Crew Blog | Shawn Kanaiaupuni: Ocean & Indigenous Connections in Panamá

Shawn KanaiaupuniBy Shawn Mālia Kanaʻiaupuni

Hōkūleʻa’s visit to Panamá was chock full of activity spotlighting ocean and indigenous connections. For Leg 27 crew, Sunday, January 15, 2017 celebrated these connections with the community, who gathered to honor the arrival of the waʻa in kindred spirit and positive energy committed to caring for the earth.

Connecting with the community in Panamá and joining hands with those who share our passion is a great example of activating what Nainoa Thompson has called, the “lei of hope,” woven by Hōkūleʻa as she circumnavigates the globe.

How does something like this happen? It begins with a lot of preparation way in advance of each port. For example, building these networks with the Panamanian community began a few years ago with a youth exchange in Hawaiʻi between Polynesian Voyaging Society crewmembers and InterTribal Youth. The young ambassadors visited a number of places on Oʻahu, including the Marine Education and Training Center, Hālau Kumana Public Charter School, and Kamehameha Schools Kapālama campus, where they learned about the star compass.

On that visit, InterTribal Youth program director/founder, Marc Chavez, learned that Hōkūleʻa was headed to the Panamá canal and began reaching out to local educational and culture-based organizations. Within a short matter of time, various partners started to gather to welcome Hōkūleʻa, including the Balboa Paddling Club, Four Worlds International Institute, Earth Train, and the Balboa Yacht Club. From Four Worlds International Institute, our contact, Giuseppe “Olo” Villalaz, also connected the crew to the four major indigenous groups of this country. In addition, a few months ago, a Hawaiʻi delegation went to Panamá and visited local schools to share about Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, strengthening these connections even further.

DSC04615Spending time with the indigenous peoples in Panamá was mission critical for this stop of the Worldwide Voyage. We’ve learned from our hosts that Panamá has a diverse group of indigenous peoples that play an important role in the country’s cultural diversity. For a little background, there are seven distinct indigenous cultures, which are divided into four major Indian groups, each of which presented their welcome and dances at Sunday’s community gathering, colorfully dressed in their traditional garb. The four groups are the Ngäbe-Buglé (Guaymi), the Kuna, the Emberá/Wounaan and the Naso (Teribe)/Bribri.

These peoples are generally small in stature and and large in their political influence, bridging across their diverse cultures to work collaboratively and to protect their indigenous interests and rights. In addition to Panamá’s nine geo-political provinces, there are also three “comarcas”; states belonging to the indigenous groups. Comarca (meaning shire or county) is a traditional region or local administrative division and allows the indigenous cultures to practice traditional forms of government without interference.

According to the 2010 census, there are over 410,000 indigenous people living in Panama and they make up almost 13% of the overall population.

panama map

Our crew’s last day in Panamá was a special one. We spent most of the day visiting one Emberá village, located in the town of Gamboa about 35 minutes away from the marina. We arrived at the Gamboa Rainforest Hotel and then the crew traveled the rest of the way to the village by boat and kayak.


As one chief shared, the Emberá people are also seafarers who use the sun, wind, stars and currents to navigate their vessels in the Atlantic and Pacific. They were very interested to learn about Hōkūleʻa, how we sail her, what kind of wood she is constructed from, and they were curious to learn about the most turbulent waters that we had crossed, among other questions.


In their small village in the forest, we saw thatched roof single room homes, high on poles in case of flooding. A notched log stretched from ground upward to the hale, so that family members could climb up to their door. Small boys ran around wearing something like a malo secured by a string around the waist. The women and young girls wore brightly colored, thigh-long pareos and a bead necklace, nothing more. They had long shiny black hair. In some cases with visitors, the women would don a beaded halter top to cover their usually bare chests.


The chief of the village welcomed us, explained their traditions, and the construction of the village. A group of women performed a buzzard dance. Their graceful flying motions evidenced careful study of how buzzards looked in the air, which they mimicked perfectly in their dancing. After this short welcome, one of the elder males led the crew through their forest, showing us the medicinal plants used for various healing purposes, for example, stomach or skin ailments. Our guide even showed us a plant that naturally removes hair. Other plants are used for spiritual needs, like protecting a family from a witch or curse. At one point, he pounded on a tall, wide tree so we could hear its hollow sound as he explained that the trees are full of water. A good thing to know for survival in the deep forest!


After captain Billy Richards described the purpose of our voyage and the reasons for the day’s visit, they villagers thanked us graciously, expressing that they also are equally committed to caring for the planet and their own communities. As our visit comes to a close, despite our differences, we feel a strong bond with these small but proud people. We reflect on the importance of building the lei of people, places and ideas as Hōkūleʻa and crew make their way home in the final months of the Worldwide Voyage.


Hōkūle‘a Homecoming – Save the Date

Sign up for updates and be the first to know as we continue to detail homecoming festivities during the week of Hōkūleʻa’s homecoming
on June 17, 2017!

Sign Up For Updates

Print Friendly, PDF & Email