By: Anthony Kuhn
Date: June 11th 2016
On a busy Taipei street corner, students in tribal tunics, bare feet and temporary facial tattoos are taking part in an impromptu ceremony.
The students, aboriginals at National Taiwan University, line up and shout out their names and the names of their tribes. Recounting their hardships, some of them weep.
For a long time, says a woman named Yayut, she concealed her identity as an aborigine. "When people heard I was an aborigine, they said, 'You don't look like one,'" she says, sobbing.
Yayut's classmates cry and cheer her on.
Watching the ceremony is Wang Mei-hsia, the students' anthropology teacher. Wang explains that before the Chinese Nationalist Party retreated and settled on Taiwan when the Communist Party took over mainland China in 1949, the island had been a Japanese colony for half a century. The Japanese were the first to take aborigines' ancestral lands, and the Taiwanese state has owned the lands ever since.
Thousands of years before ethnic Chinese settled on Taiwan, aboriginal tribes were hunting and farming the land. The island's aborigines are an Austronesian people, some of whose ancestors are believed to have come from the Philippines.
Today, indigenous people account for only 2 percent of Taiwan's population. They face a lack of economic opportunity in their own communities, forcing them to look for work elsewhere. They lack control over their resources — timber and water, for example, which are often taken from them without compensation. Many younger indigenous people are unaware of their own cultural and linguistic traditions.
At the inauguration of newly elected President Tsai Ing-wen on May 20, aboriginal tribesmen in ethnic costumes sang and danced onstage, and Tsai promised to make amends for the way previous governments have treated indigenous tribes.
She promised an "apologetic attitude" – if not an actual apology – and to improve indigenous tribes' livelihoods, promote self-governance and protect tribes' languages and culture.
For Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party, there are also bigger political considerations in play. The party has pushed for formal independence from China. Part of that effort has been to focus on indigenous peoples, in order to establish a Taiwanese cultural identity separate from that of China.
But Wang, the anthropology teacher, says the government often fails to understand the key relationship between aborigines and their land. Existing laws only give aboriginal people limited land rights.
"Judging from the legislation they've put forward, I feel what the government can do is limited," Wang says. "I don't think the government necessarily understands what's going on up in the mountains."
To find out, I traveled up into the mountains in the center of the island, to the village of Ksunu, which means "mist-covered" in the language of the Atayal people who live there.
Locals were passing a rainy afternoon with food, drink and karaoke.
Aboriginal rights activist Oto Micyang says in the past, the government passed laws intended to give local residents a degree of self-governance, but they're not very helpful.
"If someone wants to build a hotel on our land, it's the county government that has to approve it, not the indigenous inhabitants," he says. "The government says we can organize cultural events and associations, and vote. But they have not given us back the right to manage our land."
One of aborigines' biggest complaints is that they are not allowed to hunt.
Hunting is a traditional way of managing the land and the wildlife on it, says Takao Wutao, an elder with the local Presbyterian church. But more than that, he says, it is a spiritual bond connecting the hunter with the land, and with the tribe.
"Hunting is how we connect with our ancestors' wisdom about using the forest," he says. "The only way for us to receive this wisdom is to experience it in the forest."
He explains that the Atayal have traditionally lived by an unwritten code, passed down from their ancestors, which teaches people how to interact with each other and with nature.
But many young indigenous folk these days leave their tribal lands to study and work elsewhere, he says. He estimates there are only four people left in Ksunu village who can still be called hunters.
Back at National Taiwan University, entomology major Chen Xi, a member of the Amis tribe, says he expects President Tsai's party will treat aborigines better than its predecessors have. But ultimately, he says, both major political parties represent Taiwan's ethnic Han Chinese majority.
"Han people often forget their role as colonizers when they came to this island," he says. "Their lack of consciousness of this fact makes it even scarier."
Even as aborigines were dancing onstage at the presidential inauguration, he notes, the official narration described the tribes as "rough and crude."
"I hope," he says, "the [new] government will pay attention to the diversity of this land, and not just use indigenous people as a tool for independence."
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