Wounaan Rainforest Baskets
"The Wounaan coiled baskets are not only creative in design but are technically among the finest I have seen."
- anthropologist Andrew Hunter Whiteford, as curator of the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, NM, and respected expert in Native American baskets
Referred to as “Rainforest Baskets” or, traditionally, “hosig di” these remarkable works of art are created by the Wounaan Indians of the Darien Rainforest of Panama. They are not woven but, rather, silk-fine strands of black palm, called “chunga” are sewn over coils of Naguala palm.
Today, the less than 10,000 remaining Wounaan in the Darien represent some of the most remote indigenous people in the world. In 1983, the government of Panama recognized a semi-autonomous indigenous territory for the Wounaan and the related Emberá tribe in which they can continue their traditional lifestyles and, for the most part, be self-governing as they go about their lives.
The basket-making traditions practiced by the Wounaan women use techniques that have been passed from mother to daughter for too many generations to count. While individual Emberá weavers have excelled at creating fine hosig di baskets, it remains the Wounaan whom experts uniformly revere. The baskets themselves, historically had no patterns on them but rather were the off-white color of their sun-bleached palm materials. It was in the early 1980s that a professor studying their Chocó language groups encouraged the weavers to incorporate natural colors and designs inspired by their rainforest surroundings and the geometric patterns of their ancient artifacts.
Hosig di baskets remain as much of a challenge to create as always. The Astrocaryum standleyanum, “chunga,” that provides the fiber, is a tree of hard, black wood whose trunk is protected with spines up to six inches long where it grows in the nearly impenetrable Darien rainforest. The chunga is so closely associated with the daily life and traditions of the Wounaan, from providing house posts, fibers to make strong ropes, and leaves for ceremonies, that the Wounaan who use it to create hosig di have been called “spirit weavers.” It is only the youngest, most tender emerging leaves at the tops of the trees that are used for the hosig di baskets. While, historically, the entire tree would be felled to access these leaves, today more sustainable practices are in place and tall ladders and expert climbing skills allow the trees’ formidable trunks to be scaled.
The popularity of these hosig di baskets reflects not only their rarity, with such a small population of Wounaan responsible for their continued creation but also the fact that collectors recognize the daunting skills of the Wounaan put them among the most highly revered indigenous weavers in the world.