Emberá and Wounaan - Orientation

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 Indians—has 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.

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