According to the 1980 census, Panama's indigenous population numbered slightly over 93,000, or 5 percent of the total population. Censuses showed Indians to be a declining proportion of the total population; they had accounted for nearly 6 percent of all Panamanians in 1960. The figures were only a rough estimate of the numbers of Indians in Panama, however. Precise numbers and even the exact status of several smaller tribes were uncertain, in part because many Indians were in the process of assimilation. Language, although the most certain means of identifying a person as an Indian, was by itself an unreliable guide. There were small groups of people who spoke only Spanish and yet preserved other indigenous practices and were considered Indians by their neighbors. The Guaymí, for example, showed little concern about linguistic purity and had adopted a wide variety of words of Spanish origin; nonetheless, they assiduously preserved indigenous religious belief and practice. By contrast, the far more acculturated Térraba would not use foreign words, even for nonindigenous items.

The Indian population was concentrated in the more remote regions of the country, and for most tribes, isolation was a critical element in their cultural survival. The Guaymí, numbering roughly 50,000 to 55,000, or slightly more than half of the Indian population, inhabited the remote regions of northwest Panama. The Cuna (also referred to as the Kuna) were concentrated mainly along the Caribbean coast east of Colón; their population was approximately 30,000, about one-third of all Indians.

In addition, there were a number of smaller groups scattered in the remote mountains of western Panama and the interior of Darién. The Chocó (or Embera) occupied the southeastern portion of Darién along the border with Colombia. Most were bilingual in Spanish and Chocó, and they reportedly had intermarried extensively with Colombian blacks. They appeared to be in a state of advanced acculturation.

The Bribri were a small section of the Talamanca tribe of Costa Rica. They had substantial contact with outsiders. Many were employed on banana plantations in Costa Rica, and Protestant missionaries were active among them, having made significant numbers of converts.

The Bókatá lived in eastern Bocas del Toro along the Río Calovébora. Linguistically, Bókatá speech was similar to Guaymí, but the two languages were not mutually intelligible. The tribe had not been as exposed to outsiders as had the Guaymí. In the late 1970s, there were virtually no roads through Bókatá territory; by the mid-1980s, there was a small dirt road passable only in dry weather.

The Térraba were another small tribe, living in the environs of the Río Teribe. In the twentieth century, the tribe suffered major population swings. It was decimated by recurrent tuberculosis epidemics between 1910 and 1930, but population expanded rapidly with the availability of better medical care after the 1950s. Contact with outsiders also increased. A Seventh Day Adventist mission was active in the tribe for years, and there was substantial acculturation with the dominant mestizo culture. By the late 1980s, the Térraba had abandoned most of their native crafts production, and their knowledge of the region's natural history was declining. They even looted their ancestral burial mounds for gold to sell. They refused employment on nearby banana plantations until the early 1970s, when a flood swept away most of the alluvial soil they had farmed. The Guaymí attempted to include the Térraba in Guaymí territory, but the Térraba stoutly resisted these efforts.

All of the tribes were under the jurisdiction of both the provincial and national governments. The Indigenous Policy Section of the Ministry of Government and Justice bore primary responsibility for coordinating programs that affected Indians, serving as a liaison between the tribes and the national government. There were a number of special administrative arrangements made for those districts in which Indians constituted the majority of the population. The 1972 Constitution required the government to establish reserves (comarcas) for indigenous tribes, but the extent to which this mandate had been implemented varied. By the mid-1980s, the Cuna were established in the Comarca de San Blas and the Chocó had government approval for official recognition of their own comarca in Darién. The Guaymí and the government continued negotiations about the extent of Guaymí territory. The Guaymí contended that government proposals would leave about half the tribe outside the boundaries of the reserve.

Indian education has frequently been under the de facto control of missionaries. The national government made a late entry into the field, but by the late 1970s there were nearly 200 Indian schools with nearly 15,000 students. Nevertheless, illiteracy among Indians over 10 years of age was almost 80 percent, in comparison with less than 20 percent in the population at large.

Country Studies main page | Panama Country Studies main page