IPETI, Panama – Amid a dense jungle bathed by the tranquil waters of the Ipeti River, spears, bows and arrows become emblems of Panama’s indigenous Embera people in the regular games held to celebrate the tribe’s ancestral skills and raise the value of their cultural traditions in an environment ever more influenced by the modern world.
The mountains, sacred witnesses for the indigenous people who inhabit enclaves in the eastern jungle province of Darien, are also the proving ground where the Embera learn skills that many use in their daily lives, and for the athletes among the tribesmen and -women these skills can be the key to sports glory.
Both men and women line up in the blazing sun to participate in each of the 12 contests of the 2nd Ancestral Games of the Embera, which place a value on stamina, courage and honor among the youngest members of the community.
Wearing a skirt of bright cloth and a shirt to protect her body, 21-year-old Elizabeth Dequia, tired from her competition, tells EFE about her participation in the “trunk race,” during which she carried a piece of teak wood weighing more than 18 kilograms (about 40 pounds) up and down slopes.
“I’m a competitor. Besides carrying the trunk, I was also in the 10-kilometer (22-mile) race, but always ... for the love I have for the culture and for my family who supports me,” she told EFE.
Another athlete who stood out by winning the 100-meter race was Yamilca Flaco, whose body is decorated with tattoos made with ink from the berry of the tropical Genipa americana tree. She told EFE that her motivation to compete comes from her desire to show everyone what indigenous women can do.
“I entered the Ancestral Games, above all for my father, who told me to be in this contest, and I also felt that my people supported me, although it’s not a regular sports event,” the 19-year-old Flaco said.
In the international competition in Canada in 2017, the Panamanian athletic delegation won 17 medals, nine of them gold in the areas of spearthrowing, swimming and the 100-meter race.
The president and organizer of the sports activity, Elvis Flaco, told EFE that the Ancestral Games include bow and arrow use, strength tests, swimming, spearthrowing, canoeing, racing with treetrunks, woodsplitting, blowpipe use and assorted other daily activities.