the government for teachers, schools, and medical supplies. Through more effective territorial control, he told them, they might obtain a comarca, or semiautonomous political district, like the Kuna had, guaranteeing indigenous rights to land and resources. A "village model," with a schoolhouse, teacher's dorm, meeting hall, and village store amid thatch-roofed houses, diffused across Darién; by 1968, there were twelve Emberá villages. The government of General Omar Torrijos supported these initiatives, which encouraged the Indians to define their own political structure. An appointed Kuna chief (cacique ) introduced the Kuna political model (caciquismo ) as the first chiefs were selected. An additional eighteen villages were formed over the next two years, and in 1970 the Darién Emberá and Wounaan formally adopted a new political organization that featured chiefs, congresses, and village leaders, patterned after the Kuna system. By 1980, fifty villages had been formed in Darién and others developed in the direction of central Panama.

The Emberá and Wounaan received comarca status in 1983. The Comarca Emberálocally called "Emberá Drua"consists of two separate districts in Darién, Sambú, and Cemaco that cover 4,180 square kilometers of the Sambú and Chucunaque-Tuira basins. Some Spanish-speaking Blacks remain, but only one small non-Indian town is within the district. Today Emberá Drua has forty villages and over 8,000 indigenous inhabitants (83 percent Emberá, 16 percent Wounaan, and 1 percent other).


The Emberá and the Wounaan historically lived in household settlements of one or more extended families. Houses were circular, unwalled, thatched-roof, post-and-pole structures, some as large as 15 to 20 meters in diameter, with split-palm floors elevated 1.5 meters or more above the ground. The houses were scattered along the levees and high alluvial terraces of clear water streams; intervening forests shielded neighbors from each others' view, thus forming loose clusters or "sectors" of closely related families along a river.

Today villages dominate the Emberá and Wounaan cultural landscape. Houses are smaller, commonly with board floors and partially divided interiors, and households usually consist of only one extended family. Most villages have a school, meeting hall, and a store or cooperative; many have a church, health center, and basketball court. Most villages have several hundred residents; the largest village, Union Chocóthe comarca capitalhas ninety households and about 600 inhabitants. Rain forest around the settlement has been replaced by cultivated fields and fallow.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Emberá and Wounaan economy is largely a closed system united by family ties. Subsistence requires cooperation between households, and many tasks are performed communally. The historic previllage economy reflected the settlement pattern: one zone of levee lands contained the house site, animal pens, plantain and banana groves, and orchards and gardens of fruit trees and other useful plants; a forested barricade confined dooryard animals; and amid fallow lands and uncut forest patches was a patchwork of slash-and-burn plots on which grains and tubers, such as maize, rice, and yams, were cultivated. Gathering traditionally occurred close to home. Village organization caused spatial reorganization of subsistence activities. It may now take several hours to walk to fields; preferred hunting, fishing, and gathering spots are even farther. The concentration of people into villages has caused the overexploitation of forest nearby resources.

Spears, bows and arrows, blowguns, and darts were the Emberá and Wounaan hunting weapons until the shotgun and the .22-caliber rifle replaced them in the early twentieth century. Easier access to firearms attracted Indians from Colombia to Darién. The Indians are crack shots; in the previllage era, game depletion brought about settlement relocation. Fishing is done with nets, spears, arrows, traps, hooks; formerly, poisons were also used. Underwater spear fishing developed when diving masks became available in the mid-twentieth century. Freshwater shrimp and crabs are speared from river banks. Prehistoric animal husbandry was limited to the Muscovy duck and tamed forest animals. Today chickens and pigs have been introduced and they fit well into the economy; turkeys and Peking ducks are less prevalent. Dogs have been traditional domesticates; cats are more rare. The extraction of forest resources continues to provide fruits, nuts, roots, construction materials, weapons, dugouts, medicines, and ornaments.

Commercialism developed commensurately with the desire for Western products. The Indians have extracted rubber and other forest products, panned gold, and cut lumber for cash over the past 150 years. Pig husbandry also formerly provided cash. Banana and plantain cropping afforded them the first opportunity for sustained market production.

Industrial Arts. Indian women once fashioned beautiful ceramics, including huge vessels with anthropomorphic designs, in which chicha (beer) was stored. They still weave useful items from palms, including the carrying and storage baskets found in all households. Today beautiful palm-leaf baskets with intricate designs are made for the tourist trade. Men made spear shafts and points from palm wood. They fashion beautiful dugout canoes with distinctive bow platforms and carve hardwood into household benches, stools, and kitchen utensils. Some specialize in carving intricate figurines and shafts (bastones ) for ritual use by shamans and for sale to tourists.

Trade. Bananas became a commercial crop during the 1930s, bringing Indians into the cash economy, but "Panama Disease" reduced production around 1960. Since then, plantains have been the most important cash crop sold to boat merchants who work between the capital and Darién's historic river townsSambú, Río Congo, La Palma, Chepigana, and Yaviza. The Pan-American Highway, which reached Darién during the 1970s, has become a focus of economic activity. The Indians have diversified their cash crops to include yams, maize, rice, avocados, oranges, and beans that they sell to truck merchants. The village economy centers on stores and cooperatives that sell merchandise that has become basic to the local inhabitants, including packaged foods, dry goods, tools, and toiletries.

Division of Labor. Men clear and plant the agricultural fields; women help with weeding and harvesting. Men cut and fashion trees and forest products for dugouts and house construction. A system of communal labor (cambio de mano ) organizes kin for demanding tasks such as house construction. Hunting is a solitary male activity. Women fish with hooks and spear shrimp and crawfish near the village; Boys fish with nets, and also spearfish wearing diving masks. Men normally make cash transactions with outsiders. Women apply themselves to the domestic activities of cooking, sewing, basketry, pottery, and child care.

Land Tenure. Landownership develops with usufructuary rights; both men and women own land. Men normally prepare fields before marriage, but, because they often have traveled some distance to marry, fathers-in-law frequently give them land (Torres de Araúz 1966, 75). Today, with open farmland increasingly scarce and agricultural colonists pushing onto Indian lands, Indian families have begun to mark boundaries and want legal titles. The Comarca law (Ley #22 of 1983) recognizes indigenous land-tenure systems. The comarca's regulating document (Carta Orgánica, 1993) recognizes family, community, and "comarcal" landholdings and prohibits sale or lease of comarca lands to outsiders.


Kin Groups and Descent. The exogamous group includes one's cousins. Historic Emberá and Wounaan kinship was patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Emberá kinship terms include Z'aware (grandfather), pa~kore (grandmother), dádha (father), pápha (mother), dr'oa (uncle), apíphi (aunt), ahavha or shavha (brother), shavhawera (sister), oarra (son), káu (daughter or cousin of the same sex), wiuzake (grandson), ai-Zake (granddaughter), kimá (spouse), wigú (son-in-law), aingú (daughter-in-law), wad (brother-in-law), and anyore (sister-in-law) (Torres de Araúz 1966, 64-65; Cansan et al. 1993, 15).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages were once largely segregated between Emberá and Wounaan, but mixed marriages now occur. Marriages with outsiders, Blacks, or mestizos are still not common. Group endogamy provides cultural identity and solidarity. The incest-avoidance group includes one's children, brothers, sisters, cousins, and their offspring. Formerly, men sometimes had more than one wife, but monogamy is encouraged today. Approval by the girl's father is still a requisite for a marriage, which is consummated when the suitor sleeps with his bride in the in-laws' house. Playful wrestling occurred between the bride's father or brothers and the groom (Torres de Araúz 1980, 178; Faron 1962). Patrilocal residence and patrilineal clans formerly assembled relatives along riverine sectors. Today there are many different postmarital residence patterns. Patrilocal or matrilocal residence is usually limited to the time that a new house is being constructed for the couple. The new Carta Orgánica institutionalizes marriages under the authority of village leaders and requires one to be 18 years old and to marry another Emberá or Wounaan no closer than "one-fourth degree of blood relations." When divorce occurs, children normally stay with the mother.

Domestic Unit. The household, today averaging six or seven individuals, serves as the basic domestic group in Emberá and Wounaan society. It usually includes one or more couples and their offspring. The household is traditionally directed by the male family head. Subsistence requires group cooperation, and the household continues as the economic, food-sharing unit.

Inheritance. Transfer and inheritance of land and property take place, as traditionally, along kin lines, mostly between males of the same household.

Socialization. Children learn traditions and economic skills through apprenticeship alongside their parents and grandparents. Young children accompany parents during daily chores; by the time they reach 10 years of age, they are contributing their work. Most villages now have elementary schools where children receive primary education. Emberá or Wounaan teachers now account for 35 percent of the comarca's teachers, and bilingual instruction is developing. No villages have high schools, but many students attend high schools in non-Indian towns. University education still lies beyond the economic reach of most people.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Emberá and Wounaan social structure was egalitarian. The highest authority was the head of the family, who allocated household resources and settled disputes. Both shamans and elders were respected for their knowledge but held no special status.

Political Organization. Historically, no formai tribal leaders, chiefs, councils, or organizations of elders existed. Kin groups along riverine sectors were sometimes guided by a small group of esteemed elders. The Emberá and Wounaan were not territorial, those of Panama now have developed a ranked, chief-congress (cacique congreso ) type of political organization, similar to that of the Kuna, which centers on the semiautonomous comarca and its elected traditional leaders and government officials. Comarca authorities, as defined in the Carta Organica, include village leaders (nokoes in Emberá/chi pör in Wounaan) and community police (zarra/papan). Each comarca district has an advisory panel (consejo de nokorã/chi pörnaan ) and chief (dadyirã boro/maach pör). A general chief (jumara boro/t'umaam k' n pör ) is elected for a term of five years. A general congress meets every other year with delegates from each community. This democratic body is the maximum decision-making body. Regional congresses are held annually in each district, local congresses more frequently at the village level. The comarca also elects government officials, including the governor and national legislators.

Other federations have formed to address territorial, political, economic, and cultural concerns outside the comarca. The Indigenous Organization of Collective Emberá and Wounaan Lands (OITCEW) fights for territorial control in the Río Balsas and along the Pan-American Highway. Other groups form in defense of Indians in the Congo and Bayano basins. Indian lands are also circumscribed by the Darién Biosphere Reserve and Mogue Forest Reserve, where Emberá and Wounaan groups struggle for land rights while confronted with state conservation goals.

Social Control. The family head normally settles domestic disputes, but crimes, land conflict, and other issues are increasingly regulated by comarca and state authorities, laws, and regulations.

Conflict. The Emberá and Wounaan were once the bitter enemies of the Kuna but now align with them for indigenous self-determination. Perhaps the most serious threat to Indian life comes from the advance of agricultural colonists and from profiteers invading Indian lands via the extension of the Pan-American Highway.

Religious and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. According to Mennonite missionary Jacob Loewen (1975, 129-132), the Emberá and Wounaan make no distinction between the physical and the metaphysical or between the material and the spiritual, believing that humans, animals, plants, and even natural phenomena have jai generally sexless, amorphic spirits or souls that may or may not be harmful. They are the carriers of witchcraft but also the shaman's tools for both good and evil. Two personified spirit powers stand in an antithetical relationship to each other: Ewandama is the good, the creator god; Tiauru is the mischievous or evil opponent. Missionary activity, from Baptists, Mennonites, and Catholics, has greatly changed religious beliefs since the 1950s. Most Indians acknowledge Christian concepts of sin, heaven, and hell but maintain past beliefs and traditions.

Religious Practitioners. Certain religious beliefs center on the shaman (jaibaná in Emberá/bënk'AAn in Wounaan), who, with knowledge of the medicinal, toxic, and hallucinogenic properties of plants and animals, cures with herbal remedies and by exorcising spirits. The intervention of jai is decisive for determining the causal agent of sickness. Shamans can contact these spirits to improve, alter, or worsen life's conditions. Their powers are sought to "open" rivers for settlement by "cleansing" them of evil spirits and dangers. They are not full-time specialists, and only men apprentice as shamans.

Ceremonies. Girls were formerly secluded within the house during their first menstruation; their hair was cut short, and they followed dietary restrictions. Afterward, they were bathed, painted with jagua, and honored with a chicha celebration. No formal marriage ceremonies existed. Today simple celebrations accompany life-cycle events, including baptisms, marriages, deaths, harvests, or the completion of communal work. The villagers play music, dance, and drink large quantities of maize or sugarcane chicha.

Before the dead are buried in village cemeteries, they are wrapped in parumas and placed in small dugouts or wooden caskets for visitation.

Arts. Men play flutes and small drums to accompany women in dances and songs named after and mimicking rain-forest animals.

Medicine. The Emberá and Wounaan continue to use botanical remedies from garden and forest plants for insecticides, purgatives, sedatives, diuretics, and disinfectants (Torres de Araúz 1980, 185). Today health centers with trained health assistants are increasingly common. The comarca had fourteen communities with health centers and twelve Indian health assistants in 1987. Most centers, however, lacked medical supplies, and doctors rarely visit.

Death and Afterlife. The Emberá and Wounaan believe that human souls become spirits in the land "where Ewandama is," but should a soul fail to turn right after death, it will end up in a dark and treacherous place. Incest, sex with Blacks, and child beating are three unpardonable "sins" that cause one's spirit to become harmful (Loewen 1975, 129-132).


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