The Wounaan are one of seven indigenous peoples (Bribri, Buglé, Embera, Kuna, Ngabé, Teribe and Wounaan) who live within the Republic of Panama. One of the smallest indigenous groups in Panama, the majority of the 6,800 Wounaan live in the Darien, Panama’s largest and wildest province. In the Darien province most Wounaan live in small communities, located within and outside the two Embera-Wounaan comarcas, which are indigenous provinces with special indigenous, democratic administrations. They also live in and around Panama City and other increasingly urban neighborhoods along the Pan American Highway, and in three villages in the East Panama Province along the Pacific Ocean coast foothills of the Maje Mountain Range.
Traditionally, the Wounaan were semi-nomadic forest dwellers who lived in elevated thatch houses in small clearings close to meandering forest rivers. They lived in small groups of extended families, and carved special trees into river canoes they used to navigate green mazes of rainforest rivers and mangroves channels. Their villages were often located at the edge of the tidal reach between estuarine mangrove forests and semi-deciduous tropical moist forests, and they would catch fresh fish and shrimps and collect mangrove crabs and clams. They used traps, bows and arrows, spears, and blowguns with frog poison-tipped darts to hunt rainforest animals and birds. They maintained diverse gardens around their houses, gathered wild fruits and medicines, and planted bananas, plantains, corn and root crops in small forest clearings. They wore little clothing but painted themselves with intricate designs using inks derived from jungle fruits. They used various palm and other plant fibers to fabricate baskets of many kinds, for many varied purposes. They carved animal forms out of balsa wood (Ochroma lagopus) and gave them ritual significance. They maintained extensive knowledge of the forests and their inhabitants, learning their natural patterns and rhythms and incorporating them into their stories, dances and cosmological beliefs. They practiced several kinds of shamanism and ritually beat a sacred canoe to resolve local problems and maintain a state of peace and harmony in the world. The Wounaan keep many of these traditions alive today.
In the rainforest villages of Panama, the majority of the Wounaan weave baskets or carve cocobolo and tagua in addition to hunting, gathering, farming and fishing, because oftentimes their artwork is the best source of economic revenue they have. (For more information see the Native Future-supported economic study. The Wounaan are one of the poorest ethnic groups in Panama, and many families in the rainforest villages live in conditions classified by the government as abject poverty. Most of the villages lack potable water or sufficient sanitation, and even the few villages that have health centers cannot count on a consistent supply of medicine or the presence of someone to administer it. Most of the villages have elementary schools, but many of the children do poorly because the classes are almost entirely conducted in Spanish, and the subject matter never includes Wounaan culture. Recently, Panamá passed bilingual education legislation and the Wounaan are working with the University of Georgia to document their language, Wounmeo, and develop bilingual teaching materials. Still, for the kids who graduate from elementary school, the financial and cultural difficulties of continuing on to secondary school or college are usually insurmountable, and as a result there are few Wounaan with the college training or experience necessary to help their own people. Native Future is helping Wounaan students attend high school and college.