The Ngäbe are an indigenous people within the territories of present-day Panama and Costa Rica in Central America. The Ngäbe mostly live within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca in the Western Panamanian provinces of Veraguas, Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. They also have five indigenous territories in southwestern Costa Rica, encompassing 23,600 hectares: Coto Brus, Abrojos Montezuma, Conte Burica, Altos de San Antonio and Guaymi de Osa. In the early 21st century, there are approximately 200,000-250,000 speakers of the Ngäbere language.
Guaymí is an outdated name, derived by the Spanish colonists from the Buglere term for these people (guaymiri). Local newspapers and other media often alternatively spell the name Ngäbe as Ngobe or Ngöbe because Spanish does not contain the sound represented by ä, a low-back rounded a, slightly higher than the English aw in the word saw. Spanish speakers hear ä as either an o or an a. Ngäbe means “people” in their native language of Ngäbere. Numerous Ngäbe has migrated to Costa Rica in search of work on the coffee farms. Ngäbere and Buglere are distinct languages in the Chibchan language family.
Ngäbe territory originally extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, though there was never an empire or a distinctive “Ngäbe territory”. Most Ngäbe lived in dispersed villages, which were run by chiefs and influential families. Few, if any, Ngäbe occupied the mountainous region in which they now live. They retreated to that area under pressure from Spanish colonists and development of low-lying areas.
Christopher Columbus and his men contacted the Ngäbe in 1502, in what is now known as the Bocas del Toro province in northwestern Panama. He was repelled by a Ngäbe leader with either the name or title of Quibían. Since that contact, Spanish conquistadors, Latino cattle ranchers, and the development of large banana plantations successively forced the Ngäbe into the less desirable mountainous regions in the west. Many Ngäbe were never defeated in battle, including the famous cacique Urracá who in the 16th century united nearby communities in a more than seven-year struggle against the Conquistadors. Those Ngäbe who survived on the outskirts of this region began to slowly intermarry with the Latinos and became part of what is now termed Campesinos, or rural Panamanians with indigenous roots.
In the early 1970s the Torrijos administration tried to encourage the Ngäbe to form more compact communities by building roads, schools, clinics, and other infrastructure in designated points in what is now the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. This marked a social change in lifestyle, as formerly dispersed villages and family units did converge and form larger communities.
In 1997, after years of struggle with the Panamanian government, the Ngäbe were granted a Comarca or semi-autonomous area. The majority now live within its boundaries.
The Spanish found three distinct Guaymi tribes in what is today’s western Panama; each was named after its chief and each spoke a different language. The chiefs were Natá, in Coclé Province; Parita in the Azuero Peninsula; and the greatest chief Urracá, in what is now Veraguas Province.
Urracá became famous for defeating the Spaniards time after time. He forced Diego de Albitez, a captain of the Spanish, to sign a peace treaty in 1522. He was betrayed and sent in chains to the town of Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic coast. According to historian Bartolomé de las Casas, Urracá escaped and made his way back to the mountains, vowing to fight the Spaniards unto death. He fulfilled his vow. Urracá was so feared by the Spaniards that they avoided combat with his forces. When Urracá died in 1531, he was still a free man.
The Ngäbe lived in two large groups: those of the lowlands along the Atlantic coast, and those of the tropical forest in the highlands of Veraguas and Chiriquí Province. They never surrendered and fought until the collapse of the Spanish Empire in the nineteenth century. When Panama broke away from Spain and joined Colombia in the early 19th century, the Ngäbe remained in the mountains. In the 21st century, some are slowly assimilating into modern society.