Emberá and Wounaan - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Emberá and Wounaan social structure was egalitarian. The highest authority was the head of the family, who allocated household resources and settled disputes. Both shamans and elders were respected for their knowledge but held no special status.

Political Organization. Historically, no formai tribal leaders, chiefs, councils, or organizations of elders existed. Kin groups along riverine sectors were sometimes guided by a small group of esteemed elders. The Emberá and Wounaan were not territorial, those of Panama now have developed a ranked, chief-congress ( cacique congreso ) type of political organization, similar to that of the Kuna, which centers on the semiautonomous comarca and its elected traditional leaders and government officials. Comarca authorities, as defined in the Carta Organica, include village leaders (nokoes in Emberá/ chi pör in Wounaan) and community police ( zarra/papan). Each comarca district has an advisory panel ( consejo de nokorã/chi pörnaan ) and chief ( dadyirã boro/maach pör). A general chief ( jumara boro/t'umaam k' n pör ) is elected for a term of five years. A general congress meets every other year with delegates from each community. This democratic body is the maximum decision-making body. Regional congresses are held annually in each district, local congresses more frequently at the village level. The comarca also elects government officials, including the governor and national legislators.

Other federations have formed to address territorial, political, economic, and cultural concerns outside the comarca. The Indigenous Organization of Collective Emberá and Wounaan Lands (OITCEW) fights for territorial control in the Río Balsas and along the Pan-American Highway. Other groups form in defense of Indians in the Congo and Bayano basins. Indian lands are also circumscribed by the Darién Biosphere Reserve and Mogue Forest Reserve, where Emberá and Wounaan groups struggle for land rights while confronted with state conservation goals.

Social Control. The family head normally settles domestic disputes, but crimes, land conflict, and other issues are increasingly regulated by comarca and state authorities, laws, and regulations.

Conflict. The Emberá and Wounaan were once the bitter enemies of the Kuna but now align with them for indigenous self-determination. Perhaps the most serious threat to Indian life comes from the advance of agricultural colonists and from profiteers invading Indian lands via the extension of the Pan-American Highway.

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