In 1996, the village of Lalaulan on Taiwan’s east coast was an example of the worst-case scenario for Indigenous Peoples. The Paiwan people of the village had lost almost all of their traditional land, their language was not being transmitted, they did not perform or even remember their own ceremonies or spiritual practices, and they had abandoned their distinctive clothing. They had begun dressing, talking, and acting like the island’s dominant Han Chinese people, but they were not fully accepted by that society. They were, in short, on the verge of disappearing as a people, and they suffered all the accoutrements of dissolution: alcoholism, crime, and violence. But that was before Sakinu Ahronglong decided to rescue his community from oblivion—a task at which he succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
Today, the village is a model of Paiwan culture, where virtually every Paiwan citizen speaks the Paiwan language, at least in public, where people dress in traditional clothing for all important occasions, and where the people have their own Hunting School, in which young people are trained in the traditions and beliefs that give the Paiwan their unique identity. Moreover, the village has been the subject of two books and an internationally acclaimed movie. And all of it is the result of this one man’s determination.
Sakinu Ahronglong is 36, though his bright eyes and soft round face make him look younger. His ready smile and gentle demeanor make him seem more like the host of a children’s television program than a crusader. Indeed, he didn’t start out to be a crusader at all. He grew up in a difficult household: his father, who once would have been revered as a hunter, worked as a laborer, mostly on foreign construction projects, and he took out his sense of impotence on his sons. He drank heavily and regularly beat Sakinu and his two brothers. Sakinu’s mother left the house to avoid his father, and Sakinu ran away many times. The only positive family input Sakinu had was his grandfather. And in terms of cultural orientation, he was as assimilated as the rest of his community. On graduating high school he moved to Taipei and started an urban life as a police officer.
Sakinu’s experience was, unfortunately, all too common for Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples. There are today 14 recognized tribes on Taiwan, and another 8 awaiting recognition. But they are a tiny remnant of the original indigenous population of the island, which researchers say was the source for all Austronesian culture. The trouble began with colonization in the 1600s, when Chinese, Dutch, and Spanish governments all took turns invading the island. The tribes that lived on the western shore, facing China, suffered first and most. They have been largely obliterated or assimilated. But the high mountains that form the north-south spine of the island kept colonization mostly confined to that western shore until the end of the 19th century, when China ceded the island to Japan after the first Sino-Japanese war. Japan saw Taiwan as a resource to be exploited and was not intimidated by the mountains; on the contrary, they saw the mountains as an opportunity and soon began an ambitious program of economic development and cultural assimilation across the island.
To get at forest and mineral resources in the mountains, the Japanese moved indigenous tribes onto reserves, taking 90 percent of their land and making it very difficult for them to pursue the hunting and subsistence farming that is the cornerstone of their culture. According to a paper delivered at the United Nations by the Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines, the government pressured indigenous people to adopt Japanese names and required all indigenous children to go to school, where they were forced to speak Japanese and forbidden to speak their own languages. The government also outlawed the practice of facial tattooing, which was the hallmark of feminine beauty among the Atayal, Sediq, and Taroko peoples and were required for marriage. Some tribes resisted the Japanese takeover, and they were met with overwhelming force, including warplanes, cannons, machine guns, and chemical weapons. In one five-year period alone, the Japanese killed 10,000 Taroko people. Indigenous culture began to erode under that kind of assault.
Japan gave up Taiwan as part of its defeat in World War II, but indigenous people got no relief from their departure, as they were quickly replaced with the nationalist Chinese populations fleeing the Chinese mainland in 1949. The new Chinese government, wanting to establish its authority, immediately imposed martial law—a law that remained in effect for almost 40 years, until 1987. The new government took a ruthless approach to indigenous issues and launched an even more ambitious development program than the Japanese had followed. Much of the remaining indigenous land was expropriated by the military or taken for mining operations and national parks. Dozens of indigenous communities were forcibly relocated to make room for these developments, and those that remained were almost entirely unable to pursue traditional livelihoods. Most indigenous people ended up in low-wage labor-intensive jobs in the industries that were destroying their lands. They were not allowed to use their indigenous names, and children were not allowed to speak their language in school. The books in those schools made no reference to the island’s Indigenous Peoples.
As political circumstances eased a little in the 1990s, indigenous peoples began protesting the situation. Those protests culminated in a large street march in Taipei in 1996, when Taiwan had its first directly elected president.
Sakinu Ahronglong was there that day, too, but not as a protestor. In fact, as a police officer his job was to control the demonstrators. The protestors recognized him as an indigenous person and verbally attacked him, calling him a “Chinese sellout.” Hearing those words and seeing his fellow indigenous citizens taking a cultural stand awoke something in Sakinu. He recognized that he had lost his culture and he became determined to get it back. He began returning to his village on weekends and visiting other Paiwan villages, talking with everyone who could help him recreate his culture. He also began hunting with this father to learn those skills. These hunting trips were perhaps the most important elements in Sakinu’s cultural growth, and he wrote about them in his award-winning book, The Sage Hunter, which described his efforts to restore his village’s culture. The book was made into a movie in 2005 by Hong Kong director Tony Cheung, with Sakinu playing himself in the lead role.
As he absorbed his traditions, Sakinu became more and more convinced that the rest of the Paiwan people in his village (the Paiwan are a minority in the village; the Amis are dominant) should also embrace their identity and restore their culture. His first act of public persuasion was to show up for an annual harvest festival in his village dressed in full traditional Paiwan clothing. That would have been impressive on its own terms, since no one had worn this clothing in many years, but in this case the town’s Paiwan population had so lost touch with their culture that they had adopted the clothing and festivals of the Amis people. So when Sakinu showed up in Paiwan clothing it had a tremendous political impact, sparking elders’ memories of their culture and inspiring young Paiwans to want to embrace their traditions. That marked the beginning of a long and often challenging road to wake up his people.
“When I started 12 years ago,” Sakinu says, “there were almost no traditions left. When I went to the community with the idea of returning to our traditional dress and setting up the hunting school, those who were Christian said they felt this was un-Christian, and others said ‘those traditions are gone.’ But I kept going with it, and today most people wear traditional dress and come to the hunting school. Now we have no alcoholism, no crime; none of the problems other communities have, that we used to have.”
You can feel that pride and enthusiasm when you visit his village today. The town is spread across a slope that spills down to the shore, the foothills of the central mountain range. In some respects it looks like a typical Chinese town, with cubical tiled houses lining the narrow streets, with some houses having bars on the lower windows—a testament to the former crime problems in the community. The two-lane highway that traces the island’s eastern shoreline runs through the lower part of the village, and small storefronts line the highway for a block or two. There’s a karaoke bar there, and fruit vendors sell their wares from the back of trucks.
When I visited the village last spring, the impression of a Chinese village was undone when I came to the wood fire in the middle of one street surrounded by several Paiwan men dressed in traditional clothing and carrying swords. The traditional Paiwan man’s dress (each tribe in Taiwan has it’s own elaborate and distinctive clothing) includes a shirt and vest, and cloth chaps over a knee-length skirt. The skirt is unadorned, but the chaps, shirt, and vest are decorated with cowrie shells and heavily embroidered with a riot of brightly colored and complex geometric forms. There is also an embroidered and shell-studded sash across the chest; tight necklaces of colorful glass beads (the renowned traditional craft of the Paiwan people); and embroidered headgear that features boar tusks, long feathers, and more cowrie shells. And then there are the knives: always three of them, each a different size and for a different purpose. “The smallest one [the size of a Bowie knife],” Sakinu later explained, “is for cutting food; the medium-sized one is for hacking vegetation in the forest; and the largest one [more like a sword] is for personal defense.”
After having me enter the village ritually by stepping over the small fire, the men showed me with pride the many Paiwan elements the town boasts. There is a restaurant that serves traditional food, including sausages and seafood that the Paiwan are packaging as part of a new commercial operation. Traditional Paiwan food has much more in common with Polynesian traditions than those of China. Their staple grain is millet, and one of the distinctive items common to several Taiwanese tribes features millet mash and a piece of meat wrapped in a plant leaf, which adds a pungent, tobacco-like flavor to balance the millet’s sweetness.
At the town’s Presbyterian church I was introduced to the pastor, Sayinu Tepiq, who is Sakinu’s cousin. He, too, was dressed in traditional Paiwan clothing, with an impressive boar-pelt hat, but he was quick to make light of his very un-Paiwan appearance: he’s quite tall and looks a little like Mel Gibson. Like the minister, the church combines Western and Paiwanese traits. Sayinu pointed out the Christian steeple and cross as well as the traditional Paiwan diamond symbols on the exterior walls. Inside, he showed me an engraving of a Paiwan clay pot cut into the wall behind the altar, next to the Christian image of a dove.
The church’s diamond pattern is a reference to the Paiwans’ sacred animal, the 100-pace viper (Deinagkistrodon acutus), so named because once you’ve been bitten, you can take only 100 paces before the venom kills you. The Paiwan origin story holds that the people were hatched from eggs kept in a ceramic pot that was guarded by the snake, so the animal is revered and protected despite its lethality. The pot depicted inside the church reflects that origin story.
Every Paiwan household has one of these large ceramic pots; it is used to hold sacred items and is seen as the embodiment of the culture and the repository of its history. There are male and female versions of the pots, with female pots having two protruding nipples and male pots featuring an inscribed image of the viper. When a child leaves the household to be married, the mother will break off a piece of the pot’s mouth and give it to child to keep in his or her home. Then, when the first grandchild is born, the child returns the pot fragment to the mother, who glues it back in place to symbolically integrate the new generation into the family and the tribe.
The centerpiece of the village’s indigenous identity is the hunting school, where I first met Sakinu. From the outside it is not a particularly impressive building, looking more like an old commercial garage, but inside is another world. It’s dark in the hunting school, with light coming only from the doorway and through some small clerestory windows high in the wood-plank walls. But there’s enough light to see that every square inch of wall and ceiling space is crammed with various kinds of Paiwan tools, symbols, and sacred objects. There are woven baskets hanging from the ceiling; lances in the rafters; swords, spears, and more lances hanging on the walls; carved wooden statutes, chairs, and wall hangings; and a line of small metal clappers with carved wooden heads (these were used for communication in the forest).
Along one wall is a collection of feathered and decorated headdresses. The feathers, which traditionally could only be worn by a warrior who was successful in battle, indicate a man’s status in the community. “The white feather in my headdress,” said Sakinu, “shows that I’m married, and the number of other feathers shows how many children I have. If my wife dies or our marriage breaks up, I would have to cut the white feather into triangles to show that I am available again.”
On the opposite side of the room there is an alcove with an old upright piano, a guitar, and an elaborately carved table and stools. There’s also a fire pit in the center of the floor, with a line of four wooden chairs facing it. The chairs are anthropomorphic: the chair backs are carved in the form of a human torso, the chair legs are human legs, the chair arms human arms, and the seat a human lap. This pattern, having four human figures in a row, traditionally was used to remind a chieftain that his power came from the people. It’s especially apt here because although Sakinu is not a chieftain, the school’s purpose is to serve the people.
I was surprised to see no children at the school on the day I was there. “You won’t see any school-aged children anywhere in the village today,” Sakinu said, “because one of our teenagers died two days ago, and the children are in the forest hunting. They can’t come back until they are successful. When they kill an animal, they will bring it to the dead boy’s family as a show of support and condolence.” Ordinarily, of course, the school would be full of children learning the ceremonies, symbols, and meanings represented by the objects that fill the space. And, most of all, they would learn what it means to be a hunter.
“In the Paiwan language,” Sakinu said in an interview with Taiwan Panorama magazine, “a hunter is called ‘one who walks with the wind,’ meaning one who hears the language of the earth and nature. Hunters are unselfish and know best how to share. So to be a hunter isn’t just to be a person who hunts game, but one who communicates with nature. The hunting school is meant to pass on hunting culture and use the methods and concepts of the tribe to allow kids to come into contact with traditional values, to smell the earth, and to see the color of the wind. The way of the warrior begins with hunting. You can’t just catch a wild boar in your backyard; you have to go deep into the forest. Only then will the wind know you. Only then will you understand what a mountain is.”
While Sakinu’s discussion of the hunting school’s purpose has a certain poetic quality to it, the school’s function (and Sakinu’s own purpose) also has a far more prosaic aspect. Although the community’s cultural setting has improved dramatically, the people are still living in the shadow of 100 years of oppression and abuse, and many of the town’s young people still face tremendous social challenges. To help young men develop the necessary strength of character, Sakinu holds a bravery test for all the elementary- and middle-school students after the annual harvest festival. Younger students gather at the chief’s house and have to jump over fire, and at some point during the test one of the students is captured by older boys and taken up into the mountains, where he has to climb a mountain in the dark by himself. At the end, he and the other students go to their ancestral spring, where Sakinu covers each of them in mud and has the older boys surround them, wearing traditional Paiwan clothing. He says it’s all intended to inspire awe and a little fear, to give the boys a challenge to overcome and to give them a sense of belonging and history. To outsiders this might sound simplistic and ineffectual, but several young men say that Sakinu’s school and his other youth programs have saved them from a life in jail.
The restoration of Paiwan culture in Lalaulan village is dramatic, but it not an isolated case. All over Taiwan Indigenous Peoples have been reclaiming their heritage and their fundamental place in the larger society. On the southern tip of Taiwan, for example, there is a large and very rigorous residential high school exclusively for Paiwan students. The entry to the school features two enormous carved wooden panels depicting the 100-pace viper and a clay pot, and there is a statue of a traditionally dressed Paiwan warrior. The school’s arts program, which I got to sample, would be impressive in a private Manhattan school, and their academic standards are equally high. Tour buses now stop at indigenous villages and shops, where indigenous communities control their own businesses and cultural presentations. And in April 2008, Taiwan hosted the first World Summit of Indigenous Peoples.
This growth in indigenous affairs is reflected in government policies, too. In 1996, after the protests that started Sakinu on his road, the government established the Council of Indigenous Peoples to represent indigenous interests, and in 2005 it passed the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, which, at least on paper, is one of the most advanced pieces of indigenous rights legislation ever adopted by any government (go to the Cultural Survival website, www.cs.org, to read the whole document and to see more photos). The law foreshadows the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but in some respects it goes even further than that landmark document. The law not only guarantees Indigenous Peoples autonomy, but provides funding and resources for tribes to implement that autonomy. It not only defines indigenous rights to language, but also establishes programs to research and promote those languages. It restores traditional indigenous names for tribes, rivers, and mountains. It supports the development and promotion of indigenous biological knowledge and provides for education and health services and most of the other rights found in the UN declaration. Perhaps most notably, the law provides for the establishment of a “promotion committee” to monitor and oversee implementation of the law, and it requires that two-thirds of the committee members be indigenous.
While the law expresses good intentions, it will take some time for reality to catch up. Moreover, the law provides no penalties for noncompliance, so it relies on the good will of nonindigenous people and institutions, which is not always forthcoming. And then there is the socioeconomic reality of Taiwan. Despite a new emphasis on indigenous culture in the island’s tourism and a growing number of successful indigenous businesses, tribes are still living in the shadow of 100 years of marginalization and abuse. They have less education, fewer skills, lower life expectancies, and many other characteristics that put them at a disadvantage in comparison with Han populations (the average lifespan for a mountain-based indigenous person is 57 years; for a Han Chinese it is 74). Their lands have been decimated, and their cultural practices so frayed that even if they had their land back they would have difficulty fully using it in a traditional way. And though the law provides a mechanism to undo some of that damage, it is an uphill battle. But if Sakinu’s example is anything to go by, it’s a battle that Iindigenous Peoples will win.
Mark Cherrington is the editor of Cultural Survival Quarterly.