Ngawbe - Orientation

Identification. The Ngawbe are the most numerous indigenous population in the Republic of Panama. They are often referred to in the literature as "Guaymí" and are reported to refer to themselves as "Guaymí" when working for wages on banana plantations, but in their own communities they refer to themselves as "Ngawbe" (the people). The term "Guaymí" is said to mean "people" in Muoi, the language of a now-extinct group that was closely related, possibly ancestral, to the present-day Ngawbe.

Location. In contact times (the early sixteenth century), the Ngawbe and other related (now-extinct) groups occupied much of western Panama, extending east into Coclé Province and south into portions of the Azuero Peninsula. During the centuries since contact, the Ngawbe have gradually lost much of their land because of encroachment and illegal occupation by nonindigenous peoples. They now occupy the rugged mountains and portions of the lower slopes of the three westernmost provinces of Panama: Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Veraguas. (About 1,800 to 2,000 Ngawbe live on three small reserves in Costa Rica, having emigrated from Chiriquí, beginning in the 1940s, because of a land shortage.) Their Panamanian territory is estimated to encompass about 6,000 square kilometers. The boundaries have never been surveyed, and the government of Panama has not granted the Ngawbe any official title to their land.

Demography. The 1990 census of Panama reports a total of 124,513 Ngawbe in Panama: 63,712 in Chiriquí; 51,086 in Bocas del Toro; 6,971 in Veraguas; and 2,744 in other provinces. Of those counted as Ngawbe in Veraguas Province, perhaps 1,200 to 1,500 identify themselves as "Bugle." These numbers are very high compared to those of earlier censuses, especially for the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí, and they indicate an average annual population growth rate of over 3.5 percent since 1960.

Linguistic Affiliation. Most of the Ngawbe speak Ngawbére; a few thousand, principally in Veraguas, speak Murire. Mutually unintelligible but closely related, both are languages of the Central American Branch of the Chibchan Family. Several dialects of both Ngawbére and Murire are recognized.

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