Indigenous Indians in Panama

Indigenous Indians in Panama

In the census of 1990, the total population of Panama was 2,329,329 inhabitants of whom 194,166 were Indigenous Indians.

There are six indigenous peoples in Panama:



Ngöbe - Buglé


Naso (Teribe)


The first Comarca Indigena (or official Indigenous territory) in Panama was set up in 1938 in the San Blas archipelago by the Kuna people. In the province of Darien, the Embera and Waounan people joined forces and created the Comarca Embera-Waounan in 1983. Historically, the Ngobe have not been as effective in negotiating with the government as the Kuna. The Ngobe recently reached agreement with the government on a separate reserve. The Comarca Ngöbe Buglé was created in 1997.

In theory there are no legal barriers to political participation for indigenous indians. However you will not find anything like their proportion in government positions that their percentage of the population would justify.

Censuses showed Indians to be a declining proportion of the total population. The figures were only a rough estimate of the numbers of Indians in Panama. Precise numbers and even the exact status of several smaller tribes were uncertain. Language is not by itself a fool-proof guide. Some indian groups spoke only Spanish and yet kept other indigenous practices and were considered Indians. The Ngobe adopted a wide variety of words of Spanish origins but preserved indigenous practices. But the Térraba, who have lost many of their cultures would not use foreign words, even for non indigenous items.

The indigenous Indian tribes are concentrated in the more remote regions of Panama, and it has been their isolation that has contributed to their their cultural survival. The Ngobe who account for around 60% of all the indigenous indians in Panama, inhabit the remote parts of northwest Panama. The Kuna are mainly along the Caribbean coast east of Colón and account for around 30% of indigenous indians.

The smaller tribes are scattered in the remote mountains of western Panama and the interior of Darién. The Embera occupied the southeastern of Darién along the border with Colombia. Most were bilingual in Spanish and Chocó.

The Bribri were a small section of the Talamanca tribe of Costa Rica.

The Bókatá live in eastern Bocas del Toro along the Río Calovébora. The Bókatá language is similar to Ngobe, but the two languages were not understandable between the tribes. In the 1970s, there were virtually no roads through Bókatá territory; and by the mid-1980s, there was a small dirt road passable only in dry weather.

The Naso are another small tribe and it lives near the Río Teribe. It was hit recurrent tuberculosis epidemics between 1910 and 1930, but the population expanded rapidly with t better medical care after the 1950s. By the late 1980s, the Naso had abandoned most of their native crafts. They are said to have looted their ancestral burial mounds for gold to sell. In the early 1970s a flood swept away most of the alluvial soil they had farmed, and they had to seek work in the banana plantations. The Ngobe attempted to include the Naso in their territory, but the Térraba resisted this.

Ecotourism in Panama