Once semi-nomadic forest dwellers, Wounaan live in elevated thatch houses in clearings close to meandering forest rivers. They live in small communities of extended families, and carve special trees into river canoes used to navigate green mazes of rainforest rivers and mangrove channels. Their villages are often located at the edge of the tidal reach between estuarine mangrove forests and semi-deciduous tropical moist forests, and they catch fresh fish and shrimp and collect mangrove crabs and clams.
They once used traps, bows and arrows, spears, and blowguns with frog poison-tipped darts to hunt rainforest wildlife; game they still rely on today but is disappearing along with their forest habitat.
They maintain diverse gardens around their houses, gather wild fruits and medicines, and plant bananas, plantains, corn and root crops in small forest clearings. They paint themselves with intricate designs using inks derived from jungle fruits. They use various palm and other plant fibers to fabricate baskets of many kinds, for many purposes.
They maintain extensive knowledge of the forests and their inhabitants, learning their natural patterns and rhythms, incorporating them into their stories, dances and cosmological beliefs. They ritually beat a sacred canoe to maintain a state of peace and harmony in the world. They once practiced several kinds of shamanism and carved animal forms out of balsa wood (Ochroma lagopus) and gave them ritual significance.
Today, many Wounaan weave baskets or carve cocobolo and tagua (vegetable ivory) in addition to hunting, gathering, farming and fishing. In their forest villages and the suburbs of Panama City, Wounaan women sit in their houses chatting with family and friends. In between, and sometimes while simultaneously cooking, cleaning, and caring for infants and small children, they weave. They are perhaps the supreme weavers today, crafting tight, intricate, multi-colored baskets the likes of which have rarely, if ever, been seen. Their materials and motifs are taken directly from an astonishingly diverse rainforest world. Their artwork is often the best source of economic revenue they have.
The palms, the animals, the Wounaan way of life and the art of weaving perfected by Wounaan is all at risk of disappearing along with their forests.
Indigenous peoples are Panama’s poorest of the poor. The 2007 World Bank Poverty Assessment of Panama reports 90% of indigenous living in indigenous areas are extremely poor. And although Panama’s illiteracy rate is 5.5%, in Wounaan territory illiteracy reaches 22.9 percent. Similar disparities in health are found in indigenous territories. The destruction of their forest, their means of subsistence and survival, has profound impacts on Wounaan lives.