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The indigenous peoples of eastern Panamá, who weave fine baskets and call the Darién Rainforest home, were once called “Chocó,” after the Colombian province from which many migrated hundreds of years ago. Linguists say that 3,000 years earlier, their language had been the same. But dozens of generations and a parting of the ways took the words right out of their mouths.
Today they share a few cognates—perhaps a little more than a quarter of their lexicon is mutually intelligible. To be understood, they communicate in Spanish. “Do not call us 'Chocó,” members of the now distinct cultures implore. “We are Wounaan. We are Emberá.” Like a stream split by an island only to reconverge on the other side, the shrinking rainforest merges again that which has been separate for a long time. Intermarriage also helps to break language barriers.
In Wounmeu, the language of the Wounaan, there is a special name for their fine traditional coil-construction palm-fiber baskets—Hösig Di. To create their contemporary baskets, weavers sew silk-fine strands of the black palm Astrocaryum standleyanum, they call chunga, colored with vegetal and organic dyes, over coils of Carludovica palmate, called naguala.
An estimated 8,000-10,000 Wounaan and 20,000 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 in lush forests with up to 400 inches of rain annually. These environments contributed to the selection of raw materials for what has today become a cottage industry of significant economic proportions.
It has been said that the Wounaan are the originators of this fine art-form 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. The RainforestBaskets Collection is entirely Wounaan.
Methods for gathering the young, tender leaves emerging from the top center of the spiny-trunked chunga palm are changing as the Wounaan's contact with the outside world increases. Historically, the entire tree was felled, and its trunk was either used or left to become more organic material on the forest floor. The hard black wood from the chunga is prized for house posts, and the leaves also are used in curandero ceremonies.
According to stories relayed to Margo Callaghan, Ph.D., in ancient times Wounaan 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. As weavers and village leaders began to recognize the potential for economic disaster if the chunga palms were decimated, increasingly sustainable harvesting practices—such as the use of tall ladders leaning a safe distance from the fierce, impaling spines, scythe-like blades attached to long poles, and replanting—are being developed and implemented.
The spiritual quality inherent in life and all creation is inseparable from the basketry talented hands construct of raw materials from the earth. So prevalent is this belief that in an article written by Stuart Warner and published in the summer 1996 issue of Native Peoples magazine, he refers to the Wounaan as “spirit weavers.” The most-charming and exquisite baskets also resonate in this dimension, and many are breathtaking.
More than a decade ago, Warner contended that the Wounaan had clearly emerged as the most masterful basket weavers in Panamá. Quoting anthropologist Andrew Hunter Whiteford, respected expert in Native American baskets and former curator at the Wheelwright Museum, Santa Fe, as proclaiming “The Wounaan coiled baskets are not only creative in design, but are technically among the finest I have seen.” And, indeed, collectors are finding Wounaan baskets rival the finest in the world.
So expertly woven are they that the late Armand Labbé, formerly of the Bowers Museum of Santa Ana, California, compared their quality to the well-known early 20th-Century baskets of the Chemehuevi Indians. And with each new work, basket aficionados wonder, “How much better could they get?”