Emberá - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The highly segmentary character of Emberá society has not permitted the formation of organizations above the level of autonomous kin groups. There are records of slaves being taken from other ethnic groups in pre-Columbian times. Women have gradually lost their influence within the society and become subordinate to and sometimes tyrannized by men, who beat them frequently. Recent struggles for land have brought back women's relevance because they assume important roles in such struggles. The acculturative work of missionaries and teachers has created a small group with greater formal education that eschews traditional life and considers itself superior. At the same time, in peripheral areas, commercial agriculture has produced a group of people with higher economic status. Both groups have begun to assume new leadership roles within their communities, becoming agents of the programs and models of the behavior of White society.

Political Organization. Kin groups were originally autonomous units. They organized temporary confederations to resist conquest. Colonial redduciones (mission-run settlements) united various kin groups under the leadership of imposed chiefs. During the ninteenth century many recovered their autonomy, but in settled areas they remained under missionary authority, as defined by law. Struggles initiated in 1970 gave rise to new cabildos (town councils) headed by indigenous governors with authority over an area within a preserve, and frequently over various communities. In Panama, the military government encouraged the formation of a centralized Emberá political organization consisting of, as the highest authority, a general congress with legislative powers and the power to name a supreme general chief, under whom there are regional chiefs and local leaders. This has been in existence since 1969. In Colombia, there is an organization above the town councils, the Organización Regional Emberá-Wauna del Chocó (OREWA), which particularly unites the Indians of the Chocó. In the 1980s native police inspectors were named in some places. In some areas, like Chamí, town councils have fallen under the control of Catholic missionaries. In the late twentieth century the penetration of guerrilla groups into various Emberá settlements has resulted in new external political pressure on the communities.

Social Control. Since aboriginal times, shame and sorcery have been important mechanisms of internal control, although they have been losing importance because of the intrusiveness of White laws and authorities. Blood vengeance in cases of homicide and serious injury still occurs—vengeance is not only a right, but an obligation on the part of the victim's relatives. Town councils play a role recognized by Colombian law; they adjudicate minor problems like boundary disputes, stealing, fighting, drunkenness, and other crimes that are punishable by fines, incarceration, and pillorying.

Conflict. White intrusion has created a conflict of major proportions among the Emberá, pitting against each other those who accept that intrusion and wish to integrate themselves into the White world and traditional forces who advocate indigenous continuity, the autonomy of their communities, and change on an ethnic basis. The strength of each faction varies according to place and time, but occasionally the disagreement between the two becomes so acute that it produces the dissolution of groups. Sorcery and rivalry between shamans are also sources of conflict, generally resolved by segmentation—a shaman and his followers move to another river. Since the Conquest, territorial defense has generated permanent friction between the Emberá and the settlers, sometimes culminating in violence. The participation of the Emberá in Colombian national party politics has led to constant clashes between rival factions. These clashes are stimulated by the simultaneous actions of Catholics and evangelicals, giving rise to sectors that are irreconcilable.

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