The History and Current Issues of Indigenous Tribes in Taiwan

History and Current Issues of Indigenous Tribes in Taiwan

Indigenous peoples account for 6% of the world’s population and 19% of those who are in extreme poverty. Did you know that indigenous peoples speak more than 4,000 of the world’s languages? Most people don’t even know there are that many languages! That is more than half of the world’s languages if you were wondering. The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) reports that there are about 7,000 languages spoken in the world.

Indigenous tribes settled in Taiwan thousands of years before any other ethnic group, yet they only account for 2% of the population today. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), there are 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples in Taiwan. Sadly, many other indigenous peoples are excluded from official recognition.

Taiwan has not been able to vote on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because the country is not a member of the United Nations. Most of the Taiwanese indigenous tribes live in the mountainous ranges of the island as well as Orchid Island, aka Lanyu (蘭嶼).

Insightful trips to Taiwan are something WildChina proudly offers. Not only do we want to bring you beyond the boundaries of generic travel, but we also want to dig deep and discover the truth of what lies in our destinations. Let’s take a look at the history and current issues of Taiwanese indigenous peoples. After that, we’ll introduce some activities with indigenous tribes that we offer in our Taiwan trips.

History of indigenous peoples in Taiwan

Where did the Taiwanese indigenous peoples come from? Multiple places, actually. They come from Austronesian ethnic groups, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Oceania. Taiwan is considered the “homeland of Austronesian languages and cultures.”Before the Chinese settled in Taiwan, there were hundreds of Austronesian languages. Today, only 14 of those languages are still spoken.

The Taiwanese aborigines migrated for thousands of years before coming to Taiwan. Scholars believe this was around 3000 BC since that is the time when there was a sudden emergence of flourishing agriculture. It was not until the 17th century and onwards, when Taiwan underwent a prolonged period of colonization by the Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, and Mainland Chinese, that aboriginal language and culture started to diminish.

Similar to the experience of many other tribes around the world, Taiwanese indigenous peoples had their land taken away from them. Legislation that came into effect in 1968 “nationalized” acres of land, putting a brutal termination on a number of their traditional activities. This was all under the guise of protecting aboriginal land.

Traditionally, the indigenous tribes had six categories of land and not just one piece of land for living in. The six categories of land include sacred grounds, original village grounds, reservation grounds, farming grounds, ritual grounds, and hunting grounds. Taiwanese aborigines were also not allowed to speak their own languages during the periods of colonization when speaking Mandarin Chinese was the norm.

Current issues of indigenous peoples in Taiwan

When Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing-Wen came into office in 2016, she issued Taiwan’s first-ever apology for the treatment of indigenous peoples. President Tsai’s grandmother was actually a member of a Taiwanese indigenous tribe, making Tsai the first Taiwanese president with indigenous heritage. In her inauguration speech, Tsai promised to improve the lives of Taiwanese indigenous peoples. It has now been six years and unfortunately, the Taiwanese government has not followed through with the statement.

This is largely in part due to the fact that indigenous cultural erasure and land eviction are systemic and generational. The trauma imposed upon Taiwanese indigenous peoples cannot be reversed or alleviated in just six years. Still, the Tsai administration has fallen short in its efforts to raise the socioeconomic status of indigenous peoples.

A local anthropology teacher explains that the government “fails to understand the key relationship between aborigines and their land.” Hunting is a way for indigenous peoples to spiritually connect to their land and the wisdom of their ancestors. They are deeply connected to nature, but the laws passed still restrict many of the aborigines’ rights. Panai Kusui, an indigenous singer and social activist in Taiwan proclaimed, “We are illegal for being indigenous,” swiftly laying out the implications of the Tsai administration’s actions since 2016.

Today, Taiwanese indigenous peoples still face discriminatory behavior, misrepresentation, inequality, and exclusion from basic public investments. Their household incomes are 40% less than the national average. Taiwanese indigenous peoples also find themselves deprived of natural resources and formal recognition. This is not just a socioeconomic issue but an environmental one.

Taiwanese aborigines have intricate knowledge of cultural survival systems dating back to 3000 BC, so the loss of this knowledge would result in increased fragility and biodiversity loss, World Bank cautions. The fact that indigenous peoples are often left out of public welfare proceedings leaves them disproportionately affected by events such as climate change, natural disasters, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How are these issues being addressed?

In 2017, the Taiwanese Parliament passed a law that encouraged the speaking and teaching of indigenous languages in their districts. In 2018, a National Museum of Indigenous Peoples was built in Kaohsiung to “become a tourism and research center for Austronesian cultures, promoting links between the indigenous peoples of Taiwan and Southeast Asia.” The Taiwanese government has also created a Four-Year Plan that provides internship opportunities, which would then increase the employment rate of indigenous youth.

The fight for indigenous rights has continued to progress in the past few years. There is now a political assembly of indigenous peoples. In August 2022, President Tsai renewed her pledges to “protect and promote the languages, cultures, and territorial rights of the island nation’s Aboriginal communities.” Indigenous groups are waiting to see if the Tsai administration will follow through with their pledges this time around.

WildChina’s cultural activities with Taiwanese indigenous tribes

Nearly all of our educational trips to Taiwan include activities with one or more indigenous peoples. Keep in mind that our itineraries are flexible, so we are happy to customize them to your learning objectives. Many of the indigenous tribes that are included in the trips are part of the Amis indigenous group. On your trip to Taiwan, you’ll learn about the indigenous culture from the tribes themselves and hear about firsthand experiences. Activities include traditional field games, musical dancing, fishing, cooking, and/or water rafting.

You might be keen to learn that there are only two matriarchal indigenous tribes in Taiwan, and the Amis is one of them. The other matrilineal tribe is the Puyuma people. Besides being led by women, it is the women in these two tribes who own and pass down property, and it’s the men who join the bride’s household and change their family name.

The Amis is Taiwan’s biggest tribal group and their two main festivals are the harvest festival and the fishing festival. They reside in several valleys along the east coast, including the east rift valley, the coastal mountain range, and the Hengchun Peninsula (恆春半島). The Puyuma live in Taitung and their main festival is the monkey festival.

Now that you know more about Taiwanese aborigines, you may want to take a look at our Taiwan trip itineraries and get in touch with us to learn more. Our team of experts and guides can assist you whether you are planning a school trip or personal trip to get a close look at the daily lives of Taiwanese indigenous peoples.

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