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ETHNONYMS: Guaymí, Move, Movere, Ngäbe, Ngawbére, Ngóbe


Identification. The Ngawbe are the most numerous indigenous population in the Republic of Panama. They are often referred to in the literature as "Guaymí" and are reported to refer to themselves as "Guaymí" when working for wages on banana plantations, but in their own communities they refer to themselves as "Ngawbe" (the people). The term "Guaymí" is said to mean "people" in Muoi, the language of a now-extinct group that was closely related, possibly ancestral, to the present-day Ngawbe.

Location. In contact times (the early sixteenth century), the Ngawbe and other related (now-extinct) groups occupied much of western Panama, extending east into Coclé Province and south into portions of the Azuero Peninsula. During the centuries since contact, the Ngawbe have gradually lost much of their land because of encroachment and illegal occupation by nonindigenous peoples. They now occupy the rugged mountains and portions of the lower slopes of the three westernmost provinces of Panama: Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Veraguas. (About 1,800 to 2,000 Ngawbe live on three small reserves in Costa Rica, having emigrated from Chiriquí, beginning in the 1940s, because of a land shortage.) Their Panamanian territory is estimated to encompass about 6,000 square kilometers. The boundaries have never been surveyed, and the government of Panama has not granted the Ngawbe any official title to their land.

Demography. The 1990 census of Panama reports a total of 124,513 Ngawbe in Panama: 63,712 in Chiriquí; 51,086 in Bocas del Toro; 6,971 in Veraguas; and 2,744 in other provinces. Of those counted as Ngawbe in Veraguas Province, perhaps 1,200 to 1,500 identify themselves as "Bugle." These numbers are very high compared to those of earlier censuses, especially for the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí, and they indicate an average annual population growth rate of over 3.5 percent since 1960.

Linguistic Affiliation. Most of the Ngawbe speak Ngawbére; a few thousand, principally in Veraguas, speak Murire. Mutually unintelligible but closely related, both are languages of the Central American Branch of the Chibchan Family. Several dialects of both Ngawbére and Murire are recognized.

History and Cultural Relations

Little is known about the Ngawbe of precontact times. It is likely that the present population consists of an amalgamation of peoples who are descended from the original inhabitants of the territory that is currently occupied by the Ngawbe and by remnants of other groups who fled from Spanish oppression in the more accessible coastal areas of western Panama. Descriptions of Ngawbe culture, beginning with the account of Fray Adrián de Ufeldre (1682) attest to the considerable cultural continuity between many contemporary features of Ngawbe society and their traditional culture and social organization. Their closest cultural affiliations are with the Bugle and Teribe in Panama and the Bribri and Cabécar in Costa Rica. Early contact led to mestizoization of some segments of the population and isolation of other segments. For the isolated Ngawbe, contact with the outside world was sporadic and infrequent until the 1930s, when it dramatically increased in frequency and intensity. Influences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came mainly through the Ngawbe who engage in wage labor on the cattle ranches and the coffee and banana plantations in western Panama and through their contacts with Panamanians in the villages and towns while buying and selling goods. Additional contact has come about through schooling, mining exploration in their territory at Cerro Colorado, and the construction of penetration roads. Prior to the 1970s, there were no roads anywhere in Ngawbe territory. The Ngawbe of Veraguas have been more strongly influenced as a group by outside contact than those of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. This differentiation is reflected in their clothing, the degrees to which traditional practices are continued, and the rates of literacy and bilingualism.


The Ngawbe live in highly dispersed small hamlets (caseríos ), which traditionally consisted of about two to eight houses occupied by families related through kinship ties. The distance between one hamlet and another is usually a kilometer or more. This pattern of dispersed hamlets existed prehistorically. Rapid population increase has led to many larger hamlets, often occupied by members of two or more distinct kin groups. Because postmarital residence is ideally virilocal, Ngawbe hamlets tend to be composed largely of patrilineally related males, their wives, and their children. The traditional house type was round, with a conical thatched roof, low walls of sticks tied together, an earthen floor, a single entrance, and no interior partitions. This house type was widespread among the indigenous peoples of western Panama and eastern Costa Rica. It is now rare among the Ngawbe; the round houses have been largely replaced by rectangular houses with hip roofs, made of the same construction materials. Each of these two types of house has an interior platform under the roof, which is accessed by a log ladder and is used for storage of agricultural produce and personal belongings. A few houses now have corrugated metal roofs. The largest Ngawbe houses have a long dimension of about 12 meters. Some houses in Bocas del Toro are elevated on poles, and these dwellings occasionally have interior partitions.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. One characteristic of the Ngawbe in the twentieth century has been a shift from a predominantly self-sufficient economy, based on sharing, barter, and reciprocity, to a mixed subsistence and cash economy (although swidden-based agriculture remains the main source of livelihood for most Ngawbe families). Crops raised by the Ngawbe include maize, millet, bananas, plantains, beans, rice, sweet manioc, otoe (taro/Xanthosoma spp.), ñampi (yams/Dioscorea spp.), sweet potatoes, squashes, sugarcane, pigeon peas (Cajanus indicus ), chili peppers, coffee, and pineapples, as well as tree fruits such as peach palms (Guilielma gasipaes ), avocados, papayas, mangoes, soursops (Anona nutricata ), guavas (Psidium guajaba ), oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and cacao. The Ngawbe also cultivate tobacco, century plant (for its fiber), and gourds and calabashes (for use as containers). The crops that make up the bulk of the diet differ from one part of the Ngawbe territory to another, depending on environmental conditions. In Chiriquí and southern Veraguas, where a true dry season exists, maize, beans, bananas (harvested green and then usually boiled), and rice are of major importance. In Bocas del Toro and the Caribbean side of Veraguas, where there is no dry season, the Ngawbe depend heavily on various root crops, bananas, and peachpalm fruits during a part of the year. The livelihood derived from agriculture is supplemented by the raising of a few cattle, chickens, or pigs and, to a lesser extent today than in the past, by hunting, fishing, and gathering. The Ngawbe traditionally hunted deer, tapir, wild pigs, and a number of small forest animals for food, but game of any kind has become scarce throughout much of Ngawbe territory. Most hunting is done with shotguns or .22-caliber rifles; few men today are skilled in the use of the bow and arrow. Fishing is done traditionally, using dams, weirs, nets, spears, bows and arrows, and fish poison; the use of hook and line has caught on only in a minor way. Foodstuffs are occasionally purchased on trips to town or from Ngawbe who have established small stores in the area. Some Ngawbe have formed small cooperatives, to reap the advantage of wholesale purchasing. Temporary wage labor outside their territory on cattle ranches and on banana, coffee, and sugarcane plantations is currently the major source of cash income for many Ngawbe families. Wages are very low and have not kept pace with the rate of inflation in Panama; working conditions are unhealthy in the extreme.

Industrial Arts. The Ngawbe manufacture crude baskets for utilitarian purposes, large wooden trays, net bags of various sizes (some of extremely fine quality), stone pipes, grinding stones, wooden mortars, woven hats, hammocks, fiber string and rope, horsehair rope and bridles, and broad, beaded collars known as chaquiras. Except for net bags, baskets, and string, which all girls and women (and a few men) know how to make, items are made by part-time specialists and are obtained by others through trade. Ceramic vessels have been replaced by metal pots, and all knowledge of pottery manufacture has been lost. Although bark cloth is no longer worn as clothing, it is still made by some women for use as saddle blankets, bed coverings, and sanitary napkins.

Trade. Among themselves, the Ngawbe traditionally bartered manufactured goods for other goods or foodstuffs and exchanged food among kin on a reciprocal basis. Since the early 1970s, cash purchases have become more frequent, even among kin, which is an indication of the strong penetration of the cash-based economy into Ngawbe culture. Since contact times, the Ngawbe have engaged in trade with nonindigenous peoples. Dependence on such trade has increased dramatically during the latter half of the twentieth century and is now largely cash based. Maize, beans, rice, coffee, domestic animals, and net bags are sold to Panamanian merchants in small quantities, especially by those families with no wage-labor income, in order to purchase items of Western manufacture that have become necessitiesfor example, cloth, clothing, machetes, salt, medicines, metal pots, blankets, and the shotguns, rifles, and ammunition that are used in hunting. Panamanian buyers occasionally travel into Ngawbe territory to purchase cattle. The Ngawbe raise horses for riding and for use as pack animals, and these, too, are sometimes sold to outsiders.

Division of Labor. Men hunt, clear land for planting, weed fields, organize cooperative labor parties called juntas, tend cattle and horses, collect firewood during the rainy season, chop firewood, and engage in wage labor. Women cook, care for children, clean house, fetch water, collect firewood during the dry season, make clothing for women and children (male clothing is now almost entirely purchased), make net bags, harvest cultivated foodstuffs on a daily basis, gather some wild foods, and occasionally work for wages as domestics or as pickers during the coffee harvest, when they may accompany their husbands to the plantations. Both women and men (and sometimes children) plant crops, participate in major harvest activities, and fish. There is some evidence that women have become responsible for an increasing number of agricultural tasks, as men have become more occupied with cattle and wage labor. The division of labor among the Ngawbe is not rigid, however, and both women and men will do whatever needs doing, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Ritual and political activities are primarily organized and led by men, but women do attend these activities and have participatory roles in traditional rituals. Mainly spectators at nontraditional political gatherings in the 1960s, women have come to play an increasing role on such occasions.

Land Tenure. Land is owned collectively by cognatic kin groups, and use rights are generally regulated by the senior male members. Use rights are inherited equally by women and men. In the past, when a man cleared climax forest, the land became his property, and his descendants had use rights. Today, however, climax forest is virtually nonexistent. Although the actual right to use land is complicated by several factors, use rights to land are generally lost if the lineal descendants of a person fail to exercise such rights for two generations and if the person is not living in a hamlet located on the land in question.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent among the Ngawbe is cognatic. No clans or lineages exist, and there is no strong evidence for the existence of unilineal descent groups in the past. As a general rule, a person's kin group consists of all individuals known to be related through the second ascending generation. Residence in the same hamlet, as well as geographic distance and personal acquaintance, may alter this basic equation.

Kinship Terminology. Ngawbe kinship terms generally distinguish sex and generation. Terms are bifurcate-merging in the first ascending generation, meaning that father and father's brother are referred to by a single term and mother's brother by a distinct term, and mother and mother's sister are referred to by a single term and father's sister by a distinct term. Cousin terms are Hawaiian, that is, all individuals recognized as cousins are referred to by terms for siblings. Sibling terms refer to siblings of the same sex and siblings of the opposite sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In Ngawbe society, traditional marriage is not simply a union of man and woman; it is the basis of a sociopolitical and economic alliance between two kin groups. Ideally, a symmetrical exchange of women occurs between two kin groups after a series of negotiations between the parents of the respective brides and grooms. Such arranged marriages are less common than in the past, but they still occur. There is no formal wedding ceremony. After a period of time during which the groom visits his wife in her parents' hamlet and provides gifts and labor for his father-in-law, the woman will move to her husband's hamlet. Virilocal residence is the ideal. In cases of nonexchange marriage or when the husband's group is experiencing a shortage of land, the young couple may reside uxorilocally. Polygyny is a male ideal and is quite common. Both sororal and nonsororal forms of polygyny occur. Betrothal of female infants to adult males, said to be common in the past, is now rare. It is often the case, however, that women marry shortly after first mensesat age 12 to 14whereas men are normally in their twenties before they marry for the first time. First marriages tend to be quite stable, as are polygynous unions in which the women are in the kinship category of "sibling of the same sex" to one another. Nonsororal polygynous unions are less stable, with younger women often leaving their husbands in favor of unions with men closer to their own ages. Both the sororate and the levirate are acknowledged practices but are said to be no longer common. Cousin marriage is prohibited. All first cousins and parallel second cousins are excluded by this proscription; second cross cousins and others may also be excluded, depending on the way kinship terms are applied in particular instances. Members of the older generation claim that traditional forms of marriage are becoming less common, as many young people now marry for love. A quantitative sample taken in the 1960s did not support this claim (Young 1971, chap. 7).

Domestic Unit. The household is the basic unit of production and consumption and may consist of a nuclear family (most common) ; a polygynous family of a man, his wives, and their children; a laterally extended family, usually consisting of two brothers with their respective wives and children; or a lineally extended family, containing members of three or more generations. Larger groups, usually consisting of individuals related either by blood or by marriage, often cooperate in subsistence activities.

Inheritance. Although some personal property is buried with an individual, and the house is abandoned if a person dies in it, houses are generally inherited by the eldest married child who remains in the household. Other personal belongings, including domestic animals, are inherited by the children of the same sex as the deceased. To avoid conflict, cattle are likely to be given to children by elderly parents in anticipation of death.

Socialization. Ngawbe children are normally given considerable freedom during their early childhood years, under the watchful eyes of parents and older siblings. Seldom are they harshly disciplined. At an early age, children of both sexes begin to assist their parents in daily tasks, learning by observation and imitation. Although such assistance is voluntary for boys into their adolescent years, it is generally compulsory for girls from the age of 4 or 5. Most play activities of young children also are imitations of adult activities of the appropriate sex. By late adolescence, children of both sexes are expected to do their parents' bidding without question. At puberty, girls are the focus of a ritual during which older women instruct them in appropriate behavior as wives and daughters-in-law. They are then eligible to marry if they have not already been betrothed. In former times, young males underwent a physically taxing puberty ritual that served to mark their transition from childhood to full adulthood and marriageable status. This ritual apparently has not been performed since the early decades of the twentieth century.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There are no social or economic classes. Women and men cooperate in household decision making. Men dominate in the public arena, occupying most leadership positions in political and ritual affairs, but elderly women are listened to with respect. The cognatic kin group is the locus of socioeconomic power and authority. Cooperation in work activities beyond the household level is accomplished by reciprocal labor groups (juntas), organized by men. These labor groups, a major aspect of the structure of production, are normally made up mostly of consanguineally related men living in the same hamlet. Additional participants are recruited from among consanguines and affines in nearby communities. When a man organizes a junta, he owes equivalent labor to each man who helps him. The distribution of food to kin is a major feature of the structure of consumption. Formal patterns of sharing serve to distribute food on a large scale among near and distant kin during periods of localized scarcity. Men who are able to provide regularly for needy kin gain prestige, which can also be gained through sponsorship of rituals.

Political Organization. Ngawbe oral history is rich with descriptions of great caciques (chiefs) of the past, who supposedly exercised authority over regions within Ngawbe territory. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a system of appointed native governors existed. The actual power of the governors was directly related to their personal prestige. Throughout the twentieth century, men have been appointed by outside officials as corregidores (magistrates), with responsibility for keeping the civil registry and serving as judges within their corregimientos (municipalities). Since 1972, the Ngawbe have elected their own representatives to the National Assembly. In addition, there are currently three individuals who are recognized by the Panamanian government as provincial chiefs. Each has personally appointed several assistants, who represent the chief at the local level. Each of these chiefs has a personal following, but their authority is not recognized by all Ngawbe. In fact, the locus of Ngawbe political decision making remains predominantly the kin group, despite the current overlay of other political structures. Since the first Ngawbe General Congress in 1979, the provincial chiefs have organized several general, regional, and special congresses to discuss the problems that face the Ngawbe and to decide on courses of action. Legal title to their land has continued to be their greatest concern. Despite years of negotiation, the Panamanian government has refused to grant title.

Social Control. The kin group regulates the behavior of its members and provides moral and sometimes economic support in the disputes that individuals may have with members of other kin groups. Disputes over land rights and crop destruction by cattle are common. When disputes or crimes of any kind occur, the usual procedure is to select as arbitrator a man of acknowledged prestige and ability who is acceptable to both sides, whether or not he holds the official office of corregidor. The case is then discussed at a nightlong meeting by all present, after which the arbitrator renders his judgment. Arbitrators are chosen for their acknowledged ability to render judgments that are deemed fair and equitable by both sides. If the accused and his or her kin do not agree with the judgment, however, they may attempt to reopen the case at a later date with a different arbitrator. The Ngawbe seldom seek outside authorities to settle either civil or criminal cases.

Conflict. Internal conflicts may occur over land, cattle, crops, women, or unpaid debts; arbitration is usually sufficient to resolve them (see "Social Control"). Most violence involves the use of alcohol. Current relations with the outside world have produced divisiveness, which sometimes threatens kin group solidarity: traditionalists wish to minimize contact with the outside world, liberals argue for greater involvement, and moderates prefer a middle course. Conflict between the Ngawbe and outside agencies has resulted in strikes on the banana plantations over wages and working conditions, public protests over government refusal to grant reserve status to Ngawbe lands and over other human-rights violations, and confrontations with government officials over the proposed open-pit copper mine at Cerro Colorado, in the heart of Ngawbe territory.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Despite almost five hundred years of Christianmainly Catholicinfluence, the Ngawbe still retain certain traditional religious beliefs, which are manifest in their oral traditions and in certain rituals. Included are beliefs in a protector god, a god of lightning, various spirits of good and evil, and a number of culture heroes to whom the Ngawbe attribute godlike qualities. Wooden crosses placed on rooftops and on trails at the entrances to hamlets ward off evil spirits when someone is ill. The use of such crosses appears to be non-Christian in origin.

In 1961 a nativistic religious movement, known as the religion of Mama Chi (Little Mother) emerged among the Ngawbe as a result of the visionary experience of a young Ngawbe woman. This movement, at once transformative, revitalistic, and innovative, discouraged all contact with the outside world, prohibited the consumption of alcohol and the principal Ngawbe rituals at which alcohol is consumed (balser'ías and chicherías ), instituted periodic prayer meetings, and prophesied doom and destruction if the Ngawbe did not comply with the tenets of the new religion and great good fortune at the end of five years if they did. Throughout the 1960s, the Mama Chi religion had a profound social impact on Ngawbe culture. Today it has only a small following.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional religious practitioners are called sukias. They make predictions, interpret dreams, and effect cures for certain types of illness through communication with the deities and the spirits. Sukias were also included among the priests of the Mama Chi religion, and many remain among its adherents today.

Ceremonies. The major Ngawbe ritual is called krun in Ngawbére, "balser'ía" in Spanish. Prohibited for a time during the heyday of the Mama Chi religion, it is once again being practiced. Krun rituals are grand events, with attendance numbering in the hundreds, and sometimes in the thousands. A man who serves as the host of a krun ritual achieves the pinnacle of renown and prestige in his region. Central to this ritual is the etdabali, the ritual-sibling relationship that exists between the host and his principal guest, who must also be a man of renown in his region. The ritual lasts for four days, with the central event, the throwing of l.e-meter-long balsa sticks at opponents, taking place on the third day. Stick-throwing contests occur between teams from the host's and the guest's side, as well as between individuals. Only males participate in the stick throwing. Sponsorship of a krun ceremony requires provision of enormous quantities of food and drink, so a man must be able to call in obligations from a large number of kin. "Chichería" is the Spanish term for several different Ngawbe rituals of lesser scale than the krun, all of which involve consumption of large quantities of chicha (maize beer), as well as singing, dancing, and music. The etdabali relationship is also central to these rituals.

Arts. Several rituals involve stylized singing and dancing and the music of flutes, rattles, and conch shells. The songs or chants are not sung in Ngawbére, but in what is reported to be a dialect of Murire. Face painting, usually featuring geometric designs in black, red, white, or a combination thereof, is seen most often at rituals, although the more traditional Ngawbe say that they paint their faces whenever they are happy. Of the plastic arts, beaded collars and finely made, colorfully decorated net bags are most notable. Some collars and bags are now made expressly for sale.

Medicine. Traditional curers (commonly referred to by the Spanish term curandero ) have extensive knowledge of plant medicines and can cure illnesses that are not deemed to be the result of supernatural causes. Both men and women may be curers. Sukias are often curanderos as well. Most adults have some minimal knowledge of plant medicines. Nowadays, individuals with serious illnesses are often taken to clinics in Panamanian towns for treatment, especially if treatment by a curandero or sukia has proved ineffective.

Death and Afterlife. When death occurs in a house, the dwelling must be abandoned. For this reason, an individual on the verge of death will be moved to a temporary shelter near the house, if possible. An initial period of mourning begins immediately after death. Some personal belongings are buried with the deceased, some of her or his clothing is placed on top of the grave, and the head of the grave is marked by the planting of wild ginger and sometimes a small wooden cross. Dietary restrictions are imposed upon the close relatives of the deceased and are strictly observed. Both salt and meat are prohibited. Another ceremony is held at the end of about one month, at which time the eating restrictions are removed, all guests are given a meal that includes meat, and the day is spent in reminiscing about the deceased. It is not known whether any aspects of belief in an afterlife are non-Christian in origin.

See alsoBugle


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