The Tale of Taiwan's Aborigines


A noisy cement factory sits on the land where Tien Min-jen grew up. He can see its towering bulk from where he lives now, and in its nonstop whir he hears the rumble of injustice.

For millenniums, the area has been home to Tien's ancestors, members of the aboriginal Taroko tribe on Taiwan's verdant eastern coast. They raised their crops and their children and put down roots here long before Chinese settlers first arrived 400 years ago.

But Chinese expansion, at times brutally violent, crowded out indigenous people such as Tien. Assimilation wiped out whole tribes. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek arrived after losing to Mao Tse-tung's Communists on the mainland and soon nationalized the land in hopes of turning Taiwan into an industrial power base from which to retake China. Thousands of natives were dispossessed.

"The government took the land for their own use and treated us like we were guests," Tien said, his deeply tanned face creasing with anger. "We were born and bred on this land. It ought to be mine again."

That may yet happen. In an unprecedented decision last summer, a Taiwanese court ruled that the property taken by the government and given to the Asia Cement Co. rightfully belongs to Tien, 48, and other Tarokos.

It was a major victory for the island's aboriginal population after decades of suppression, neglect and forced assimilation by the dominant ethnic Chinese society. In another promising development, moves by Taiwan's new government have raised hopes that aborigines will be granted more autonomy.

Even as the world lavishes praise on Taiwan's transformation from a single-party police state to a vibrant democracy, activists such as Tien hope to expose one of the darker sides of the island's past: the shameful treatment of its native inhabitants.

Few aborigines remain to tell the tale--only about 390,000 members of nine tribes, or less than 2% of Taiwan's population of 23 million.

Unemployment and poor health plague aboriginal communities. Mother tongues are dying out. Time is short for the elderly, who maintain the strongest ties to their traditional lands and cultures despite the Chinese identities the government imposed on them and their offspring.

Yet activists draw inspiration from the struggles of indigenous groups around the world, from Native Americans in the U.S. to the Maoris of New Zealand. The feeling of kinship may go beyond the metaphorical: Some anthropologists believe that the Maoris and other South Pacific islanders, including the Polynesians in Hawaii, are descended from Taiwan's aborigines.

One of the aborigines' biggest international boosts occurred in the U.S. in 1996, when a traditional song of this island's Ami tribe was used to promote the Summer Olympics in Atlanta--a swooping, echoing melody that sounds like a call from the mountainside.

All of Taiwan's nine recognized tribes are in fact mountain dwellers. Their inaccessibility in the rugged hills of central and eastern Taiwan helped them survive when the indigenous peoples on the plains did not. All 10 plains tribes are virtually extinct through displacement and intermarriage with the Chinese.

The mountain clans want to stave off that fate and are resorting to the tools of Taiwan's fast-developing civil society to do so.

The lifting of martial law in 1987 opened the door to a vast array of interest groups in Taiwan, from environmentalists to gay-rights advocates, who suddenly found that they could organize and agitate without being arrested and hauled off to jail.

Among aborigines, ethnic pride began to assert itself. For decades, they had been taught to consider themselves Chinese, in line with Chiang's vision of Taiwan as a part of China; Chiang's ruling Nationalists called the "mountain people" their comrades in arms.

The assimilation eroded many of the practices that had made indigenous cultures distinctive, from native dress to language. Many aborigines today are hardly distinguishable from ethnic, or Han, Chinese, except for darker complexions and different facial features in some cases. The gap between indigenous and Chinese cultures has narrowed over four centuries of Chinese settlement.

Under martial law, Mandarin Chinese was Taiwan's official language; anyone caught speaking in an indigenous tongue or the local Taiwanese dialect was punished. Aborigines were forced to adopt Chinese names, a policy that many found humiliating.

Isak Afo reclaimed his birth name in 1994 and erased the Chinese impostor, Lin Shien-fong, from all his legal papers.

"My parents gave me this name, which shows my roots. It's an important cultural and personal symbol," said Afo, a member of the Ami tribe, Taiwan's most populous, known for its matriarchal social structure and rich store of native songs.

Afo was among the first activists to coalesce around a common rallying cry in the late 1980s: "Return our land." In 1988, indigenous groups marched on Taipei, the capital, demanding that the Nationalist government give back the land it had expropriated. Several more protests attracted thousands of demonstrators.

"For aborigines, the land is life," Afo declared. "It's a common grievance people can unite under."

In 1996, the government set up a Council of Aboriginal Affairs, which reports directly to Taiwan's president. The constitution now guarantees eight seats in the 280-member Legislative Yuan, or parliament, to aboriginal representatives to fight for their interests.

But real progress on the problems affecting native people has been hard to come by.

Despite greater visibility of aborigines and even a brief wave of "aboriginal chic" sparked by pop singers such as A-Mei, a sultry tribal princess whose concerts draw huge crowds, public opinion toward native people is often highly prejudiced.

Media outlets paint unflattering portraits of indigenous residents, with exaggerated accounts of alcoholism, criminality and child prostitution.

Activists, who acknowledge that such problems exist, say the sensationalist coverage masks their underlying causes. Unemployment among aborigines, at 8%, is twice the national average. Jobs, when they can be found, are often among the least desirable and most dangerous, such as construction work. Less than 10% of aborigines have a college degree, compared with 34% of the general population.

"The government says that the Republic of China [Taiwan] is one nation. But this does no good for aborigines because there's no justice and much poverty," said Payen Talu, an aboriginal legislator. "There's a lot of discrimination, similar to the way whites treat blacks in the United States."

Political power remains a phantom. "Our voters aren't really a threat and can't make much of an impact," said Talu, whose cramped office is adorned with posters of elderly members of his tribe, the Atayal, sporting their distinctive facial tattoos.

Yet some of the blame for lack of progress lies closer to home, activists admit.

Factionalism has divided the tribes, with no single charismatic leader who has emerged to unite everyone. One activist recalls walking out of a meeting after participants spent an hour arguing over a motto for the group rather than discussing anything substantive.

Tribal differences are exacerbated at times by religious ones. Denominational conflicts have hampered efforts to keep a pan-aboriginal movement going among the indigenous, about 75% of whom are Christian, the result of missionary activity.

"If in 15 years we don't get together, entire tribes are going to perish," Talu warned. "The sun will set on us."

Recent events have shone a few rays of hope.

A historic shift in Taiwan's government last year has put in place some top leaders regarded as more responsive to local concerns. The Democratic Progressive Party of President Chen Shui-bian was born on Taiwanese soil, unlike the long-ruling Nationalist Party, which was founded on mainland China.

As a presidential candidate, Chen was the only one to sign a "treaty of peace and equality" with the nine tribes, promising to recognize their sovereignty, restore traditional homelands and reinstate the indigenous names of mountains, rivers and other natural landmarks.

"Over the last 400 years, [aborigines] have experienced mistreatment and oppression at the hands of colonial regimes," the compact said. "But successive colonial rulers have yet to issue any form of apology or implement any measure of redress for the errors they committed."

The government is set to launch an experiment in granting more autonomy to aboriginal communities, starting with the Yami people, a community of seafaring, expert fishers on Orchid island, a tiny dot on the map off Taiwan's southeastern coast.

Although details are still to be settled--with the help of experts from such countries as New Zealand and Canada, which have worked out their own legal arrangements with indigenous peoples--activists envision a self-contained area responsible for its own taxation, education and some social welfare programs.

This would make it easier to preserve native customs such as the coming-of-age rites of the Puyuma, the harvest prayers of the Bunun (sung in eight-part harmony), the colorful leather clothing of the Tsou and the delicate stone- and wood-carving of the Paiwan.

Above all, greater autonomy for aborigines could help preserve indigenous languages, which are in danger of disappearing within a few generations. Fewer than half the people in each tribe can speak their mother tongue. Among the young, many of whom leave for the cities in search of work and better opportunities, the proportion is even lower.

"This is a very perilous situation," said Isqaqavut Yohani, the head of the Cabinet-level Council of Aboriginal Affairs and a member of the Bunun tribe. "When you lose your mother tongue, you lose your culture. I like to say that your mother language is your ID card. If you say you're an aborigine but can't speak a word of the language, I won't believe you."

His office is working with tribal elders to determine the boundaries of their traditional lands. Estimates of the total area involved vary wildly, from 640,000 to 4.2 million acres. And drawing borders is not the only question.

"Say the aboriginal people occupied the central part of Taiwan," Yohani said. "All of Taiwan's water resources come from this area. Will the government allow aborigines to control all the water resources? And the forests and mines?"

Getting current occupants to relinquish the land is another headache.

Here in Hualien, despite the court ruling awarding land rights to the Taroko--a subgroup of the Atayal--the Asia Cement Co. refuses to move, insisting on further negotiations with the tribe and the government, which are in the works. The company maintains that the Tarokos gave up their rights to the property and that it has the documents to prove it.

But Taroko activist Tien Chun-chou says the documents are forgeries.

Tien, 58, is Hualien's answer to Erin Brockovich. A beautician-turned-legal crusader, Tien doggedly combed dusty archives and ignored threats of harm in her campaign against big business.

She got a lucky break one day when Asia Cement executives stormed out of a meeting, leaving behind a stack of papers.

As Tien started flipping through them, she discovered that they were the documents allegedly ceding the land to Asia Cement--and that they were riddled with irregularities.

Some were missing official seals. Others lacked dates. Even more fishy, the signatures of many former landowners who supposedly gave up their property were all in the same handwriting.

Tien (no relation to Tien Min-jen) went back and pulled the agreements, one by one, from the files of the local government office. She took them to the alleged signatories and asked if they had signed. The answer was always the same: no.

It took a year of digging, but her effort paid off with last summer's court order.

"I want the land of my forebears," Tien said. "That land is full of emotion. When I touch it, I can feel my ancestors' presence."

But it's a frustrating wait for the judge's decision to come to fruition. Two months ago, a protest against the company turned violent when fed-up Taroko farmers broke through barriers and scuffled with company employees in an attempt to plant seedlings on the disputed land.

The protesters included elderly aborigines who eagerly want to return to their roots.

"Whenever I run into elderly aborigines, they ask, 'When will I get my land back?' and my heart breaks," Tien said sadly. "I can't say when they'll get it. A lot of old folks I know have died. But I think they're still helping me from heaven. I believe that."


Taiwan's Indigenous Peoples

The aborigines of Taiwan are all members of the Austronesian-speaking family of peoples, whose descendants can be found throughout the South Pacific. In fact, some anthropologists believe that many of today's South Pacific islanders, such as the Maori in New Zealand, descended from the indigenous peoples of Taiwan.

Archeological evidence shows that Taiwan's aborigines were already living on the island about 6,000 years ago. The influx of ethnic Chinese settlers that began about 400 years ago gradually displaced the native inhabitants. The plains tribes were the most vulnerable; all 10 of them are now virtually extinct.


The nine recognized tribes and their numbers:


Sources: Council of Aboriginal Affairs; the Assn. of Native Peoples' Education in Taiwan

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