Getting to know our Indigenous People in Panama: The Ngobe

The Ngobe People (also spelled Ngäbe or Ngöbe) is the largest and most populous of Panama’s three indigenous comarcas.

The Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé was created in 1997 when the Panamanian government finally granted land rights to the group.  Their land covers approximately 6968 square kilometers comprising part of the vast Chiriqui, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro mountain range and some Caribbean side.

The Ngobe traditionally referred to themselves as the Guaymí– a term that simply means “people” in the Ngäbe language. The term is infrequently used today. More often, the Ngobe are referred to as Ngöbe Buglé—this is a union of the Ngobe (Ngöbe) and the Bokota (Buglé) Peoples who live together in the Ngöbe–Buglé Comarca (an indigenous province that signifies a high degree of administrative autonomy). Although both Indigenous Peoples are closely associated, the Ngäbe and Buglé are two separate linguistic/indigenous groups whose languages are mutually unintelligible.  Collectively, these two groups make up the largest indigenous population in Panama.

Historically, Ngobe subsistence relied on crop raising, small-scale livestock production, hunting, and fishing; however, external pressures on the Ngobe’s land has led to a significant decrease in local wildlife, which has forced many Ngobe to take part in a cash economy. As a direct result of this, the Ngobe-Bugle are considered to be the most impoverished of all indigenous Peoples in Panama.

Lack of sufficient infrastructure and under provision of social services by the government is often the root of many problems that plague the most rural areas of this communities.

Despite their past and present-day challenges, the Ngobe have largely maintained their customs, traditions and language. According to some estimates, there are more than 250,000 Ngäbere speakers.


A Fantastic Journey: Part 3

By Louie Celerier

Embera  Indian  Village,  Chagres  River

Sunday,  March  6           Leaving   the   hotel   at   8   AM   with   the   EcoCircuitos   guide,   we   headed   for   the   Chagres   River   above   Madden   Dam.   We   were   headed   to   one   of   the   Embera   Indian   villages   on   the   shores   of   the   Chagres   River.        The   Chagres   River   and   its   water   shed   is,   as   you   know,   the   key   to   the   operation   of   the   locks   of   the   Canal.  It  feeds  Gatun  Lake  which  provides  the  reservoir  of  water  that  allows  ships  to  be  raised  85  feet   above  sea  level  to  transit  across  the  isthmus.        But,  also,  much  history  flows  through  this  river:  First,  as  a  route  for  the  Spanish  “Las  Cruces  Trail”  on   which   gold   from   Peru   was   carried   from   Panama   City   to   the   banks   of   the   upper   Chagres   and   floated   down   to   Fort   San   Lorenzo.   From   there   it   was   transferred   to   the   Portobello   Customs   House   where   it   was  stored  until  the  Spanish  Galleons  would  arrive  from  Spain.  The  other  route  to  Portobello,  the  “El   Camino  Real”,  was  a  land  trail  all  the  way  from  Panama  to  the  Atlantic  port.  Later,  the  Chagres  route   was   used,   in   reverse,   by   the   “Forty-­niners”   on   their   way   to   the   Pacific   and   the   California   gold   fields.   (How  many  found  their  resting  place  on  its  banks?)  Therefore,  I  was  very  glad  to  be  able  to  go  up  this   river,   in   an   Indian   dug-­out   canoe   (with   outboard,   of   course),   to   the   lower   of   three   Embera   Indian   villages  on  the  banks  of  the  river.        This  area  is  a  new  National  Park.  Three  Indian  villages  have  been  created,  for  the  benefit  of  tourist,  by   bringing  Indians  from  the  Embera  tribes  to  live  at  these  settlements  by  the  shores  of  the  river.  As  their   chief  explained,  they  are  mostly  young  people  now,  but  in  time  they  will  be  representative  of  a  typical   Indian  community.  They  live  according  to  their  customs,  providing  an  insight  of  their  history  and  way   of  life  to  the  tourist  that  cannot  venture  into  the  jungles  of  Darien.  At  any  rate,  this  type  of  trip  should   be  made  with  a  group  of  not  less  that  20  as  otherwise,  the  Indians  do  not  get  into  the  full  spirit  of  their   “show”.   As   it   happened,   the   other   two   Indian   villages   were   full   for   that   day   and   we   had   to   visit   the   lower  village  all  by  ourselves,  just  two  of  us.  The  group  ahead  of  us,  on  the  next  village  consisted  of  130   and  they  had  a  ball.  But  we  did  learn  much  about  their  way  of  life  and  were  able  to  poke  out  heads  into   their  village,  even  helping  them  saw  some  lumber  they  were  needing  for  a  new  “privy”.        On  leaving  the  village,  we  went  up  river  for  a  better  view  of  the  Chagres.  Being  dry  season,  it  was  not   easy   and,   running   short   of   gasoline,   we   were   forced   to   turn   back.   But   we   got   to   see   more   of   this   majestic  river  which  has  always  played  such  an  important  part  in  the  history  of  Panama.  And  the  views   were  beautiful  as  well  as  menacing.        Back   in   the   city   that   night,   we   went   to   dinner   at   El   Panama   Hotel   again   and   had   another   excellent   meal.  Remember  how  we  would  go  there  after  the  school  dances?  We  would  go  to  the  ballroom  at  the   top   floor,   which   would   also   open   into   a   terrace,   and   dance   until   midnight.   The   view   of   the   bay   of   Panama,  with  the  flickering  lights  of  the  fishing  boats,  was  always  beautiful  and  romantic.  What  a  long   time  ago  that  was!

Every Monday we publish part of Louis Celerier’s mesmerizing tale of how he rediscovered the country of his childhood. Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Facebook to make sure not to miss anything!

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