The Original Inhabitants of the Island
TEXT / RICK CHARETTE
PHOTOS / VISION
Taiwan’s indigenous tribes landed on the island’s shores long, long ago, crossing the open and often hostile sea on small craft the people of today might not consider “oceangoing.” These hardy and intrepid folk were the ancestors of today’s 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples. Let’s have a closer look at yesterday and today.
If you really want to understand the multifaceted culture of Taiwan, learning about the indigenous tribes of the island is essential. Each of the tribes has its own set of languages, traditional costumes, festivals, and practices. Most of the tribes live in mountainous areas of central and eastern Taiwan as well as the outlying island of Lanyu (Orchid Island). With their colorful and exciting festivals and their ancient traditions, these indigenous people are the true representatives of Taiwan’s original island culture.
More than 16 indigenous peoples have inhabited the island, but the fate of others has been to fade into the mists of history. In modern times many of the plains-dwelling peoples have been absorbed into the much larger body of Han Chinese, who began arriving in Taiwan en masse in the 1600s.
No one knows if the ancestors targeted Taiwan or if the forces of fate merely placed the island in their way. It is agreed that this is the northernmost bastion of the great Austronesian diaspora, which stretches from Madagascar in the west to Hawaii and Easter Island in the east and to New Zealand in the south. It is not agreed if Taiwan was merely one destination of these peoples on the move or if it was in fact a diaspora launch pad.
The indigenous population today is just over 500,000. In Chinese the term yuanzhumin is used, literally “original inhabitants,” with “aborigine” self-selected as an acceptable translation. “Tribe” is most commonly used for each individual people. Though all are Austronesian, the tribal languages are mutually unintelligible, and the traditional cultures have featured surprisingly little cross-pollination. In the past, intertribal hostility was the norm.
Starting in the 1990s, the tribes have been more assertive, the government has focused more resources in support, and the general public has developed an interest in all things indigenous. Today, interested travelers have a wide selection of museums, theme parks, and tourist-friendly festival celebrations and village visits to choose from.
Here are the 16 tribes:
Settled Area: East Rift Valley, Coastal Mountain Range, East Coast, Hengchun Peninsula
Festivals: Harvest Festival, Fishing Festival
The Amis live on Taiwan’s rugged, still isolated East Coast, on the plains and in the valleys there. They are Taiwan’s largest tribal grouping, today numbering about 214,000. They are the only tribe to have practiced pottery-making before the arrival of Westerners and Han Chinese, and began using oxen for paddy farming early on. Their society is matrilineal, though men’s clubs thrive and play an important social role. Fishing remains an important source of wealth, though hunting today is primarily for sport. Their harvest festival, which evolved from warrior training, is perhaps most elaborate in Taiwan, with energetic singing and dancing carried on along with status-enhancing sports and ritualistic open-sea-fishing.
What is likely the largest regular gathering among the tribes is the harvest festival of the Amis, taking place in late August or early September, near the East Coast city of Hualien. The festival lasts seven full days, the formal dates set about two months earlier by tribal elders. On the first day the chief calls his men to prepare for the celebrations. On the second, hunters present offerings to their chief. The third sees the men “evaluated,” with hunters praised or scorned and punished according to their abilities and achievements. The fun really begins on the fourth day, when males of lower social status come together to perform ritual singing and dancing of spiritual significance, followed by men of higher rank the next day. Males and females dance as one on the seventh day in a large square before a shrine.
Settled Area: Central and Northern Taiwan, Wulai, Smangus in Hsinchu‘s Jianshi Township
Festival: Harvest Festival
The Atayal are distributed over much of the hills and mountain valleys of north Taiwan. Their northernmost settlement is the hot-springs resort of Wulai, directly south of Taipei. Their language is distinct from those of Taiwan’s other native peoples.
The men were long renowned as strong hunters, the women as good weavers. In days gone by facial tattooing was used among both sexes, as beauty adornment and to ward off evil spirits. The kinship system is patrilineal; traditional homes, made of wood and thatch, were at ground level or semi-subterranean. Each hamlet or cluster of homes in a larger village had a watchtower, manned at all times to keep an eye out for the enemy.
Settled Area: Central Mountain Range
Festival: Ear-shooting Festival
The patrilineal Bunun live in the middle and high reaches of central Taiwan’s mountains. One of their most notable social customs is the pulling of front teeth as indication of social status and entry into adulthood (practiced little these days by tribal youth). Their practice of singing while working makes for wonderful harmonic talent, and their traditional songs are quite lilting.
Settled Area: Taoyuan District in Kaohsiung City
Settled Area: Namasia District in Kaohsiung City
Kavalan (or Kamalan)
Settled Area: Coastal areas of Hualien and Taitung
Most Kavalan live on the plain in Yilan County, in Taiwan’s east, though some were pushed south to live among the Amis when the Han Chinese began filling their homeland plain in the early 1800s.
Settled Area: Southern part of Central Mountain Range
Festival: Bamboo Pole Festival
With their home in the southern hills, traditional Paiwan practice farming and raise livestock, supplemented by hunting and freshwater fishing. Their kinship system is ambilineal, social status based on ownership of land. Their wood and stone sculpture is renowned and is perhaps best of all the tribal peoples, and they are also noted for their unusual homes made completely of slate slabs, accompanied by courtyards, low-fences, and walkways also of slate.
Settled Area: Taitung County
Festival: Monkey Festival
The Puyuma reside in Taiwan’s southeast corner, on the tiny Taitung plain and in the hills that define it. Politically, each village is independent, leading to much inter-village conflict, even warring in the past. Special houses for males only were used to educate young men and train them for war — teenage boys would reside there up to five months a year. Also used for religious worship, the houses were seen as “houses of spirits” and thus called karumaan. Though ambilineal in terms of kinship, family property is inherited by the eldest daughter.
Settled Area: Southern Taiwan
Festival: Hunting Festival
Living in the southern hills in close proximity to the Paiwan, for the most part on the latter’s north, the fewer Rukai have adopted many of the customs and practices of the Paiwan. One difference is their practice of primogeniture. Their houses are also different, with thatch, wood, and bamboo used as well as slate. The women are known for their cloth and basket weaving, the men as fine carvers of wood. If you see a Rukai wearing a wreath made of lilies on the head, you’ll know she is a women of great chaste, he the bravest of warrior.
Settled Area: Border area of Hsinchu and Miaoli counties
Festival: Ceremony of the Pygmies
One of the smallest tribes, in number of people and settled area, the Saisiyat’s traditional culture is akin to the neighboring Atayal, with tattooing dominant. Surrounded by Hakkas, they have become heavily sinicized, adopting Chinese names and cultural traits.
The tribe is renowned for its unique and colorful Ceremony of the Pygmies festival. Called the “pas-ta’ai,” this ceremony appeases the souls of a dark-skin pygmy tribe that is said to have taught the Saisiyat to farm, sing, and dance long in the past. Demanding ever more tribute in return, and harassing the tribe’s women, the Saisiyat tricked the pygmies, inviting them to a great feast and sending them to their deaths by cutting the footbridge as they crossed a great gorge. Afterwards the killers’ crops withered, and an appeasement ceremony was successfully staged. The pas-ta’ai takes place every two years at the tenth full moon of the lunar calendar, with a grand pas-ta’ai staged once a decade. During this time all fights and disputes are forbidden and forgotten.
Settled Area: Hualien County
Settled Area: Nantou and Hualien counties
Settled Area: Sun Moon Lake
The Thao number not much past 400 souls, and inhabit the shores of scenic Sun Moon Lake.
Settled Area: Taroko Gorge, northern Hualien County
The Truku tribe originally lived in the Hualien and Taroko area, but they have almost entirely assimilated into the Han-Chinese culture.
Settled Area: Nantou and Chiayi counties, Alishan
Festival: War Festival
This small tribe resides in the middle hills in the west-central part of the island. Their traditional mud-floor homes have rounded corners and feature distinctive thatched roofs in a dome shape that extend almost to the ground, making for cool shade and blocking cold mountain winds and rain.
Settled Area: Orchid Island/Lanyu
Festival: Flying Fish Festival, Millet Festival
The Yami live on small and isolated Orchid Island off Taiwan’s southeast coast. This has allowed them to maintain their traditions somewhat better than their tribal cousins on Taiwan proper. Researchers believe they reached Orchid Island only about 1,000 years past from the Philippines’ Batan islands, north off Luzon.
Though some farming is done by the women, it is fish that fills the mind’s eye of the Yami; the men handle fishing and building. Their rituals revolving around boat-launchings and flying-fish harvests are elaborate and well known. Traditional Yami homes consist of a semi-subterranean residence, a workhouse, and a rest pavilion. Yami society is primarily patrilineal (though significantly matrilineal-based rules are followed in marriages taboos and vengeance-seeking).
The intriguing Flying Fish Festival is part of Orchid Island’s Yami culture. In ancient times a talking fish named Blackfin taught the Yami how to fish, setting forth strict rules on what type and when to catch flying fish, which today remain a staple of the islander’s food intake. Held during the migration of the most important, blackfin type in the second/third month of the lunar calendar, on day one males sport their renowned ceremonial clothing, including loincloths, silver jewelry, and silver conical helmets with slits for viewing, sailing out onto the seas to lure the fish in.
Here are some recommended places to go for a strong general introduction to the various tribes.
Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines
Nearby the National Palace Museum in Taipei, this beautifully wrought location is dedicated to introducing the cultures of all the tribes. Permanent exhibitions address daily living, religious beliefs and practices, artifacts, and archeological finds.
Ketagalan Culture Center
Taiwan’s first multifunction culture center with its indigenous tribes as focus, this facility introduces the history and lifestyles of Taiwan’s Ketagalan and other indigenous peoples, and stages periodical exhibits on indigenous artifacts, artworks, etc., bringing visitors more in-depth understanding of the groups’ historical and cultural development.
Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village
Located in Nantou County very close to picturesque Sun Moon Lake, this theme park sports wonderful mock-up villages displaying the architectural styles and modes of cultural expression of each trib. There is English signage explaining where each type of structure existed and what it was used for. Tribespeople are found in each village working in the traditional manner on carvings, weaving, and basketry. On weekends and holidays song and dance performances are staged on a moat-surrounded platform.
In the same vein is the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Culture Park, in Pingtung County.
National Museum of Prehistory
This large facility is located in the city of Taitung, which sits in an area that is inhabited by members of a number of tribes whose members dominate the population and give a different, laid-back feel to the isolated place. In 1980 what proved a major prehistoric site was uncovered during work on the Taitung Railway Station — the most complete settlement uncovered to date in Taiwan. The site is at nearby Beinan Culture Park, while the movable findings are hosed in the museum. The museum’s galleries bring you on a chronological voyages of discovery from the lives and times of the island’s ancient peoples to the indigenous tribes of today.
About the author
A Canadian, Rick has been resident in Taiwan almost continually since 1988. His book, article, and other writings, on Asian and North American destinations and subjects—encompassing travel, culture, history, business/economics—have been published widely overseas and in Taiwan. He has worked with National Geographic, Michelin, APA Insight Guides, and other Western groups internationally, and with many local publishers and central/city/county government bodies in Taiwan. Rick also handles a wide range of editorial and translation (from Mandarin Chinese) projects.