A Deep Dive into the World of Indigenous People in Panama

Panama Viejo

Our group visited Panama Viejo on Friday.  The Panamanian people are a people who are exceptionally proud of their rich history and Panama Viejo is a living exhibit of this history. A direct translation of Panama Viejo is “old Panama” a fitting name for the oldest structures in the country of Panama. Founded on August 15, 1519 by Pedro Arias de Avila, a Spanish conquistador, the original Spanish settlement of Panama served as a convenient home base for gold excavations across the Americas. This area served as a Spanish stronghold for more than 150 years until 1671 when the English, led by Sir Henry Morgan, attacked Panama Viejo leaving the city to deteriorate into the ruins that remain today. Over the years the area surrounding Panama Viejo declined economically and the houses in the vicinity of the ruins are those of the poverty rampant across Panama. It was not until 1997 when UNESCO declared Panama Viejo a world heritage site that restorative and tourism initiatives began in the old ruins.

During our group’s visit, the large majority of our time was spent in the cutting-edge museum at the foot of the ancient ruins. The museum is a chic two-story building with a multitude of brightly colored rooms walking visitors through the history of Panama Viejo. On the walls are informative plaques, like the one displayed in the photograph, describing the history of the old city. The exhibitions start all the way back with the Spanish conquest and as one walks from room to room the exhibits contain more recent history. Several of the rooms had interactive components including a replica of the city in the 1500s and a room mimicking a Spanish colonial household.

Once one finishes the route through the museum and enters the courtyard, the view of the ruins of Panama Viejo stick out alongside the skyscrapers of present day Panama City. Several old buildings and walls remain, and the area is open for adventure. One particularly tall tower, pictured below, still stands 70 meters tall and after an arduous climb up several flights of stairs offers a beautiful view of the ruins and surrounding cities. After scaling the tower, our group of students was able to spend time observing the walls and structures sleft standing in the courtyard and once the searing sun reappeared after a brief shower our group quickly reloaded the buses.

Panama Viejo Ruins

Indigenous Communities of Panama

Tusipono Emberá – Where the River Takes Life

The Tusipono Embera are just a small part of the Embera people with about 30,0000 still living in the Darien Gap and 50,000 living in the Choco region of Columbia. Whether the Embera migrated to Panama or not is still unknown, however, they have been there for centuries. The Panamanian government has seven Embera Comarca’s, which are like reservations for the tribes. Panama did not recognize the Embera people until 1975 when they gave them rights to education and health. Currently, they have access to health care, vaccines, and schools but they often may have to travel great distances to access it. The Embera tribe that we visited near Panama City lives in an area that is now a national parks meaning the Embera cannot use the land or trees for their traditional living habits. Therefore, the Embera cannot farm, use trees for building materials or clothing, or hunt on the grounds. However, through tourism many Embera, such as the Tusipono, make their living. Tourism allows the tribes to have money for staple needs and be able to keep their traditions alive. Though tourism has become a part of their life, one begins to wonder how increased tourism will adversely affect the tribes. Yes, the people can achieve a healthier life and maintain cultural traditions, but at what cost? One hopes as Panama grows, it does not lose its culture for the sake of money.

At 9:00 AM, we departed Panama City to meet the Tusipono Emberá Tribe located in the Chagres National Park along the Alajuela Lake, which feeds the Panama Canal from the Chagres River. On our way to our destination, we stopped for fruit, water, and ice. During this stop a few of us went with our tour guide to the fruit stands where we were able to try fruit that we don’t normally encounter – fruits like lychee and pig spine. Back on the bus, as we headed to Chagres National Park, we learned more about the educational system in Panama and the differences between public and private schools as well as what the government has done to incentivize parents keeping their children in school. In many communities, public school operate on two shifts, in the morning and afternoon, in order to accommodate all of the pupils, but in private schools students attend full days. However, lower-income families do not have access to a private school education and receive a stipend for each child enrolled in public school if they perform to ‘standard.’ While on the road, we drove through some rural areas that do not have piped water or sewer systems.  People who live here have tanks that fprovide potable water to their homes.  Water is trucked in and pumped into these tanks, which is ironic since the nearby Chagres River is the main water source for Panama City. 

We arrived at the Chagres River at 10:30AM and boarded canoes that took us down the Chagres towards the Tusipono Emberá village located about 15 minutes away from the loading dock. We hobbled into two canoes and were led by two indigenous men, one steering and pushing the canoe from the front and one steering and pushing the canoe from the back. Because rainy season had just begun, the waters were low. Because of this, some of us got in the water to help push the canoe. But we were still able to enjoy the beautiful water and surrounding area and two baby alligators that were sunning on the banks of the river. We arrived and climbed up a hill to be welcomed by several women of the tribe shaking our hands and a few men and boys playing instruments to greet us as we walked to the main center and then into a man-made palm structure where we were welcomed by the “Noco” or chief of the community.

The Noco told us more about his community of about 75 people made up of about 22 families, the majority of which had come from the Emberá community come in the Darien. He shared with us that its name, Tusipono, is derived from a tree with a very striking flower that stands out among the tropical rain forests that surround the mouth of the river. Then he taught us a few words of the Emberá language like friends and thank you or “bia bua”. Then we saw the fine crafts that the Emberá are known for and were told more about tagua seeds and the art carved from those as well as the cocobolos wood crafts, and fibers used for making baskets. We watched one the girls weaving a basket and passed around things like turmeric and mud that are used to dye the fibers for the baskets, bowls, and vases. From this, the Noco answered some of our questions like what they do if someone is sick and where do the children go to school. He told us that they use herbal medicine, but if the problem is drastic, they will use more westernized medicine. He also informed us that women birth their babies in their homes unless there is a complication. We also learned that the children attend the nearby school with members of the community that we passed through on our way to the river. We then got to experience more of their culture as we ate freshly fried tilapia and yucca from heliconia leaves that they had folded into cones for us.

Once we finished eating, we were allowed to roam the grounds. We saw the homes of the families as we walked to the Butterfly Room where we viewed seven species of butterflies in a garden containing the plants and flowers of the region. We viewed the life cycle from the cocoon stage, to the pupa, and then a fully grown butterfly. After this we were led to the main gathering point where we were treated to traditional Emberá dance and music. The Emberá use inspiration from their environment to imitate the behavior of animals and relationship with others to create different dances and music. Here we saw two traditional dances: The Dance of the Monkey and the Dance of the Two Sisters. We also heard music known as the Music of the Rumba of Panama and were then pulled from the audience to participate in some of the dancing as well. Afterwards, several of us received temporary tattoos from the community as well as opportunity to purchase handcrafted goods created by the different families. Before we left, we were greeted by Princesa, an orphaned Spider Monkey, that was adopted by the Noco as he had found her in the forest hurt by a Harpy Eagle. Many of us were able to hold her and feed her the bottle of human breast milk that they were giving to her. We then returned to the canoes to head to the Alajuela Visitor’s Center to read more about the artwork that we had seen, the materials used, and wildlife and flora in the Chagres National Park, as well as viewing a map to see where we had traveled.

From canoeing to bus rides, we arrived back in Panama City to prepare for our return to Birmingham. It was hard to believe that our time in Panama was finished for now.

Group 4 – Panama Special Viral Unit

Tim McWilliams

Wilnadia Murrell

Leahgrace Simons

Nadia with Princesa

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