Indigenous Taiwanese open their lands, cultures to gain acceptance

The imposing stone head of a tribal elder welcomes about 200,000 visitors per month to a museum in the jungle-covered mountains south of Taipei. Inside, photos and paintings depict Atayal aborigines bearing black V-shaped tattoos from ears to mouth, traditional markers of beauty and passage into adulthood for both genders.

Today, just 86,000 Atayal remain in Taiwan, and tattoos are out of fashion. But the Wulai Atayal Museum is just one site on an ever-growing list of native group attractions increasingly popular with the island's ethnic Chinese majority.

"You can come up here to places like this and get a deep grasp of an aborigine group's story, and by knowing each one understand the whole island's history," said museum visitor Chloe Chen, 27, a marketing specialist from Taipei.

The first recorded Taiwan inhabitants were seafarers from the region who built settlements at least 3,500 years ago. Ethnic Chinese began moving en masse from the mainland 99 miles away about 400 years ago. Since then, the island's 15 identified tribal groups — who are racially akin to Pacific islanders — have declined to just 2% of Taiwan's 23 million population. They form an economic underclass in mountain areas and along the rugged east coast.

Ten years ago, though, then-President Chen Shui-bian brought them back into focus, in part to make clear that Taiwan's ethnic roots are not identical to those of mainland China. Chen sought to cast Taiwan as ethnically distinct to buttress his goal of formal independence from mainland China instead of today's de facto self-rule. (Communist authorities in Beijing says Taiwan and the mainland share a comparable ethnic heritage, an argument for why the two should come under one flag instead of today's separate rule.)

Starting in 2007, Chen raised the annual budget for aboriginal assistance to $195 million, more than double that of a decade earlier, to improve education, healthcare and living standards in their villages. President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office in 2008, has offered limited local autonomy in tribal areas and is planning to build 30 schools by 2023 to help preserve native cultures.

"The Taiwanese want to differentiate themselves from Chinese, and the indigenous angle that comes up in Taiwan's independence movement is that a large portion of Taiwan blood is indigenous, not Chinese," said Linda Arrigo, a U.S.-born academic researcher in Taiwan.

Until 15 years ago, Taiwanese leaders urged mainstreaming of indigenous citizens rather than highlighting their distinct languages, religious beliefs and lifestyles. Fourteen tribal languages are still regularly spoken, with the major ones taught in public schools. Many of the indigenous are Catholic, setting them apart from the largely Taoist and Buddhist ethnic Chinese population. At the same time, most speak fluent Chinese and look much like the ethnic majority, so they mix easily in cities.

The new attention has improved the welfare of villagers, who long had been stereotyped as jobless people who drink too much.

The spotlight now shines on museums, restaurants, vacation farms and mountain resorts. An outdoor museum shows the traditional architecture of nine major tribes. An Atayal farming village gives $70 tours of traditional thatched huts and agricultural practices.

"We can accept visitors watching us, and we knew in advance we were going have these guests," said Kwali Wilang, chief executive of the Atayal farming village, Bulau Bulau. "When we plant it's a pleasure for us. And the visitors can help us eat."

Indigenous people own about 250 inns, restaurants and resorts, compared with 50 a decade ago, the government's Council of Indigenous Peoples has found.

"Some visitors want to know about new ceremonies, new food and new ways of living," said Yapasuyongu, a member of the Zou tribe of southern Taiwan and the council's deputy head of economic planning, who goes by one name. "Other people want to go into nature, and most of these places are in natural surroundings."

In the Matai'an Wetland Ecological Park, bamboo fish traps and hearths made of stone attract crowds of camera-clicking visitors to elevated wooden causeways over verdant swamps. Restaurants run by members of the local Amis group serve the fish on carved hardwood tables; the catch is cooked on beds of leaves.

The Atayal museum in the mountain resort village of Wulai contains 100 exhibits, including native tattoo art and multicolored woven clothes. Visitors also learn from an Atayal shopkeeper how to weave bookmarks or yarn squares that can be stitched into quilts.

At a 37-acre mountain resort in southeastern Taiwan opened by a Bunun tribal foundation, stern warrior statues guard dark wooden guest rooms and a dining hall, which serves traditional wild boar dishes. Guests can shoot arrows or make soap from cypress oil. There's a creek-fed outdoor pool surrounded by pineapple farms and rain forests.

Besides providing job opportunities, the Bunun Village resort has helped disabuse ethnic Chinese visitors of preconceived notions that indigenous people are inveterate drinkers, gangsters and troublemakers, said founder Pai Kwang-sheng. It is true that indigenous villagers often have had a hard time finding jobs, and development has eroded traditional occupations such as farming and hunting, aggravating the problem.

"They can see now what are our background and history," Pai said. "People who visit are very much moved. They come and then come back again."

Hsu Chen-bang, 43, a high-tech industry worker from Taipei who comes from an indigenous family, likes to compare songs, tools and languages when traveling among various villages.

"My first question is whether the language is similar [to that other indigenous groups] and of course it isn't," Hsu, said on a Bunun Village visit. "But in every village, life is hard."

Tourism has raised incomes for aboriginal villages; 675,000 visits were recorded last year, Yapasuyongu said. Despite the economic upside, crowds in some spots are threatening the scenery and traditional ambience. Three major inns at the Matai'an wetlands are known to fill up on weekends, and restaurant seating is hard to get.

The Atayal farming village allows only 30 visitors per day, partly for lack of food to share.

"We are leading our lives here," reservation coordinator Lee Yi-hsuan said. "We are afraid of [tourists] destroying the environment."

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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