by Jose T. Tunon

It is still worn today by the Guaymi Indian men, whose ancestors were the formidable fighters the conquistadors rated among the most skilled of all the warriors in the Western Hemisphere.

No longer the fierce warriors of yore, the present-day Guaymies, live under the laws of Panama in the provinces of Veraguas, Chiriqui, and Bocas del Toro. Their children attend Panama schools, but they still keep aloof from people not of their own culture and retain many of their aboriginal customs and practices.

The chaquira was first mentioned by European historians in documents dating back from the early part of the 17th Century. It was quite different from today's ornament. The colors were dull and it was not so tightly beaded... it was fashioned of pebbles, pieces of bone, seeds, and sea shells which the Indians colored with homemade dyes.

The brightly colored beads and varied designs of the modern-day chaquiras reflect the Indian's present-day ability to buy beads of whatever shape, size, or color needed.

Fray Adrian de Santo Tomas, who ran a mission in 1622 in what is now the town of Remedios, Chiriqui Province, described the chaquira as the ornament worn by Guaymi men during their major festivals - a sort of emblem of Guaymi nationality.

The Spanish conquistadors found three distinct Guaymi tribes in western Panama; each named after its chief; each spoke a different language. The three big chiefs were Urraca, who ruled in what is now Veraguas Province; Nata, in the territory of the Province of Cocle; and Parita, in the Azuero Peninsula.

Of the three, Urraca is the most famous. He not only defeated the Spaniards several times, but was the only one among the rebel Indian chiefs who forced a captain of the Spanish Empire, Diego de Albitez, to sign a peace treaty. This was approximately 1522.

A measure of Urraca's temper is provided by the account of his feats after Albitez's successor betrayed and imprisoned the Indian chief.

Sent in chains to Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic coast, probably for transfer to Spain - according to historian Bartolome de las Casas - Urraca escaped and made his way back to the mountains, vowing to fight the Spaniards unto death. And he fulfilled his vow.

In his last years, Urraca's name was so feared by the Spaniards that they avoided combat with his men. When Urraca died in 1531, surrounded by friends and relatives, he was still a free man. He probably was laid in his grave with a chaquira covering his shoulders.

After Urraca's death, the other Indian chiefs carried on the fight against the white invaders, taking refuge in the steep mountains of Veraguas and the Tabasara Range where the Spaniards cavalry could not maneuver.

By the 18th Century, the Guaymies were divided into two large groups: those of the tropical forest (in the highlands of Veraguas and Chiriqui) and those of the lowlands (along the Atlantic coast, from Rio Belen to Bocas del Toro). They never surrendered, fighting until the collapse of the Spanish domination in the Americas.

When Panama broke away from Spain and joined Colombia in the early 19th Century, the Guaymies remained in oblivion in their mountain villages.

Slowly they are now being incorporated into the national fold. Guaymi teachers and law-enforcement officers help the effort.

While the chaquira remains a symbol of the Guaymi culture, it is no longer a treasured warrior's ornament fashioned painstakingly by female hands within the closeness of the family circle, but a vastly sophisticated commodity to which mass production techniques are being applied. Its production is an established source of income for the Guaymies.

Presented by the CZBrats
October 20, 1998

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