The Ngäbe-Buglé (pronounced NAW-BEY) indians are Panama´s fastest growing indigenous group, with a total population of almost 200,000. At the the time of the Spanish conquest the Ngäbe lived around the coastal areas, but retreated into the mountains to escape the Spanish. They remained semi-nomadic until the 1960s, when the Panamanian government began building hospitals and schools in the predominately indigenous areas. In 1997, after centuries of struggle, the Ngäbe-Buglé succeeded in establishing their own Comarca (autonomous district), which has both traditional and modern authorities.
For centuries, the social structure of the Ngäbe was communal and the harvest was shared among everyone who helped during the planting season. Most families within the Comarca still practice subsistence agriculture and supplement their income with migrant labor in the coffee harvest and the sale of artisan work. A tradition that has not been lost is the use of the nagua, the brightly colored dress that most Ngäbe women wear. A Ngäbe legend explains that the triangle design is based on a pattern of snake skin. Long ago, a snake fell in love with a young Ngäbe girl and when her brother found them together, he lashed out at the snake and broke the pact of peace between humans and serpents.
Right now, the Comarca is at a crossroads between modern ways and ancient beliefs. As development becomes more prevelant in the Comarca, Ngäbe beliefs and traditions are dying out. One of the greatest challenges that faces the Ngäbe-Buglé is fiinding a way to live in the modern world without losing their unique culture.
The language of the Ngäbe people is Ngäbere – part of the Chibchan language family. The Chibchan languages extend from northern Columbia to the east of Honduras; however it is in the area of the Panama-Costa Rican border that the greatest variety of Chibchan languages exist. In Panama, four other languages are part of this same family – Kuna, Bugle, BriBri and Naso (Teribe).
Ngäbere is learnt by children from their mothers and families and the Comarca has its own local Ngäbere radio station. However, many people in Soloy and throughout the Comarca also speak Spanish and the children are taught in Spanish at the local schools. The need for indigenous Panamanians to speak Spanish is undoubtedly important – as it is often a means to access valuable educational and health resources as well as being instrumental in the defense of their rights. However, this can put pressure on native languages. According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/, Ngäbere is considered ‘vulnerable,’ – the lowest category that can be awarded after ‘safe. ’ Whilst Ngäbere is by no means nearing extinction and is spoken by most children it is limited to the certain domains such as the home. The Ngäbe are proud of both their culture and language, and as a visitor to the region it can be incredibly worthwhile taking the time to learn a little about Ngäbe culture and the Ngäbere language.
A variety of traditional artesanias are made by Ngäbe women. Naguas are dresses that are made from a bright colorful fabric called dacron and are worn by many Ngäbe women. Chacarás are traditional bags which have a variety of uses – from carrying large bags of rice and plantains to mobile phones and schools supplies. Chacarás are made from local plant fibers and natural dyes and artisan women often spend several weeks gathering the fibers from the forest and preparing them, before they are ready to use. The whole process from start to finish can take up to a month to make depending on the intricacy of the pattern. The Ngäbe also make beaded necklaces called chaquiras or in Ngäbere, ngununkua and hats called sobros. There are many traditions and rituals associated with the ancient practice of making artisanias. To learn more: http://medo.awardspace.com/ritualscustoms.htm
In Soloy there are many different faiths such as Methodist, Evangelical, Catholic and even Ba’hi. There is also form of traditional religion called Mama Tata (Mom and Dad). The Mama Tata religion was the revival of traditional beliefs by a woman named Besikö. Besikö had a vision which involved seeing the Virgin Mary who instructed her to preserve Ngäbe culture, as it was in danger of disappearing. This revival lead to the naming of the district Besiko in her honour and Besiko spent her life committed to the preservation of the Ngäbere language and Ngäbe traditions.