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Joven Ngäbe durante una presentación.jpg
Young Ngäbe woman during a presentation
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Panama, Costa Rica
Ngäbere language

The Ngäbe or Guaymí are an indigenous people of Panama and Costa Rica. The Ngäbe mostly live within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca in the Western Panamanian provinces of Veraguas, Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. They also have five indigenous territories in southwestern Costa Rica encompassing 23,600 hectares: Coto Brus, Abrojos Montezuma, Conte Burica, Altos de San Antonio and Guaymi de Osa.[1] There are approximately 200,000-250,000 speakers of Ngäbere today.

Guaymí is an outdated name derived from the Buglere term for them (guaymiri). Local newspapers and other media often alternatively spell the name Ngäbe as Ngobe or Ngöbe because Spanish does not contain the sound represented by ä, a low-back rounded a, slightly higher than the English aw in the word saw and Spanish speakers hear ä as either an o or an a. Ngäbe means people in their native language, Ngäbere. A sizable number of Ngäbe have migrated to Costa Rica in search of work on the coffee fincas. Ngäbere and Buglere are distinct languages in the Chibchan language family.


Ngäbe territory originally extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, though there was never an empire or a distinctive “Ngäbe territory”. Most Ngäbe lived in dispersed villages, which were run by chiefs and influential families. Few, if any, Ngäbes occupied the mountainous region in which they now live.[2]

Christopher Columbus and his men contacted the Ngäbes in 1502, in what is now the Bocas del Toro province in northwestern Panama. He was eventually repelled by Ngäbe leader with either the name or title of Quibían. Since that contact, Spanish conquistadors, Latino cattle ranchers and large banana plantations successively forced the Ngäbes into the less desirable mountainous regions in the west. Many Ngäbe were never defeated, including the famous cacique Urracá who united nearby communities in a more than seven-year struggle against the Conquistadors. Those Ngäbe that remained on the outskirts of this region began to slowly blend with the Latinos and formed what are now termed campesinos, or rural Panamanians with indigenous roots.[2]

In the early 1970s[3] the Torrijos administration incentivized the Ngäbes to form denser communities by building roads, schools, clinics, and other infrastructure in designated points in what is now the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. This marked a social change in lifestyle, as formerly dispersed villages and family units converged and formed larger communities.

In 1997, after years of struggle with the Panamanian government, the Ngäbes were granted a Comarca, or semi-autonomous area, in which the majority now live.

The Spanish found three distinct Guaymi tribes in what is today's western Panama; each was named after its chief and each spoke a different language. The chiefs were Natá, in Coclé Province, and Parita in the Azuero Peninsula and the greatest chief Urracá in what is now Veraguas Province.

Guaymi Indian painting

Urracá became famous by defeating the Spaniards time after time, and forced Diego de Albitez, a captain of the Spanish, to sign a peace treaty in 1522. He was nonetheless betrayed and sent in chains to the town of Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic coast—according to historian Bartolomé de las Casas—Urracá escaped and made his way back to the mountains, vowing to fight the Spaniards unto death. And he fulfilled his vow. Urracá was so feared by the Spaniards that they avoided combat with his men. When Urracá died in 1531, he was still a free man.

The Ngäbes were divided into two large groups: those of the lowlands along the Atlantic coast, and those of the tropical forest in the highlands of Veraguas and Chiriquí Province. They never surrendered and fought until the collapse of the Spanish Empire. When Panama broke away from Spain and joined Colombia in the early 19th century, the Ngäbe remained in the mountains. Only now slowly are some assimilating into modern society.


The Ngäbe traditionally organized in small chiefdoms or otherwise lived nomadically in family units. The chiefdoms were run by a chief, who often had an assistant, or cabra, and a council of advisers. The Ngäbe have now adopted a system intended to mix their traditional government with the modern Panamanian system.

As such, the Ngäbe have Official Administrative Authorities and Traditional Authorities. The Administrative Authorities include: a governor and vice governor, mayors for each of the seven districts and representatives of each county within the districts.

The Traditional Authorities include a congress, which is led by a general congressional president and three regional congressional presidents. The congress works in conjunction with a general Chief, three Regional Chiefs (regional level) and seven Local Chiefs (district level). The Chief acts mostly as a voice of the people but can hold considerable and influential power in that capacity.

  • The Three Regions: Ñö Kribo, Kädriri, Nedrini
  • The Seven Districts: Besiko, Jirondai, Kankintu, Kusapín, Mirono, Münä, Nole Duima, Ñürüm, Santa Catalina o Calovébora (Bledeshia)[4]

The land[edit]

The Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle is approximately 2,500 square miles and spreads between the three westernmost provinces of Panamá – Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui and Veraguas. Altitude varies from about 350 feet above sea level to over 7,000 feet in the central mountains; only about half of this land is arable.[5]

A few Ngäbes have been able to acquire solar electricity (through an electrification project), as well as cell phone service. However, most still live below the poverty level. Because of the rugged geography, efforts to bring roads and new infrastructure to Ngäbe reservations has been limited. Nevertheless, some Ngäbes choose to live secluded lives away from modern societies.

Today the Ngäbe are subsistence farmers, and agricultural laborers. On the Pacific slopes, the main crops are rice, corn, yucca, otoy, ñame, several species of beans. Small-scale livestock production of chickens and pigs is maintained and in the higher elevations is supplemented by hunting (where permitted). The primary crop for the Ngäbe on the Atlantic slopes is green bananas.

In order to survive many Ngäbe resort to working in the cash economy. Coffee picking, working on large cattle farms and on banana plantations provide the main source of cash. Also, once made for battle and ceremony, some Ngäbe sell beaded necklaces on the side of the roads in Panama. The Ngäbe women make many traditional crafts, both for their own use and their families', but also to sell as extra income. These include handmade bags from plant fibers called kra,[6][7] colorful dresses called nagua, and beaded bracelets and necklaces. The men of the Ngäbe weave hats from plant fibers.

Many of the coastal-living Ngäbe men, such as those living on the Bocas del Toro islands or on Punto Valiente, use the ocean to survive and provide for their families, spearfishing and lobster diving. They both consume and sell what they catch, depending on their circumstances at the time.


In the province Bocas del Toro the Changuinola Dam was completed in 2011. Great areas of the Ngöbe reserve were flooded. According to a documentary by Al Jazeera, no compensation were made.[8] In the territory of the Ngöbe the Barro Blanco project on the river Tabasara is planned. Many townships along the riverbanks will be flooded and around 5000 Ngöbe farmers will be affected negatively. The Barro Blanco project is financed by European Banks from Germany (DEG) and the Netherlands (FMO) and counts to the carbon offsetting of the UN.[9] In February 2012 many Ngöbe protested against the new dam, two were killed and more than 100 injured or arrested. Many environmental organizations protest against the project, like the German organization Rainforest Rescue which wrote a petition, addressed to the DEG.[10]


A woman is considered "sick" (bren) while pregnant and pregnancy is almost never discussed, even during birth. When the baby is deemed healthy, people consider it safe to acknowledge the pregnancy. Many women have traditionally given birth in their homes, with the help of their mother or a midwife, although this is changing with the advent of women's clinics.


After a death, the immediate family will stay up all night with the body for several nights, drinking cacao and coffee, eating, and talking. Candles must be lit all night. On the days leading up to the funeral, neighbors and friends will visit to offer their condolences and stay up for part of the night with the family.

A deep hole is dug, and a tunnel, or shelf is then carved out in the bottom part of the hole. The casket is placed in the tunnel, and the dirt that fills the hole does not fall on top of the casket. The mound is then covered in 'otoe de lagardo' leaves, that sting and stain the mouth when chewed. This is to prevent evil spirits from coming near. The deceased's possessions are also placed on top of the grave, rather than distributed to the family.

After the funeral, some families abstain from eating [salt] or sugar for four days in order to purify the body. After four days, each family member eats a spoonful of cooked bananas with salt and sugar to break the fast.


Since roughly the 1960s, women have worn full-length, short-sleeve dresses called naguas that begin at the neck and end at the ankles. While difficult to confirm their exact origins, it is widely believed that the dresses were introduced by missionaries for humility's sake (the Ngäbe traditionally wore loincloths). The dresses are usually adorned with geometric patterns at the ankles, around the waist and at the sleeve and neck lines. The classic Ngäbe geometric pattern is called dientes, or "teeth", and is said to represent mountains, animal teeth, the flow of the river, or dragon scales.

Men typically wear collared cotton-and-polyester-blend shirts and polyester trousers. Some men wear farmer's hats made out of pita leaves but most wear simple baseball caps. For most of the year, both genders wear rubber boots when traveling due to Panama's heavy rainfall and the lack of infrastructure in the Comarca.


Missionaries introduced organized religion in the early 1600s, and the Ngäbes have since adopted various forms of Christianity, including:

  • Roman Catholicism
  • Evangelical
  • Seventh Day Adventism
  • Jehovah's Witnesses
  • Latter-Day Saint (Mormonism)
  • Church of Christ
  • Cuerpo de Cristo
  • Methodism

The British Methodist Church established a mission field among the Guaymi Indians @1926-27 under the leadership of the Rev. Ephraim S. Alphonse who not only lived, worked and raised his own family among the Valiente Indians but was also prolific in translating the four Gospels of the New Testament and many hymns into the Guaymi dialect; he also put into writing the Guaymi Grammar and developed a Dictionary in Guaymi, Spanish and English. These literatures can be found in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Methodists established a main church in Cusapin and smaller congregations around the Peninsula The Methodist Church also established a medical clinic in Cusapin.[11]

Among other religions in the region are the Baha'i faith numbering around 8,000. Some writings of the faith have been translated into the native language.[12]

Noncomala is a traditional deity.


The Balseria is a four-day festival and Ngäbe traditional sport. The sport consists of two players, who take turns throwing a four-foot-long balsa stick at their opponent's legs. The objective is to hit the opponent below the knees until he can no longer continue. Opponents meet before the match to decide how many sticks will be thrown by each (10 being few, 40 being a lot, and 20 being average). There is no tournament structure and matches are initiated by challenge and request.

The event is initiated when one town invites to host and challenge another town; this is typically precipitated by a good harvest or by a reciprocal obligation to host. Once a date is selected, the host presents the challenged with a knotted rope—each knot represents a day and the rope is used as a countdown for the event. In the weeks leading up to balseria, participants in each town blow animal horns and other makeshift trumpets to announce the imminence of the event.

On the first day of balseria, the hosts receive the challenged in their town and provide food and drink (generally fermented corn, banana, and palm leaf liquor). The second day consists of much of the same and the unstated goal of both sides is to exhaust the other before the games on the third day. At dawn on the third day, the best balseros of each town lead a procession to a predetermined location and begin the games by facing one another. The dawn matches are supposed to be the best of the day and can feature up to 60 balsas being thrown. After the inaugural match, the rest of the day is informal and matches are initiated through challenges. The only real rules are that no two balseros from the same town can face one another and players must hit below the knees. The below the knees rule is enforced by spectators and "teammates" of the players, the implied consequence being a fist fight. On the fourth day, the challenged leave and the hosts take care of the inebriated and injured, who are unable to leave.

Attendees of balseria typically dress in traditional Ngäbe clothing and colors and wear feathers, animal skins, and even entire animals on their backs. Some men also wear the woman's traditional dress, or nagua, to hide their legs during the match. Horns, whistles, and improvised trumpets are ubiquitous.

Balseria has a negative reputation in Panama outside of the Comarca and is officially outlawed by the government. The general attitude is that balseria is a drunken, violent mess. According to the Ngäbes, while alcohol and violence are present during balseria, it is primarily a cultural event, a unique sport and a chance to demonstrate pride in their heritage.

Mama Tada[edit]

Mama Tada is a Ngäbe religion (some argue a cult), which began in September 1961 when the Virgin Mary (and possibly Jesus – there are several stories) appeared before a Ngäbe woman named Besikö (pronounced "bessy-go") over the Fonseca River and gave her several messages and commands for her people. While the exact commands have been hotly disputed, they roughly consist of:

  • Disengagement from Latino society, including schooling, merchant activities, and general contact
  • Abolition of fences and therefore the end of property disputes
  • Abolition of alcohol and the balseria festival
  • Treatment of all fellow Ngäbe as "brothers and sisters"
  • Abolition of fighting and killing over land, wife-beating and maltreatment of children
  • Saturday, the day of the vision, is a day for rest and prayer
  • All Ngäbe should behave like good Christians[13]

Besikö, thereafter more commonly known as Mama Chi, was also told that her people's failure to adhere to these principles within five years would result in the death of all Ngäbes. Mama Chi's preaching affected a great many Ngäbes, who adopted the principles to varying degrees of strictness, but not all complied within five years and the apocalyptic prediction proved false.

These original orders have since been distorted and the beliefs combined with Christian principles, such that Mama Tada is now more of a xenophobic, folk-Christianity. Practitioners are famously wary and resentful of Latinos and do not drink or practice balseria. However, while most of the original principles are ignored, Mama Tada did create a stronger sense of brotherhood among Ngäbes and was arguably a significant factor in the Ngäbe's unified effort to earn their own autonomous area.

Socioeconomic status[edit]

Among all the provinces in Panama, the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle consistently score lowest in terms of human development, education, income, and social and economic investment indices. They are also most recently second lowest in life expectancy and employment rate. Some facts:

  • 60.5% of Ngäbes ten years older or above are literate and attend an average of 4.1 years of school
  • 91.2% of Ngäbes are unemployed
  • Ngäbe life expectancy is 67.9 years
  • Ngäbe average annual income is $429
  • 91.7% of the population lives in extreme poverty (that is, they make less than $2 a day)[12][14]

Development projects like the Cerro Colorado mining project put Ngobe-Bugle ancestral lands in peril.[15] Part of their area is under risk to be flooded by hydroelectricity project Barro Blanco.[16] Scores of Ngabe men, women, and children were arrested in response to protest against the project.[16]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Hugh Govan and Rigoberto Carrera (2010) Strengthening Indigenous Cultural Heritage through Capacity Building in Costa Rica. In Biocultural Diversity Conservation eds Luisa Maffi and Ellen Woodley. Earthsacan.
  2. ^ a b Ngawbe: Tradition and change among the Western Guaymí of Panama. Young, Philip D. University of Illinois Press. Urbana. 1971. Pages 38-42.
  3. ^ "Panama-The Government of Torrijos and the National Guard". Retrieved 2014-01-27. 
  5. ^ Ngawbe: Tradition and change among the Western Guaymí of Panama. Young, Philip D. University of Illinois Press. Urbana. 1971. Pages 4-5
  6. ^ KRA Video of Kra bag making
  7. ^ Kra / chacara bags University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
  8. ^ "Panama: Village of the damned". Al Jazeera English. Retrieved 7 March 2013. 
  9. ^ "UN’s Offsetting Project Barro Blanco Hampers Panama Peace-Talks". Retrieved 7 March 2013. 
  10. ^ "Help the Ngobe protect their rainforest". Retrieved 7 March 2013. 
  11. ^ (See "Among Valientes" by Ephraim Alphonse and "Laughing Pioneer" by Dermott Monahan.)
  12. ^ a b International Community, Bahá'í (October–December 1994). "In Panama, some Guaymis blaze a new path". One Country. 1994 (October–December). 
  13. ^ Ngawbe: Tradition and change among the Western Guaymí of Panama. Young, Philip D. University of Illinois Press. Urbana. 1971. Pages 212 - 217
  14. ^ Camara de Comercio, Industrias y Agricultura de Panama. Centro de Estudio Economicos CEECAM. Desempeño Economico – 1 Trimestre del año 2010.
  15. ^ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Refworld | World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Panama : Guaymi (Ngobe-Bugle)". Retrieved 2014-01-27. 
  16. ^ a b People and Power. "Panama: Village of the damned - People & Power". Al Jazeera English. Retrieved 2014-01-27. 

External links[edit]