The Basket Case


“hosig di” - Wounaan for the finely made Chunga basket


On a map of Panama walk your fingers east then south of Panama City to the border of Colombia. You have just crossed the Darién. You have also gone back in time some 200 years.


Darién is a province in eastern Panama. It is hot, humid, heavily forested, and sparsely populated. It measures just over 100 miles long and about 30 miles wide and consists of thick jungles, rugged mountains, numerous rivers and a vast marshy swamp that separates Panama from South America. Because there are no roads and foot travel is difficult the Darién is a land where the “highways” have always been the rivers and almost all travel is still done by shallow dugout canoes. The Pan-American Highway stretches 17,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina but is yet to be completed across the Darién Gap.


In search of baskets we ventured into this remotely difficult and beautiful area. Questions led to more questions which eventually led to the rivers bordered by wild jungle and travel by dugout canoe to the villages. First to the village of La Palma on the Boca de San Miguel where, although the town was charming, I spent all day trying to get back out of it and up the smaller rivers to where the baskets weavers live. The tide and the boatmen however had other ideas and further travel in this direction proved to be impossible. Later travel by car to the end of the road didn’t go well either. Quite simply, the road quit being a road and became a muddy footpath sprinkled with boulders. Finally, many questions later, I was told of a village at the end of another road. The car became stuck but the path continued and led to birdcalls by boys hiding in the trees as we entered a village. And further on another village. Visitors are not common and we were immediately noticed. The gong was rung by the only man present at the time who proclaimed himself to be the Vice President of Tourism. Soon we were surrounded at the community hut by women in traditional dress carrying their amazing and colorful baskets and carvings.  Finally, we meet the basket weavers of the Emberá and the Wounaan Indians.


In this wild, untamed and inaccessible area live two tribes of Choco Indians, both originating from the province of Choco in Colombia, but defiantly independent of each other. The Indians traditionally live at the edge of a river in much the same way as their ancestors. Their homes are open-sided, thatched roof structures raised 4-12 ft off the ground on stilts accessible by a notched ladder. They hunt, fish and grow their own food. They are a culture small in stature, averaging 5ft in height. Although the men are changing their style of dress from the traditional loincloth tied at the waist with a piece of Chunga palm to a more western variety of pants the women remain more traditional with a 3 meter length of cloth called a Paruma, similar to a sarong, which is wrapped at the waist and extends to just above the knee. Nothing more with the possible exception of beads around her neck.

Although the manner in which these two tribes live is something from the days of the first European discoverers of the Americas, it is the art for which we are most enamored. Not paintings mind you, but baskets. Beautiful baskets hand woven by the women into wondrous works of art. Made from the materials of two types of palm and with color woven in from the natural dyes of plants, roots, soil and berries, these baskets are a delight to behold. Each Wounaan or Emberá basket is a one-of-a-kind piece and is the result of many weeks or months of labor as well as an expression of the artist’s own individual talent and artistic vision. The basket is also a wealth of cultural information. Basket designs often incorporate religious symbols or representations of cultural artifacts or the artist’s natural environment. The designs often represent the flora and fauna found in the area or are geometric in nature.


Otis Tufton Mason, in his book American Indian Basketry, says of the indigenous basket maker:


“Her patterns are in her soul, in her memory and imagination, in the mountains, watercourses, lakes and forests, and in those tribal tales and myths which dominate the actions of every hour. She hears suggestions from another world.”


Although these baskets are said to be woven tight enough to hold water it is believed that this was not their intended purpose. Prior to 1982 the women made the decorative baskets with very simple designs using little color, perhaps a few red or black designs to give some definition to the natural white of the Chunga palm. Because the baskets are so difficult to make they were often small, some with lids and handles, and the primary use was to hold small precious objects such as jewelry and sewing materials. The original use is thought to be to hold matches. Between 1982 and 1990 the Indians were greatly encouraged by Mr. Ron Binder of the Summer Institute of Linguistics to increase their use of color and design in the effort to market the baskets to the public and thereby create a source of income. Long story short, these baskets have become popular collector’s items in the international art world.


In Wounaan and Emberá basketry the fibers of the Nahuala plant are used for the foundation while strands of the finer Chunga Palm are used as the sewing material. A basket begins at the bottom with the artisan forming a spiral shape with the Nahuala and Chunga fibers. Baskets often have complex bottoms and the artisan might put her “signature” design there, perhaps a turtle or butterfly, that will identify the basket as her work. Some baskets have such beautiful bases that they are best displayed upside-down or hanging on a wall so that this part of them can be appreciated. Basket makers employ two types of coil stitching. In the “diente peinado” stitch the Chunga strands are sewn to the top two foundation coils in such a manner that the surface of the basket has a smooth, silky finish. In the “escalera” weave the coils have an attractive corrugated surface with each coil appearing well defined. Both stitches require patience and skill and the technique and construction is one of the finest in the world, easily rivaling baskets made by the Native Americans of Arizona and Alaska. While the men of the villages are known for their carvings - both in Cocobolo wood and the Tagua seed - it’s the women whoweave the baskets. Normally the baskets range in size from 10”-17” in diameter and take the weaver a month to six months to make. Larger baskets up to a meter or more in diameter can take a year to a year and a half to create. The symmetry of the design is exceptional, especially considering that no pattern is used aside from what the weaver envisions in her head. The colors, using all natural dyes found in the rainforest, are not painted on. Rather they are woven in using a needle, similar to a sewing needle (originally made of bone, now of metal). The Chunga fibers are first dyed to the desired colors and then masterfully sewn in as the basket progresses. Harvesting of materials has become progressively difficult as more of the rainforest is cut away and the Indians have to go deeper into the forest for supplies. Rebel activity near the border of Colombia has made the gathering of materials a dangerous endeavor.


Now you are introduced to the world of the Emberá and the Wounaan baskets. And to the reason of why I am currently being referred to as a basket case. To view these baskets in Tamarindo please visit La Galeria Mar y Sol: 653-1182 or E-mail Thank you.


Article by: Cyndi Thau, owner of La Galeria Mar y Sol, who has traveled several times into Panama and has visited the villages and obtained baskets directly from both the Wounaan and the Emberá. References for this article include the book Darién Rainforest Basketry by Margo M. Callaghan and various internet websites.