What? There are indigenous peoples in Taiwan?

As a member of the Truku tribe in Taiwan, the words “Taiwanese indigenous peoples” are part of my daily life. But until I started my studies in the United States, I never thought those words would be so unfamiliar to foreigners. Here in America, professors often ask students to introduce themselves to the class at the beginning of the semester. Every time I mention to my classmates that I am from an indigenous tribe in Taiwan, my classmates’ surprise taught me: the outside world really doesn’t know much about us.

Through a chance encounter I met Chieh-Ting Yeh, the co-founder of Ketagalan Media, and he encouraged me (someone with a reputation of being a writing sloth) to talk about Taiwan’s indigenous peoples with the world through the internet. Two months ago, I published a piece on attending the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Forum. Although the piece was quite well received (or so I’ve heard), I realized I did not provide even a basic introduction to the indigenous peoples in Taiwan. Friends suggested I write about the indigenous peoples’ vision for the future, like sovereignty and land rights, even on how we see marriage equality; but I believe I should give a primer about the indigenous peoples first, before delving into those issues.

Yes, there are indigenous peoples in Taiwan!

Only 1/270 the size of the United States, Taiwan is a small, but rich, island nation. According to written records, Taiwan was already inhabited by humans, dating back some 8,000 (or even 15,000) years ago. Today, indigenous peoples number around 530,000, or 2% of Taiwan’s total population. By 2015, after the results of a long series of tribal recognition movements, there are 16 tribes officially recognized by the government (up from nine originally). The 16 are: Pangcah/Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Pinuyumayan/Puyuma, Rukai/Drekav, Saisiyat, Tao, Thao, Kebalan/Kavalan, Truku, Cou/Tsou, Sakizaya, Seediq, Kanakanayu, and Hla’alua. In addition, there are still more tribes seeking recognition, including many Pingpu tribes who formerly lived in the plains regions of Taiwan.

Each tribe in Taiwan has its own language and cultural traditions. For example, in the Atayal language, people greet each other by saying “Lokah su ga?” “Lokah” in Atayal means to encourage. “su” means you, and “ga” is a exclamation. Contrast that with the Truku greeting, “Embiyax su hug,” meaning “are you strong?” Because the Truku people lives in high altitude areas, only the strong can survive life in the rugged terrain. Since physical strength is very important to the Truku, that’s the way we greet people.

Different tribes also have different naming traditions. Some tribes use a given name plus the name of the father or mother; some use a given name and then a family name, while others use a given name, then the father or mother’s name, and then name of the clan. Different castes in various tribes can also affect naming conventions.

Like all indigenous peoples worldwide, Taiwan’s indigenous people also suffered from colonial oppression

Looking at the historical trauma suffered by indigenous peoples throughout the world, Taiwan is no different. Taiwan suffers the same fate from colonization—loss of land, language, identity, and cultural knowledge. The Native Americans, for example, were forced to relocate and attend boarding schools, which led to the loss of tradition and identity.

Like other indigenous peoples, those in Taiwan have been oppressed by foreign regimes and colonial governments. Before imperial outsiders came to Taiwan, the indigenous peoples had their own methods of self-governing. For example, before the Japanese colonial rule, the indigenous peoples did not have the concept of individually owned land or private property. In our worldview, the land owns the person, not the other way around. The attitude towards land is one of humility and respect, and we see ourselves as living alongside the land. We are nothing more than guests on the land, and we see ourselves as stewarding the land for future generations. There is a saying in the Truku Tribe: “the land is blood, the mountain is home.” This stresses our reliance on our relationship with our land.

But that relationship with the land gradually disintegrated after the Japanese takeover in 1895. To more effectively control the populace, the colonial government initiated a five-year plan to “pacify” the “savages,” and tried to occupy tribal areas militarily. Many indigenous peoples fought back to honor the ancestral edict to protect their homelands. These stories were heroic deeds of sacrifice in Taiwan’s history. In 1914, the Truku fought against the Japanese—3,000 Truku fighters against 20,000 Japanese troops. Fully aware of the inevitable tragic end, the Truku acted purely to carry out their devotion to the ancestral home. Like a Truku elder said, “a Truku’s life worth rests in the ‘reciprocal’ relationship with our homeland. We believe that only those men who protect the land with their lives, and those women who master the art of weaving, can meet our ancestors in the afterlife. The Japanese wanted to force politics and economics to establish their ‘right to rule,’ but they cannot understand our belief system, resulting in the tragic violence.”

After successfully subduing the indigenous tribes in 1919, the colonial government further ensured that there would not be any sort of organized resistance, by forcefully relocating and mixing the tribes through bribery and violence. Many tribal members were moved near garrisons, or to faraway urban locations. Some were even forced to live in mixed tribal communities. These policies severely deconstructed the relationship between the people and their homelands; each of the tribes lost the ability to further its own language and identity, and traditions are lost with the breakup of families and clans. Furthermore, in 1934 Japan instituted the kominka movement, forcing Japanese names on the Taiwanese, which was the first (but not the last) time indigenous peoples lost the basic right to their own names.

With the defeat of Japan in WWII, the KMT Nationalist government took over, but the same tactics against the indigenous peoples continued, only with a different group of people at the top. The Nationalist government instituted “national language” (Mandarin) and banned every other language from being used in public, including in schools and in the media. Mandarin became the only legal language. Chinese names were force upon the entire population, and many tribes are forced to adopt a paternal naming system to replace their traditional notions of names. These policies of forced assimilation to the Han culture not only destroyed our languages and names, they further clamped down on any method of transmitting our identity and traditions.

In addition, after adopting the Japanese policies of assimilation, the Nationalist government also tried to nationalize traditional tribal lands, and passed laws restricting tribal rights to hunt and use of resources. National parks and wildlife preservation laws, for example, restrict indigenous peoples’ hunting and gathering cultures. Hunting and gathering is not just a way for food and nourishment, but they are essential for communicating with the land and our ancestry. In the Truku tribe, before each hunt, we perform a ritual called Boda Gaya, asking the spirits of ancestors on the mountains to safeguard the hunting trip and ensure a bountiful harvest. The hunt is a physical, emotional, and spiritual connection to the land. The government’s restrictions sever those ties and prevent our descendants from learning about their own culture.

Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are still fighting for their rights

Despite all of the oppression by successive colonial regimes, the Taiwanese indigenous peoples have displayed unbelievable resilience. Even though our languages are under threat, many of the tribes still retain members who can converse fluently in their mother tongues. Even though hunting activities are restricted, tribal members still organize hunting parties (sometimes at the risk of running afoul of law enforcement) and are now advocating for legalizing hunting rights. Since the 1980s, many organized social movements fighting for indigenous rights have sprung up.

Next time, I would like to take our readers through how indigenous peoples have resisted and demanded, from the state, the rights to have our identities and traditions continue to exist.

(Feature photo of 1916 line demarcating “civilized” and “savage” areas of Taiwan, by the Governor General of Taiwan, the Empire of Japan)


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Ciwang Teyra

Ciwang Teyra is a woman from Taiwan's Truku Tribal Nation. She is also a PhD candidate in Social Welfare at the University of Washington. She has been involved in indigenous social movements and the fight for indigenous human rights in Taiwan for several years.

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