Indians of Panama—a Glimpse of the Past
By “Awake!” correspondent in Panama
IT HAS been over 450 years since Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Balboa and other white men first set foot on this narrow neck of land adjoining the South American continent. Here they came in contact with bronze-skinned natives living in a picturesque tropical setting.
From the very beginning the Indians of Panama resisted the white man’s rule, treasuring their independence and simple life-style. The remote and often almost impenetrable jungle regions of Panama have afforded the Indians the isolation they desire. But now, instead of being the sole inhabitants of the land, they are far outnumbered by the newcomers. Of Panama’s nearly million and a half population, the Indians make up no more than 5 percent, or perhaps around sixty thousand.
In order really to get to know these Indians one needs to visit them in their natural habitats. I have had several opportunities to do this while serving as a minister of Jehovah’s witnesses. Let me tell you about some of these visits.
The Choco Indians
The Choco Indians have long inhabited the trackless rain forest of Panama’s southernmost province, Darien. A colony was established in Darien on the Atlantic side around 1510, and the explorer Balboa became its governor. Hearing from the Indians about a “sea” across the narrow neck of land, he and about two hundred men hacked their way through the dense growth of this territory, sighting the Pacific Ocean on September 25, 1513.
The principal location of the Chocos is now the town of Garachine on the Pacific side. My wife and I went there a number of years ago to visit a minister of Jehovah’s witnesses. We stayed several days, and shared in preaching to the Chocos there and in the surrounding territory. It was an unforgettable experience. It is amazing that even though we were only some 150 miles from the modern metropolis of Panama City we could meet people living much as they did in Balboa’s time.
The Chocos are not a big people, but the men are well-built and can appear rather fierce. Although those living in the far interior have been known to resist intrusion, doing so with blowguns and poisoned darts, those we met did not receive us in that way. We even placed Bible literature with some of them.
The homes of the Chocos are generally elevated four or five feet above the ground on poles. Frequently they are built near a beach, the roofs made of thatched palm leaves and the floors of cane. The sides are open all around. A few low benches are about the only furniture. Cooking is done in black iron pots placed on stones above a wood fire. We noted that fish, rice and plantain seemed to form the principal part of the Choco diet.
Their style of dress is simplicity itself—somewhat disconcerting when one is not used to it. The Choco women wear nothing but a few yards of cloth wrapped around the lower part of their bodies, reaching from just below the navel to the knees. The men wear even less—only a simple loincloth.
They bathe in the ocean or a river, as they have always done. As the women enter the water, their cloth skirt is gradually raised until finally, with the water to the waist, it is removed. It is rolled up and placed on the head until the bath is finished. Then, going out of the water, the process is reversed, the women eventually stepping, bathed and dressed, onto the white sand!
The Cuna Indians
Also in southern Panama, but on the Atlantic side, live the Cuna Indians. Although some live on the mainland, the majority inhabit the archipelago of San Blas. These islands stretch for about a hundred miles along the coast, almost all the way to Colombia. The local saying is, “They are more numerous than the days of the year.” And it is true, for there are some four hundred of them.
Many of the islands are only a mile or so from the mainland. They are of similar elevation, rising barely enough from the blue-green ocean to escape inundation by the breakers. Their white beaches decorated by graceful coconut palms can indeed be inviting! Some of the islands are very small, no larger than a hundred square yards. But even small islands may have hundreds of Indians living on them.
The Cunas here are much a nation unto themselves, fiercely holding their independence and racial purity. The women seldom travel to the cities of the mainland, and then only when chaperoned by their fathers or husbands. It has been the practice to restrict strangers from staying on the islands after sundown. However, a Cuna Witness has done preaching on the islands, and some Indians have accepted the Bible truth.
A gentleman living nearby on the mainland, who knows some of the village chiefs, kindly agreed to accompany me to some of the islands. It was indeed interesting to see firsthand how these people live.
The Cunas are small, the men rarely being taller than five feet four inches, and the women are even shorter. Their size seems appropriate due to the limited space on their island homes. From the sea they get much of their food. But the main source of sustenance is the coconut palm. It provides not only currency for trading, but also food, drink, shelter, fuel and other essentials. No wonder it is considered a tree of life!
Cuna men dress simply, generally wearing pants of dark cloth and short white or yellow shirts. The women are more colorfully and elaborately attired. Their skirts are of gaily colored cloth wrapped around them and tucked in at the waist. But their blouses, called molas, are especially eye-catching. Every conceivable design and color are used. The women also wear large disk earrings and gold nose rings.
The children, on the other hand, wear nothing. This is convenient, since they spend much of their time getting acquainted with the sea. It is said that there is no four-year-old boy who does not know how to swim. Young girls go through what must be a painful ordeal. Strings of beads are wound tightly around their legs below the calves, and are periodically tightened. This restricts the development of their lower leg, apparently being considered a beauty feature.
When arriving at one of the islands we were surprised to find festivities in progress. It was a noisy, gay occasion. We learned that it was part of the puberty rites for a young girl. People from other islands had been invited, and food was in abundance. A special trip had been made to the mainland city of Colón, over seventy-five miles away, to get a supply of rum.
The girl, the village chief informed me, was confined to a special compartment constructed within the home of her parents. For several days she would be ceremonially bathed by pouring water over her. At the end of this ritual her long hair would be cut. She would then be introduced as a marriageable maiden.
I learned that the girl is allowed to point out to her father the young man she prefers to marry. The father then lets that one know of his daughter’s wishes. Although he may accept the proposal, the young man is put to a test.
The father-in-law takes him to the mainland, where he selects a large tree. He then requires the young man to reduce it to firewood and transport it by canoe to the family island dwelling. While he is thus occupied the bride goes to his house and brings all of his possessions to her home. The firewood-fetching task accomplished, the young man is welcomed into the home where he will remain until the death of his father-in-law, after which he may establish a home of his own.
The Guaymi Indians
When Columbus arrived near the start of the sixteenth century he met and traded with the Guaymi Indians. They were friendly at first, but resisted when the whites did not leave. Thus Columbus and his men took hostage El Quibián, a local Guaymi chief. But he escaped and led his warriors in an attack, killing some of the party, and forcing them in April 1503 to depart. In the years to follow, the Guaymis continued to resist encroachments on their territory.
Thus the Guaymis have remained relatively untouched by modern civilization, although some have taken regular employment and have become more or less integrated into Panama society. Their territory in northern Panama occupies an extensive part of the remote highlands, as well as some of the coastal regions of Bocas del Toro province. They are the most populous of the Indian groups, numbering some 35,000, and are larger in size than the Cunas.
The Guaymi women wear dresses with long, full skirts, and the men generally dress similar to other non-Indian Panamanians. Many of the men, however, have the peculiar custom of filing their upper and lower front teeth to resemble the teeth of a handsaw.
Among the Indian groups, the Guaymis have shown by far the most favorable response to the preaching of Jehovah’s witnesses. Just last year I had the pleasure of visiting for a week a remote Guaymi village, most of the families of which are Jehovah’s witnesses. My companion and I flew from Panama City to Changuinola, and took a train from there to Almirante. We made the rest of the journey by canoe to our destination, the village of Cayo de Paloma.
There, on the beach, a group of Indians awaited us and made us feel right at home. An entire family moved out of their two-room house, and said, “Our house is now your home.” Another woman hospitably prepared food and brought it to us. Included in the activities for our visit was a dedication of a newly constructed Christian meeting place, a marriage and a baptismal service.
On Saturday morning five Indian men, each with his companion and children, came to have their union legalized in harmony with Bible requirements. They listened to the Bible talk explaining the purpose, duties and obligations of Christian marriage. But before the exchange of vows, the five women all abruptly left after a brief, whispered consultation. My consternation was quickly relieved. They had simply gone to dress for the wedding! In ten minutes all filed in, resplendent in white gowns, although barefoot. They took their places and were united in legal matrimony.
A little while later, in the waters of the ocean that furnishes them with much of their sustenance, three of this group, along with two others, were baptized as disciples of Jesus Christ. They have thus joined many other Panamanian Indians in dedicated service to God.
After the baptism we had lunch. Indian hunters furnished a wild pig, others went diving with spears and provided fish. Some families brought chickens, and one a tame pig. Still others, from their farms, brought rice, plantains, bananas and yucca. Most of those present sat on the ground or in the newly built meeting place and ate with their hands.
Then we assembled for the dedication program. From every direction people came, until 189 were present, all Guaymis except my traveling companion and me! We joined in giving thanks to Jehovah, man’s Creator, for the fact that “God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:34, 35.
Visiting the Indians of Panama is indeed like taking a glimpse of life long in the past. But as we began our trip home after visiting the Guaymis, I could not help but reflect on the unity and brotherhood that an understanding of God’s Word the Bible can produce among peoples despite their different backgrounds and customs.