Profiles of Indigenous and Afro-Descendant Peoples


chol_finalChol: Mexico

Population: 100,000-140,000
Language: Chol
Religion: The Chol people practice a range of religions, including Catholicism, Protestantism, and a Mayan/Catholic combination. The hybrid religion associates Christ with the sun and Mary with the moon because their tradition sees the moon as the mother of the sun.

chol_factThe Chol Mayan population is one of the 10 largest indigenous language groups in Mexico. Historically, the Choles lived in what are now territories in Guatemala and Honduras. Today they live in the northwestern part of the southern state of Chiapas. However, they are related to populations in Guatemala. In Mexico, the Choles mainly live in rural areas, although some live in towns, such as Palenque, Salto de Agua, Tila, and Tumbala. The Choles refer to themselves as the Winik, which means “man” in their language. They are also called milperos, meaning “the people made of maize (corn),” which they consider a sacred food. Agriculture is the mainstay of the Chol economy. They grow maize, squashes, and beans, as well as chili peppers and tropical fruits. Coffee is their main cash crop and constitutes the majority of their trade.

The natural ecosystem in which the Choles live is evergreen forests. They have a deep, traditional respect for the nature around them, but Chol-led deforestation remains a threat for several reasons, including clear cutting to create grazing pasture for government-supported cattle raising. However, private companies from outside the community are responsible for much of the deforestation in Chol lands.


Chuj: Guatemala and Mexico

Population: 70,000-75,000 worldwide
Language: Chuj
Religion: Religious practices vary widely and include Catholicism, Protestantism, and Mayan religion based on nature, or a combination of traditional and Christian practices.

The Chuj people are one of the 21 Mayan indigenous groups in Guatemala that today make up over half of the country’s population. The Chuj live in the municipalities around the Cuchamatanes Mountains in Guatemala and southern Mexico. They have lived in the northwestern part of the country for millennia. They prefer names based on their place of origin, either San Mateyo, San Sabastyan, or Nenton.

chuj_factAgainst formidable odds, they have retained their language and aspects of their traditional culture. The Chuj were reduced to poverty when Spanish colonial authorities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took their communal lands, and they were also deeply and adversely affected by the 35-year Guatemalan civil war, during which the military government considered them “internal enemies.” Today, the Chuj people grow a variety of crops—depending on the climatic conditions of the area—including beans, maize (corn), sugarcane, chilies, and bananas. The Chuj religion is based on spirits that are associated with specific geological and natural features, such as mountains, streams, and caves, and the Chuj have traditionally had a strong tradition of feeling connected and a part of the natural environment.


Embera: Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador

Population: 50,000 to 70,000
Language: Embera Northern and Embera Catio
Religion: The Embera religion follows “jai,” which are forces manifested in animals, plants, and humans. They are part of nature and can only be seen by Embera shamans.

embera_factOne of seven different indigenous groups in Panama, the Embera people historically have lived in the Darien region of Panama, although they have spread throughout the rest of the country as well as into the Choco department of Colombia and northern Ecuador. The Embera people have a history as warriors. They were known for conquering other indigenous groups and resisting the Spanish for centuries. Panamanian Law No. 22, which was passed in 1983, created the autonomous Comarca Embera-Wounaan, which represents over one million acres, or approximately 27 percent of the Darien region. The Wounaan and Embera initially governed the area together, but in 1998 they separated their governance structures. The Embera and Wounaan share many similar cultural practices; for example, both are known for using a bamboo branch and a black dye made from the jagua fruit to create elaborate body paintings. Both peoples have traditionally been adept hunters and gatherers, as well as fisherfolk.

Deforestation, poaching and other industrial practices, both legal and illegal, have significantly diminished yields from hunting, so the Embera have been forced to turn to more conventional agricultural practices. Unfortunately this means many Embera farmers use unsustainable, slash and burn agricultural approaches, clearing fields by cutting and burning down forest to make fields that are only useable for a few years. The Embera also now rely heavily on ecotourism as a source of income.


Garifuna: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama

Population: estimates vary from 200,000 to 500,000
Language: Garifuna, also called Garinagu
Religion: The Garifuna practice a combination of Catholicism and their traditional religion, which derives from African and Amerindian influences.

The Garifuna are an afro-descendant people who live along the Caribbean coast of Central America. They descend from the Caribs—indigenous populations from Central America who settled in the Caribbean—and Africans—who escaped from slaver ships in the seventeenth century.

The Garifuna live in territories with rich ecosystems, including mangroves, rainforests, and coastal plains. Their economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Their major crop is the yucca (cassava), which is also a mainstay of their diet. In some locations, they have labored in the banana industry and in port cities.

garifuna_factThe Garifuna culture is heavily influenced by African traditions, often demonstrated through their drum-based music, an African dance style called “punta,” and religious practices. Their religious practices balance involvement with the living through dance and song, and the dead through feasts and spiritual contact.


K’ekchi’: Guatemala and Belize

Population: 800,000 to 900,000, mainly in Guatemala
Language: K’ekchi’
Religion: The K’ekchi’ practice a mix of their Mayan tradition and Christianity. Their ceremonies celebrate the patron saints of certain villages along with deities who preside over nature.

k'ekchi_factThe K’ekchi’ people are one of the 21 remaining Mayan indigenous groups in Guatemala that today make up over half of the population of the country. Their language is one of the most common languages spoken in Guatemala. They live primarily in the Alta Verapaz department of Guatemala, but have settlements throughout the country. The K’ekchi’ also are one of three indigenous groups still located in Belize. They settled in the Toledo district, located in the south of Belize near the Guatemalan border, to escape enslavement from European coffee growers in Guatemala. In Belize especially, they are considered one of the poorest and most marginalized communities. The tribes do not have autonomous lands in either country.

The K’ekchi’ farm for a living, mainly growing maize (corn) and beans, as well as cash crops such as coffee and cardamom. They are well known for their cooperative farming practices; however, they often use slash and burn agricultural techniques, a process that leads to ecosystem degradation and soil and water quality issues. Additionally, logging and oil industries have harmed their traditional land, and the mining industry has interfered with their way of life and, in some cases, forced the relocation of K’ekchi’ communities.


K’iche’: Guatemala

Population: about 750,000
Language: K’iche’
Religion: The K’iche’ practice a mix of Mayan religion and Christianity, where Mayan deities are related to Christian saints.

The K’iche’ primarily live in the midwestern highlands of Guatemala. They are the largest of the remaining Mayan indigenous groups in Guatemala. Their language, also known as K’iche’, is the most widely spoken Mayan language today. Culture varies widely within the K’iche’ population. Popol Vuh, written shortly after the Spanish conquest in the mid 1500s, is an account of K’iche’ religion that includes their creation mythology and stories about their gods. It was originally written in K’iche’ and has been translated into Spanish.

k'iche_factAgriculture is the mainstay of the K’iche’ economy. Their major crops include maize (corn), beans, and squash, although many K’iche’ also produce such cash crops as berries and peaches. K’iche’ farmers often use slash and burn agricultural techniques, which lead to ecosystem degradation and soil and water quality issues. They have been successful in keeping many ancient practices alive, although loss of traditional knowledge is a major concern. The K’iche’ are well known for their traditional clothing, which is embroidered with intricate patterns in vibrant colors, as well as their weaving and pottery.


Kuna: Panama

Population: 40,000-50,000
Language: Kuna, known in the language as Tule
Religion: Father’s Way, a religion based on myths of the “Big Father” and “Big Mother.” Many Kuna also attend Catholic or Protestant services.

The Kuna people are one of seven indigenous groups living in Panama today. Historically, the Kuna lived in Colombia, but the violence of the Spanish colonization, which began in the sixteenth century, forced the surviving Kuna to relocate. Now the majority of the Kuna people—called Tule or Tulemala in their own language—live on the San Blas archipelago and gulf in northeast Panama, a region known as the Comarca of Kuma Yala. In 1925, the Kuna fought for their independence, and in 1938 San Blas officially became an autonomous territory controlled by the Kuna. The Kuna Congress passed their constitution, the Organic Charter, in 1945. The Kuna Yala is one of the most organized and richest independent indigenous territories of the world today.

kuna_factIn 1985, the Kuna became the first indigenous population in the world to create an internationally recognized forest reserve. They have been working to develop a viable ecotourism industry to provide income for their people and to help maintain the reserve. Despite living in relative isolation and maintaining great pride in their traditions, the Kuna are struggling to keep their young people engaged in preserving their traditions and culture.

Other threats to the Kuna people include land damage and flooding from sea level rise due to climate change. This has forced many Kuna to relocate, particularly those who lived on islands at lower altitudes. Clear cutting by the timber industry and other deforestation and resource-extraction activities are also a concern, damaging not only the health of the natural environment but also the Kuna’s agricultural yields.


Lacandon: Mexico

Population: 500-1,000
Language: Lacandon, a dialect of Yucatec Maya
Religion: The Northern Lacandon have kept their indigenous religion, based on a two-tiered heaven and an underworld. The Southern Lacandon have largely adopted Protestant practices.

lacandon_factThe Lacandon people are an indigenous group located in the rainforests of the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico. They live primarily in the villages of Lacanha chan Sayab, Mensabak, and Naja. They refer to themselves as the Hach Winik, which means “true people” in their own language. The people are divided into culturally distinct groups based on elevation in the mountains, and thus exposure to outside influences. The northern group generally has been more isolated and has kept its traditional practices intact. The southern group has been more exposed and has adopted modern practices and religious beliefs to a greater degree.

The Lacandon people provide for themselves through agriculture, hunting and gathering, selling crafts, and tourism. Their major crop is maize (corn), but they also grow tomatoes, root vegetables, beans, squash, and chayotes. The Lacandon often use the slash and burn agricultural technique. This practice leads to soil and water quality degradation and leaves soil viable for only a couple years. Deforestation from farming and logging is a serious problem in the Lacandon jungle, located in the western part of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border.


Tzeltal: Mexico

Population: 280,000-370,000
Language: Tzeltal
Religion: The Tzeltal religious practice is a mix of indigenous traditions and Catholicism. Tzeltal celebrations are associated with certain saints.

tzeltal_factThe Tzeltal Mayan group is one of the two largest indigenous populations in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. They are linguistically related to the other largest group, the Tzotzil. Both groups speak versions of a Mayan language that they refer to as batsil k’op, meaning the original language. The Tzeltal refer to themselves as the Winik Atel, meaning “the working men.” The Tzeltal’s ancestors migrated from Guatemala to the Los Altos central highlands region of Chiapas around 500-700 BCE.

The religious and social customs, as well as language dialect, of each Tzeltal community are unique. Generally, most Tzeltal communities are organized around subsistence farming. They primarily grow maize (corn), beans, and squash, but other crops are grown, including sweet potato, yucca, and cotton. Other economic activity includes trading livestock and selling traditional crafts.


Wounaan: Panama and Colombia

Population: 8,000-11,000
Language: Woun Meu
Religion: The Wounaan religion is based around “jai,” which are spirits that are part of animals, humans, and plants.

One of seven different indigenous groups in Panama, the Wounaan people live primarily in the Darien region of Panama and the Choco department in Colombia, although they have communities in other regions of both countries. In 1983, Panamanian Law No. 22 created the Comarca Embera-Wounaan, an autonomous area covering over 1 million acres that represents 27 percent of the Darien region. Originally cogoverned by the Wounaan and Embera, the two split governance in 1983 as the Wounaan felt they were underrepresented given their smaller population numbers.

Historically, the Wounaan were hunters, gatherers, and adept fisherfolk. They share many cultural practices with the Embera, including the tradition of using a bamboo branch and a black dye made from the jagua fruit to create elaborate body art. The Wounaan have many artistic traditions and are well known for their woven and dyed baskets made from chunga fiber and wood carvings.

wounaan_factThe Wounaan have experienced a significant decrease in the availability of game for hunting due to loss of habitat from deforestation, illegal logging, and poaching, and have turned to conventional agricultural practices to survive. They primarily use unsustainable slash and burn methods, cutting and burning the forest to create fields that become unusable in just a few years. The Wounaan also now depend on ecotourism as a source of income.