Hopefully you weren’t late to your screening of Black Panther, because if you were, then you missed out on not only some incredible animation, but a visual history of the fictional country’s main ethnic groups. Missed it? Here’s a recap:
When vibranium fell to Earth hundreds of years ago, it affected nature around it, including a plant called the “heart-shaped herb,” which through osmosis with vibranium developed magical powers. Wakandan mythology states that the Panther Tribe was visited by the Panther God Bast and the Panther King was told to drink the herb, which gave him superpowers. He used those powers to unite the other five tribes under Panther rule.
All accepted this decision except for the Jabari, who rejected the new technology and Panther rule, removed themselves from mainstream Wakandan society, and moved into the mountains to live separately. The leaders of all five Tribes provide counsel to the king, who ultimately makes all rulings but can be swayed by the voices of his constituents, as represented by the Court.
Every year a ritual combat ceremony is performed, and any Wakandan who is of royal blood (which is kind of everyone, since they’re an isolated country) is allowed to fight for the throne. The ceremony is overseen by the priests who are also the caretakers of the herb and help the Panther take his spiritual journey through Djalia, Wakanda's version the spiritual plane (think Valhalla in Africa). Apparently, it’s been a very long time since anyone has engaged the Black Panther in this ceremony, which is why it’s so surprising when M’baku appears to challenge T’Chala in the film.
All caught up? Okay, good. Now here’s a visual outline of the citizens of the country of Wakanda.
Panther Tribe: The Royal Family
King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his stepsister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and her mother, the King’s stepmother Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) currently rule Wakanda. The royal family is protected by the Dora Milaje, Wakanda's Royal Guard headed by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and her First in Command Ayo (Florence Kasumba).
The family may have the Dora Milaje, but the country has protection as well in the form of the Wakandan Secret police, called Hatut Zeraze (The Dogs of War). In the comics the War Dogs are confined to Wakanda, only traveling with the King when necessary. In director Ryan Coogler’s MCU version, they are stationed all over the world and keep an eye on political unrest and other vital information, then report back to the Wakandan Empire. Usually, they just observe, but Nakiya (Lupita Nyong’o) is a War Dog and is stationed in what appears to be Nigeria on a mission to rescue girls from a Boko Haram-type situation when we first meet her. She also travels with T’Challa and Okoye to track down Klaue. All War Dogs are identified by a tattoo inside their lower lip of Wakandan glyphs.
Also providing Wakanda protection is the Border Tribe, who appropriately enough protects Wakanda’s borders. From the air they appear as simple cattle herders in the lower mountains of Wakanda, their brightly colored Lesotho blankets to keeping them warm. However, the blankets conceal all of their weaponry and the Vibranium woven into them makes the fabric double as shields.
The Border Tribe is the strongest methaphor for Wakanda in my opinion. As they look like a “third world country” on the surface, but are actually well-trained combatants with a full arsenal of weaponry at their disposal. Oh, and the cattle they raise? Battle Rhinos.
Always gearing Royal Purple, the Priests, led by Zuri (Forest Whitaker) are the sole caretakers of the temple and all royal rituals in the kingdom. They are herbalists, and botanists and the sole caretakers of the heart-shaped herb that gives the Black Panther King his powers.
The Mining Tribe is solely responsible for the Mining of Vibranium in Wakanda. Being that the ore is Wakanda’s most precious resource, the Mining Tribe is pretty powerful.
In the movie, the River Tribe has dominion over the water ways. During the Warrior Falls scene, we see Nakiya dancing and her father praising what might possibly be a water deity. Since the Panther’s ritual battle takes place on the water it would be in line with most African traditions to bless the water before one enters it.
The merchant tribe is over the commerce and trade within Wakanda and is basically over the economic stability of the country. The Merchant Tribe elder also has a seat in the King T'challa's court.
The Jabari separated themselves and continue practicing the “old” Wakandan ways without technology. They live in the mountains of Wakanda and worship the White Ape deity. M’baku is their leader and in the comics was considered as powerful as T’Challa, even without the heart-shape herb.
And that is your brief Ethnography lesson on the people and ethnic groups of Wakanda. Now go watch the movie again and see who else you can identify.