naïve to cultured

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Who are the Ngäbe-Buglé Indians of Panamá?

This article was first posted on Habla Ya Spanish School’s blog on February 12, 2013.

For those travelers who are new to Latin America, you might be quite surprised at the mix of ethnicities that you will find in Panama. About 70% is mestizo (mixed white, Native American, and/or black) and mulattoes (mixed white, and black ancestry), 9% is primarily black, 13% white and 6% Native Americans. The rest are primarily East Asian and Chinese. The construction of the canal not only brought big business to Panama, but also people from all over the world. Though each ethnic group has its own interesting beginnings in Panama, I want to focus on the Native Indians in this blog post.

I had the opportunity to work with one of the indigenous groups for 2 years (they don’t like being called “Indians”) while volunteering with the Peace Corps in 2010 – 2012. Panama is home to 7 indigenous groups, the largest being the Ngäbe-Buglé whom I lived among.

The tribal land (called Comarca) of the Ngäbe-Buglé is situated in the north-western region of Panama and their members have migrated over the last 40 years out of the Comarca and mainly into the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriqui.

History and Geography

The comarca Ngäbe-Bugle is characterized by mountainous terrain, steep slopes and generally nutrient poor soil with high rock content, all characteristics that make farming difficult. On the Caribbean slope there is no dry season and tropical forest dominates the landscape; on the Pacific slope there is a windy dry season (December to April) and a wet season.

The Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé was formed in 1997 when the Panamanian government finally granted land rights to the group. It is a huge area of 6968 square kilometers comprising part of the vast Chiriqui mountain range all the way down to the pristine beaches of the Caribbean.

The Ngäbe-Buglé generally live in houses supported by sticks with a grass or zinc roof and dirt floor, wealthier families may have a cement floor. In each house a platform under the roof is used for food storage and there are a number of raised bed platforms.

The Comarca actually consists of two different but similar indigenous groups – the Ngäbe and the Buglé. The Buglé are much less in number and are situated towards the northeastern part of the Comarca. The majority of indigenous persons that have migrated to the provinces of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro are of the Ngäbe group.

Culture, Artisan

Ngäbe men typically wear homemade bell bottom pants, straw hats and rubber boots, while women wear full bright colored dresses with shoulder and neckline adornments and embroidered bands around the waist and bottom; these are called naguas. Women generally do not wear shoes. These items are usually made at home with hand crank sewing machines and, like chacaras, sold for extra income.

The Ngäbes are easy to spot because of their distinctive high cheekbones, broad faces, full mouths, thick straight black hair, tanned skin, short stature and stocky body size. In Chiriqui (Boquete), the women frequently wear the traditional brightly colored cotton dress that reaches down to the ankles and has triangle and straight-line designs to represent the mountains and rivers that they call home in the Comarca.

Though some of the traditions are dying out due to modern influences, many communities still make it a point to practice traditional dances, wear traditional dress, hold annual ceremonies, pass down family recipes, weave carrying totes made of natural fibers and dyes, and teach the new generations the tribe’s language and organic agriculture methods.


The Ngäbes speak a Chibchan language called Ngäbere. The language is learned in the home as the child grows up, as it is the primary language spoken in the home among men and women. However, the language is considered “vulnerable” by UNESCO’s measure (Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger). This is because Spanish is the only language taught in the schools. Therefore children are typically brought up learning Ngäbere and Spanish together so that they are able to begin pre-school at age 4. Once the child is school age, he or she begins speaking Spanish primarily and only speaks Ngäbere in the home.

The language is in more danger outside of the Comarca where very little Ngäbere is spoken on a daily basis. Many children are being born outside of the Comarca and are raised in a Spanish-speaking home because the Ngäbe parents are now first or second-generation living outside of the Comarca and have no need to use Ngäbere in their every day conversations. Slowly the parents begin to forget the language from lack of use and the children end up not learning it at all.

Current Events

Many people around the world heard of the Ngäbes for the first time in February 2012 when they took to the streets to protect their land and people from the harmful and debilitating effects of mining and hydroelectric dams. The Panamanian government enacted a “Special Law 415” in early 2011 to protect the water, environmental and mineral resources in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. In late 2011, Panama’s Congress removed Article 5, without advising the Ngäbe-Buglé leaders, therefore allowing private domestic and foreign businesses to directly invest in mining operations and hydroelectric dams.

Starting on January 31, 2012, Ngäbe-Buglé demonstrators shut down the main highway running through Panama for one week to show their disagreement with the Congress’ removal of the vital Article that protects their lands from exploitation. The Chief of the Comarca, Silvia Carrera, stated, “We were open for dialogue! We want to sit down and talk, but with the riot squad here it’s evident that they want to suppress us.” It was reported that one person was killed, 40 people were wounded and at least 100 people were arrested after a violent confrontation with the riot police on February 5.

After weeks of refusal to agree to mediation, the President of Panama Ricardo Martinelli finally gave his approval to meet with the leadership of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé mediated by a Catholic priest.

At the end of March, an agreement was reached between the two parties. Indian Country Today Media Network reported,

“According to the agreement the government had to: end all judicial prosecutions of Ngöbe–Buglé leaders and other protestors; free all those who had been arrested in the demonstrations; compensate and attend to the needs of the family of Geronimo Rodriguez Tugri, an indigenous protestor who was killed by gunfire at the largest protest on February 5; re-establish cell-phone signals in the affected areas; withdraw riot police from the indigenous territories and the protest sites; get the Legislature to re-address the mining Law 415 and it’s Article 5 regarding mining and development on Ngöbe–Buglé lands; continued mediation by Catholic Church officials; full publication of the subsequent agreement; demobilization of all protestors from the sites; and more medical attention and follow-up, under the supervision of a committee of indigenous physicians, for those indigenous protestors who were wounded.”

The Ngäbes hope that the government will honor their promises and stop trying to exploit the Ngäbe’s precious land and resources. But if they have learned anything from the history of the Panamanian government, they aren’t putting much faith in the leaders of their country.


One comment on “Who are the Ngäbe-Buglé Indians of Panamá?

  1. Pingback: 10 Cultural Differences of the Ngäbe-Buglé Indians in Panamá | naïve to cultured

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This entry was posted on July 26, 2013 by in Minority Race/Poor/Indigenous Rights and tagged , .
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