Wounaan Indians of Panama
BY Sandra Maitland | June 21, 2012
Women empowered through basket weaving
As I traveled miles away from the hustle and bustle of Panama City, I could feel the quiet solitude of Indian communities vested in the landscape of the rural terrain. Passing by rivers as they meander their way between and along side these communities, all you could hear is the whistle of birds and the swishing sound of water as it rushes up against the rocks.
The Wounaan and Embera Indians migrated from the Chocho region in the Amazon Basin of Northern Columbia into this area of Panama, over 250 years ago. Looking for greater security from the Spaniards and land to sustain their families, they migrated deep into the dense tropical rain forest, now known as the Darien Province of Panama, bordering Columbia. Rich with lush vegetation and water in abundance, they could practice their ancient customs in clusters of extended family life along the river bank. Their occupation of the Darien rainforest came long before the formation of the country we now know as Panama. They live in an environment impacted by 10-30 feet of water during the rainy season, and their houses, called tambos, are hoisted high off the the ground on stilts for protection from the inevitable floods. Their families are sheltered under a thatched conical roof in an open space that accommodates the daily functions of living, and a hammock for each member to sleep during the often cold damp night.
Wounaan women, in particular, have become renowned for their exquisite artistry in basket weaving. Unlike any other group including their Embera counterpart, they have transformed what used to be utilitarian vessels for daily use at home and on the farm, into fine art and a sort after commodity for collectors. Encouraged by the appeal of the baskets to tourists visiting the Panama Canal, their designs over time became more creative, colorful and exquisitely woven. This transformation created an unexpected pathway for the economic empowerment of Wounaan women, enabling them a greater voice in decisions that impact the development of the family and community at large. Weaving baskets are historically the work of women, and getting paid to produce them is a perfect fit for the life of the Wounaan woman. Wounaan men, on the other hand, are traditionally hunters and gatherers of fish and game. They are also known as woodcarvers, building their homes, canoes and carving the finest ornaments from the tagua nut that are sold at craft markets in Panama City
I saw these baskets for the first time when I attended the 2009 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in New Mexico. The Wounaan artisans were invited and supported by UNESCO to participate in the Folk Art Market. At first glance there was a sense of disbelief at the choreography of design, color, texture and workmanship. I suddenly realized how exquisite these baskets were, when it became evident that I was competing with galleries and museum curators to touch and/or procure them before they were all sold. Despite the costly price tag, the quality, uniqueness and splendor of these baskets spoke volumes about their worth. Each basket was different in color, size and design and all were extraordinary.
Wounaan baskets are made from two varieties of palm fronds. The Chunga or black palm and Panama hat fiber called navala. The Chunga tree has great significance to the life of the Wounaan. Grown in the the dense forest, the properties of the leaves are used for cultural healing ceremonies. The hard black wood is used as stilts for the foundation and overall construction of their homes, and the fronds are stripped to create the threads used to produce the baskets. On my visit to Darien I learned first hand the intricate process of basket weaving. While the finished product is a dream to behold, as important to the process is the harvesting of the fronds at exactly the right time from this forbidding, sharp, spiny Chunga tree. The fronds are then dried, bleached and stripped into individual fibers. Plant materials with properties that result in the variety of colors are identified, gathered and used to dye the bleached and dried threads. Then the magic begins and the creativity of the Artisan takes form and fashion in the extraordinary work we see as the final product. Depending on the size and design of the basket, each one could take from nine to eighteen months to complete.
The renowned work of the Wounaan Indians of Panama are a treasure to the people of Panama. Unfortunately the political and economic commitment to preserve and develop the craft and the people involved are not evident. Instead, large farming conglomerates have been given the blessing by the government to take and clear vital lands to the Wounaan, to be used for cattle grazing and farming. Little did the Indians know that a title was needed to continue to lay claim to the land that they have occupied for centuries. Despite the legal maneuvering on behalf of Wounaan communities, more lands are being distributed and the prime areas where Chunga trees grow and can be replenished is being decimated. Without the trees this exquisite craft in basketry may be extinct one day.
To see the examples of the baskets, please visit Idaira Cabezón Mepaquito of Gremio de Artesanos Wounaan. She will exhibiting her work at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.