The History of Hösig Di
Hösig Di are fine hand-woven baskets by the Wounaan Indians of the Darién Rainforest of Panamá. Silk-fine strands of the black palm Astrocaryum standleyanum, called chunga, colored with vegetal and organic dyes, are sewn over coils of Carludovica palmate, called naguala (also spelled nahuala).
The Wounaan and Emberá Indians, who “weave” fine baskets and call the Darién home, were once called "Chocó," since they originally migrated in the late 1700s from the Colombian province of Chocó. Some 3,000 years ago, they spoke the same language. Today they hardly understand more than a few words in each other’s languages and communicate through Spanish. Each group prefers to be called by their contemporary names: Wounaan and Emberá.
The Wounaan name for the original, fine traditional coil-construction baskets made of chunga is Hösig Di. More tightly woven and finer than their traditional woven utilitarian baskets and made from several rainforest materials, the Hösig Di art form was passed since earliest times from mother to daughter. Baskets prior to 1982 were sparsely decorated, if at all.
But two creative and forward thinking individuals changed all that. Ron Binder, a professor studying Chocó language groups with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, encouraged the Wounaan to impose onto the new baskets rainforest bird, flower and animal designs as well as geometrics borrowed from pre-Colombian pottery and textiles.
Llori Gibson, a Panamanian-American living in the Canal Zone, opened the first gallery dedicated to presenting the emerging art forms of the indigenous peoples of the Darién. It was largely her passionate encouragement and influence that nurtured the most innovative transformations of shape, design, and quality.
By 1990, extraordinary baskets exported from the Darién began to appear in collections across the American Southwest, then throughout the world.
While the original functions of early Hösig Di are still a mystery, it was speculated that their ability to hold water made them potential carrying or storage vessels. However, that theory seems to collapse under the evidence that pottery for water vessels has existed as early as 2000 B.C. in the Amazon Basin and similar regions.
In the early 16th century, when Spaniards debarked onto the coast of Panamá, they discovered pottery shards by the thousands. Wounaan elders and legends support the pottery-for-water-storage theories.
According to Milda de Membora, wife of Tonny Membora, former Wounaan President of the Wounaan General Congress and head of the Wounaan Cooperative, Hösig Di were originally created to carry matches, called fosforos. But other tribal leaders disagree and contend that the earlier fine baskets most likely had lids and secreted small treasures and precious objects. Bone needles to sew the baskets most likely preceded the steel needles used today in recent times.
An estimated 10,000 Wounaan and 12,000 Emberá inhabit the Darién tropical rainforest lowland, where more than 160 inches of rain falls annually. In parts of the neighboring Chocó of Colombia, another 12,000 Wounaan live with up to 400 inches of rain annually.
It has been said that the Wounaan are the originators of fine art while the Emberá are imitators, and many gallery owners in North America and Europe concur that the Wounaan excel in this art form. However, individual Emberá weavers compete for fine workmanship. Our collection is almost entirely Wounaan.
Harvesting the Chunga Palm
The most dangerous tree for any brave foot traveler through the roadless, nearly impenetrable Darién is the Astrocaryum standleyanum. "Chunga" to the Wounaan, this black palm protects itself with vicious spines up to six inches long.
The hard black wood from the chunga is prized for house posts, and the leaves are used in curandero ceremonies. According to elders, their ancient ancestors used strong rope braided from chunga to tie demons that chased them to the exposed roots of trees along the river. When the water level rose, the demons would drown.
Only the young, tender emerging leaves at the top of the spiny-trunked chunga is used to create Hösig Di. Historically, the entire tree had to be felled, and its trunk either used or left to become more organic material on the floor of the rainforest. Increasingly, more sustainable practices, such as the use of tall ladders and replanting are being developed.
Chunga is so closely linked to Wounaan tradition and daily life that each basket begins its creation with an inherent spiritual quality. In fact, in an article by written by Stuart G.R. Warner W. and published in the summer 1996 issue of Native Peoples magazine, the Wounaan are referred to as “spirit weavers.”
Warner states that the Wounaan Indian women have clearly emerged as the most masterful basket weavers in Panamá. He also quotes anthropologist Andrew Hunter Whiteford, then curator at the Wheelwright Museum and respected expert in Native American baskets, as proclaiming “The Wounaan coiled baskets are not only creative in design, but are technically among the finest I have seen.”
And, indeed, discriminating collectors are finding Wounaan Hösig Di baskets rival the finest in the world. The baskets are so expertly woven, Warner writes, that Armand Labbé, then of the Bowers Museum of Santa Ana, California, considers them comparable to the well-known early 20th century Chemohuevi Indian baskets of California.