Ngawbe - History and Cultural Relations

Little is known about the Ngawbe of precontact times. It is likely that the present population consists of an amalgamation of peoples who are descended from the original inhabitants of the territory that is currently occupied by the Ngawbe and by remnants of other groups who fled from Spanish oppression in the more accessible coastal areas of western Panama. Descriptions of Ngawbe culture, beginning with the account of Fray Adrián de Ufeldre (1682) attest to the considerable cultural continuity between many contemporary features of Ngawbe society and their traditional culture and social organization. Their closest cultural affiliations are with the Bugle and Teribe in Panama and the Bribri and Cabécar in Costa Rica. Early contact led to mestizoization of some segments of the population and isolation of other segments. For the isolated Ngawbe, contact with the outside world was sporadic and infrequent until the 1930s, when it dramatically increased in frequency and intensity. Influences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came mainly through the Ngawbe who engage in wage labor on the cattle ranches and the coffee and banana plantations in western Panama and through their contacts with Panamanians in the villages and towns while buying and selling goods. Additional contact has come about through schooling, mining exploration in their territory at Cerro Colorado, and the construction of penetration roads. Prior to the 1970s, there were no roads anywhere in Ngawbe territory. The Ngawbe of Veraguas have been more strongly influenced as a group by outside contact than those of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. This differentiation is reflected in their clothing, the degrees to which traditional practices are continued, and the rates of literacy and bilingualism.

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