December 2023 – January 2024


Who is Taiwanese?

By Margaret Simons
Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan. Photography by Dave Tacon

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

High above the densely settled plains of Taiwan, above the smog that blows in from China and the smog that is homegrown, above the cities, warehouses and factories of this high technology manufacturing nation, members of the Atayal and Saisiyat peoples are attending mass. They have come from their homes in the interconnected villages, 1000 metres above sea level, that make up Wufeng Township, here on their traditional lands.

In the church, 77-year-old Father Barry Martinson, a Californian born of Lebanese parents – has served this congregation for 47 years. He was here during the White Terror, the four-decade crackdown on political dissent imposed by the Kuomintang from 1947, during which most expressions of indigenous identity were ruthlessly suppressed. He was here when democracy came in 1987, and watched in amazement as his congregation began to revive their languages and ceremonies, worship their ancestors in the open rather than in the privacy of their homes, and eventually demand land and hunting rights with some success.

Martinson has decorated the church over the years. He taught himself leadlighting and made the stained-glass windows. Trying to make people feel at home, he decorated the church with friezes of traditional hunting scenes. And he brought in a statue of the patron saint of indigenous peoples, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who was a Native American. It’s still there, to one side of Christ on the cross.

Now, one of the altar boys, in vestments designed to echo traditional weaving, rings the bell to signal the presence of the holy spirit, and the mass enters its mystical climax. Wafers and wine into blood and flesh. The congregation queues for communion. In his sermon, Martinson reminded those gathered that there are places in the world – he did not mention the People’s Republic of China by name – where worshipping the Christian God is suppressed. And he asked them to join him in a prayer for peace in Israel and Palestine, and peace for Taiwan.

The mountains surrounding the church resemble the pictures very young children draw: high pointed peaks, wreathed in mist and capped with cloud. They are covered with evergreen forest and, in the towns, the farms of indigenous tribes.

The traditional lands of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan make up about half the country. Sixteen tribes officially recognised by the government have occupied this land continuously for at least 5000 years, long before the arrival of the Han Chinese. They have different, though related, beliefs, languages and traditions. Some are matrilineal, some patrilineal. The Amis, at 204,000 people, is the largest. Their land is to the east of the central mountain range, covering a vast area. The smallest is the Sakizaya, from the Chilai Plain of Hualien Country, which only has about 900 living members.

Some tribes have living languages. Some languages are dead and some are being reconstructed. Identity here is complicated.

Taiwan exists in strategic and diplomatic ambiguity. It considers itself a nation, yet isn’t recognised as such but by a decreasing handful of tiny countries. The world may go to war if China delivers on its claim that this island is, and always has been, part of the PRC, and must be reintegrated, if necessary by force.

Meanwhile, Taiwan doesn’t dare declare independence from the PRC for fear of provoking invasion. Yet, particularly under the present Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, it has increasingly asserted its differences from mainland China, and promoted an independent national identity.

In this ambivalent, tenuous space, the indigenous people hold a particularly important place.

      Primary tabs         View(active tab) Edit   Father Barry Martinson at Sunday mass at the Holy Cross Catholic church in Wufeng. Photograph by Dave Tacon

First, their continuous occupation of the land undercuts the PRC’s claims that it owns the island, yet it also undercuts the claims of the Han Chinese who make up 95 per cent of Taiwan’s population of 22 million.

Second, Taiwan is one of the world’s newest democracies, and enthusiastic about that in a way that perhaps only recently established democracies can be. In the Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (sister outlet to The Economist newspaper), Taiwan scores only very slightly behind Australia on measures of democratic health, and level pegging with us for its observance of civil liberties and human rights. How it treats a minority population of indigenous people is part of its credentials, and of its intensifying campaign to be noticed and valued by the Western world.

The recognised indigenous peoples of Taiwan make up about 2.5 per cent of the population, not much less than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. But, unlike in Australia, they are at the centre of developing national identity and international diplomacy.

Thus, Taiwan represents one answer to the complicated question: how can a nation dominated by the beneficiaries of colonialism deal with the moral rights of its indigenous cultures? And can two such peoples move forward together?

The night before Father Martinson’s service, Laling Yumin, a leading member of the Atayal tribe, joins me for a beer. He wants to know about Australia’s referendum on the Voice. What was it about? Why did it fail?

He listens to a long explanation and waits while it is translated from English into Mandarin. Then he says: “I gather from this that all over the world indigenous people are fighting for their rights. The minority against the majority. Here is no different.”

In Taiwan, indigenous people have six dedicated seats in the legislature, but that doesn’t work perfectly. The holders of those seats have been captured by the dominant political parties, Yumin says, and other indigenous people still struggle to be heard. Recently, he was narrowly defeated in a local government election, in which he ran under the DPP banner. He is gutted about his defeat, and chokes back tears when talking about it. His opponent simply outspent him; that is how democracy works. Yet he is a democrat.

Most people in the tribal lands support the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that presided over martial law for four decades. Yumin used to vote KMT himself. That was all most people knew, and the memory of the KMT arrival in these mountains runs deep. They are recalled as being better than the Japanese rulers, who had been brutal since being ceded the island in 1895. The KMT invested in infrastructure and educating the indigenous tribes, albeit with the aim of assimilating them.

But when Yumin became a land rights activist, it changed his point of view. It is the DPP that has most embraced indigenous people. Less importantly, but still on his mind, the KMT favours mainland China, rather than Taiwanese identity.

Now, Yumin earns money as a builder’s labourer and carrying goods for tourists who come to hike in the mountains. His political ambitions frustrated, he has devoted his life to teaching his children what he describes as the three pillars of his culture: language, history, and the intimate knowledge of how to live, hunt and gather in the mountain forests.

Asked what he thinks of China’s President Xi Jinping’s claim to Taiwan, Yumin says that it ignores history and ignores his people. The early Han Chinese colonialists never penetrated up here, to the mountains. The PRC’s claim to historical ownership can therefore, at most, be to the plains of Taiwan, far below.

Taiwan’s indigenous tribes do not refer to themselves as First Nations peoples. There were others here before them. There are myths that there were small, dark-skinned people who preceded them and taught them how to farm. Some colonial records suggest such predecessors were still present as recently as 400 years ago. Recent archaeological discoveries lend support to the view that they were Negritos, who can still be found in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

The present-day indigenous tribes are Austronesians. Most experts agree that Taiwan was the point of origin for this, one of the most widely dispersed ethnic groups in the world. Starting 5000 years ago, Austronesians migrated from here to the Philippines, then spread over a vast area across the islands of the Pacific, as far west as Madagascar, as far east as Hawaii and south to New Zealand, where they became the Māori. Today, all these cultures have common traits in language and culture, and the Austronesian connection has given Taiwan a purchase on relations in the world that doesn’t rely in whether or not it is recognised as a nation.

      Primary tabs         View(active tab) Edit   Vare Akatung of the Saraya tribe spits water upon a shrine during a harvest-festival ceremony dedicated to the fertility god, Ali-zu. Photograph by Dave Tacon

The woman interpreting my conversation with Yumin is a living example of the cultural renaissance in Taiwanese culture, and the complications of identity. She is 18 years old and the daughter of a New Zealand father (not a Māori) and a Saisiyat mother. She was not raised among her people or on the mountain, but she has embraced her heritage. Like many young indigenous people, she has two names. When she attends university down on the plains, where she studies indigenous culture, she is Corayne Kaiteri, a name taken from her father. But up here, she uses her tribal name, Away Maya Titiyon.

Earlier that day, driving into the traditional lands, she stopped at a derelict house once occupied by her grandfather, back when Japan governed Taiwan. She poured out an offering of rice wine, which we had bought at a 7-Eleven in the foothills at her insistence. It was necessary, she said. The old people would expect it. I had assumed at first that she meant living people, but now she bowed and explained to her ancestors that she was here to learn, and she had brought strangers with her who also wanted to learn.

“Before I began to explore my heritage I was confused, because I am also half a New Zealander. So I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere,” Titiyon says. Her classmates called her a “hybrid”. At school she suffered from teasing when the class was taught that indigenous people had served as “comfort women” to the Japanese. She battled stereotypes that suggested because she was indigenous, she must be good at sport. They asked her if she rode a pig to school.

But, under government policies dating since Taiwan’s democratisation and amplified under DPP government, she was taught her language in school and gradually “I came to want to be part of my tribe. I want to be an indigenous person and learn more about what that means.”

Titiyon will not be old enough to vote until she turns 20, and so pays little attention to the differences between the DPP and the more mainland China–friendly KMT. Rather, she is engaged in the politics of being indigenous. She has participated in international indigenous youth forums, including visiting the First Nations people of Canada and making connections with Māori in New Zealand. She is taking lessons in Saisiyat language, made harder by the fact there are few people with whom she can speak it. She hopes to make a career out of representing her people on the international stage.

It is a realistic ambition. As fewer nations formally recognise Taiwan, the government has stepped up Austronesian diplomacy. In 2004, New Zealand signed a trade agreement with Taiwan despite not officially recognising it as a country, largely because of the Austronesian connection. Taiwan has initiated the establishment of the Austronesian Forum, which includes many Pacific nations as well as states such as Hawaii, only four of which formally recognise Taiwan.

On the island that is their home, the Taiwanese tribes are possibly the most frequently colonised people in the world. First came the Spanish in the early 17th century, then the Dutch, and then the Han Chinese – first the Ming Dynasty and then the Qing.

In the Chinese nomenclature, the indigenous people were crudely divided into two categories shengfan (“wild” or “uncivilised”) and shufan (“tamed”). China ceded Taiwan to the Japanese at the end of the Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese rigorously categorised each household by ethnicity, making records that are still used by the current government in ascertaining who can claim to be indigenous.

Savungaz Valincinan

Half a century later, after Japan’s defeat in World War II, the KMT, in retreat from mainland China after its defeat by the Communist Party, took over Taiwan. The KMT administration judged that the indigenous people of the plains – pingpu, as they were known – who had intermarried with successive waves of colonialists, were now assimilated into Chinese culture, and no longer merited recognition as indigenous. Only the mountain people – “untamed” or “uncooked” – counted for government purposes.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party government recognises Taiwanese indigenous peoples collectively as one of China’s 56 ethnic groups under a single heading: gaoshan, or high mountain people. The PRC avoids using words such as “indigenous” or “aboriginal” to describe them, apparently because that would imply that Han Chinese in Taiwan don’t have that status. Nor does the PRC recognise the different tribes.

Under President Xi, the PRC has adopted an assimilationist approach to ethnic minorities. The repressions of the Uighurs and Tibetan Buddhists are the highest profile examples, and the indigenous people interviewed for this essay were well aware of that record.

But, since democratisation in the mid 1980s, Taiwan has very deliberately gone in the opposite direction, encouraging recognition of distinct indigenous identities. Taiwan has been excluded from the United Nations since 1970, due to blocking by the PRC, but it has adopted UN principles on the rights of indigenous peoples in constitutional amendments and multiple pieces of legislation. Successive governments have gradually added to the number of officially recognised indigenous tribes, “discovering” differences between them. It has legislated land rights, giving groups power over development on traditional lands. As well, indigenous people can claim ownership of government land if they have lived on and farmed it for at least five years. Indigenous languages have been given the status of national languages, and must now be taught in schools where there are indigenous children.

In addition to the creation of the dedicated indigenous seats in the legislature, a cabinet-level Council of Indigenous Peoples has been established to preside over welfare measures, including educational subsidies, land rights and international connections. And, in 2016, on coming to power, President Tsai Ing-wen issued a comprehensive apology to the tribes for past injustices, mentioning that her own paternal grandmother had Paiwan ancestry. “For 400 years, every regime that has come to Taiwan has brutally violated the rights of indigenous peoples through armed invasion and land seizure,” she said. “For this, I apologise to the indigenous peoples on behalf of the government.”

Problems remain. Indigenous Taiwanese have shorter lifespans than the rest of the population by about seven years. They are lower in educational attainment, and on most socioeconomic indicators. As Yumin says, land rights are of limited use when only government-owned land is available to claim and Taiwan is so densely settled. Traditional hunting rights are recognised, but strictly regulated, partly because Taiwan has some of the strictest gun laws in the world.

Representatives of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples have, meanwhile, repudiated President Xi’s calls for Taiwan to be absorbed into the PRC. In 2019, indigenous leaders issued a statement saying that they, not the Han Chinese, were “the original owners of Taiwan … We have pushed this nation forward towards respect for human rights, democracy, and freedom. After thousands of years, we are still here. We have never given up our rightful claim to the sovereignty of Taiwan.”

But that statement, commentators pointed out at the time, could equally be read as a repudiation of the current Han Chinese–dominated government of Taiwan.

And now, it is all about to get much more complicated. The accustomed categories are being overturned and Taiwanese national identity is in play.

A few days after Australia’s referendum on the Voice, at the opposite end of the island to the lands of the Saisiyat and Atayal, the Siraya people were holding their annual harvest festival. Ten pig carcasses were laid out on biers in the warm evening air, as offerings to the fertility god, Ali-zu. An evening of tribal dancing, including young peoples from throughout Taiwan mixed in with belly dancers who had nothing to do with any of the indigenous groups, built to a crescendo. As midnight approached, a shaman circulated between the pigs, spitting water – in which Ali-zu is believed to reside – over them. The ritual went on into the early hours.

It was a florid and self-conscious assertion of identity. Siraya village chief Alak Akatuang, who is also secretary of the Pingpu Indigenous Peoples Cultural Association, kept up a running commentary educating the people, asserting and celebrating Siraya culture. His son modelled the traditional dress, as Akatuang explained that for the first time in 150 years, Siraya is now a living language.

The Siraya are one of the pingpu tribes judged by the KMT to have lost their culture. But, in recent years, the language has been “reconstructed” using translations of the gospels made by the early Dutch missionaries, who were the first to put the language into written form.

Last year, after a decade of litigation, the nation’s Constitutional Court made a landmark decision that the Siraya and the other pingpu groups could not be denied recognition. This followed years in which the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) had resisted it. Akatuang believes this is because the “mountain” peoples dominate the council, and don’t want to see their power diluted.

Yapasuyongu Poiconu, director of the planning department of the CIP, tells me government modelling suggests up to 980,000 people might now be eligible for recognition, most of them of mixed ancestry with Han Chinese. Many would not bother to register, he says, having lost their sense of indigenous identity. Even so, he expects the numbers of indigenous people to swell by “hundreds of thousands”, potentially more than doubling their current number, and bringing them up to at least 5 per cent of the national population.

Poiconu is not worried that people will falsely claim indigeneity to access benefits. The records from the Japanese era can be used to reliably establish ancestry, he says, and have been used for years. To claim government recognition, people will also have to prove continuity of culture and tradition. The need to demonstrate a culture that has survived is the context for the Siraya harvest festival.

The Constitutional Court decision presents multiple challenges for Taiwan. Exactly how it will be implemented is still unclear. What happens to six seats in the Legislative Yuan, which are presently equally split between mountain and plains tribes? Will the plains tribes get more seats if their numbers grow? What about land rights, when the pingpu peoples’ traditional lands today comprise the major city of Tainan?

Siraya woman Uma Talavan was the lead litigant in the Constitutional Court case. She and her Filipino husband, Edgar Macapili, are the ones largely responsible for the revival of the indigenous language, using the translated gospels to construct a series of textbooks now used in schools. Yet, in another example of the complications of identity in Taiwan, Talavan was not at the Siraya harvest festival. She is a Christian, and the Siraya are divided between those who keep the Presbyterian faith brought by the missionaries, and those who are reviving the worship of traditional gods. For her, the festival was pagan.

Talavan has been campaigning for recognition for years, inspired by childhood conversations with her grandfather about how the land was taken from his people, and frustrated by the CIP. She watches the government using indigenous peoples for its own purposes. “We feel used, but we don’t mind being used, so long as we are recognised,” she says.

Corayne Kaiteri (aka Away Maya Titiyon) and her great uncle Siyat Taro Titiyon

And, once the Constitutional Court decision is implemented, Talavan intends – “very carefully, because the Han Chinese are very sensitive on this point” – to explore land rights in Tainan, which will be hard. The traditional lands are today a major city. As for Xi Jinping’s claims, she believes mainland China has no more claim to Taiwan than Britain has to the United States. In both cases, the indigenous people were there first.

Poiconu will not respond directly to the criticism of the CIP. There has been a continued process of “discovery” of indigenous identities, he says, dating back to democratisation. It is now for his department to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court with a new registration process. As for himself, he was raised in the Tsou tribe. As a child, he thought all of humanity were Tsou. In the beliefs of the tribe, they were created by the god Hamo from the leaves of the maple tree. As a teenager, he learnt about the other indigenous people, and their problems, and began his life’s work to improve lives, and promote recognition and a multicultural identity for Taiwan.

The DPP, Poiconu agrees, is “leveraging” the indigenous people to “build a narrative that Taiwan is not a part of China”. Most of the indigenous people on traditional lands would identify with their tribe rather than with the nation of Taiwan, he says. A small minority want separation to create one or more nations within the nation of Taiwan, but for the 50 per cent or so who live in the cities, it is different. They often have mixed parentage. They hold both identities in tension “and that is a complicated thing to do”.

Laling Yumin says he will support the Siraya’s battle for recognition, because indigenous people should not fight each other. But it is “complicated”.

Yumin can trace his ancestry on traditional land into the mists of history and mythology. His great grandfather died resisting the Japanese. He tells a story about a battle that happened a few kilometres from his home, when Japanese traders exchanged miso, instead of the desired salt, for deer skins. The Atayal thought they had been given shit, and were offended. In the middle of the night, they burnt the Japanese huts to the ground. Like most of the indigenous peoples, they were traditionally headhunters, and that night they took trophies. And, when Yumin was a child, he remembers the birth of the land rights movement, when his people were prevented by the KMT from accessing the forest to grow mushrooms on the fallen trees.

How can that record compare with that of the Siraya, he wonders. Are they to be counted as the same as him, and his children?

Some academics have suggested that many – even a majority – of Taiwanese might have indigenous ancestry, because the early Chinese colonialists did not bring women with them, leading to widespread intermarriage. A molecular anthropologist from Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipei, Marie Lin, has even suggested in a number of papers and public statements over the last decade that up to 85 per cent of present-day Taiwanese might have indigenous genes. Her claim and the methodology behind it has been contested, but there is little doubt that the numbers of people identifying as indigenous will continue to grow. Yumin fears that, in the quest for national identity, the idea of being “indigenous” will become blurred with the idea of being “Taiwanese” – how can his people fight for their rights if that happens?

In a back lane of Taipei, Savungaz Valincinan sits in the cafe she founded, called Lumaq, which means “home” in the language of the Bunun people. The daughter of a Bunun woman and a Han Chinese father, she was raised in the capital and readily admits her adoption of an indigenous identity came late, and at first for pragmatic reasons.

As a child, she was known by her father’s Chinese name. The Bunun are matrilineal, but it wasn’t until high school that she began to use the tribal name that came from her mother’s line. This was partly because there were educational welfare benefits at a time when the family was short of cash. They discussed doing the same thing for her brothers, but her Han Chinese grandparents threatened to disown the family if they allowed male children to be identified as indigenous rather than Han Chinese.

Now, Valincinan has a strong sense of indigeneity and has become a strong advocate for indigenous youth in particular. She is running as an independent candidate for one of the indigenous seats in the legislature, with the election due in January. She wants better hunting and land rights, and an anti-discrimination law that would prohibit racist language on social media. She has recently been the brunt of such attacks.

Valincinan sees no difference between the Siraya and her own position. “They have their traditions – who could say they don’t?” she says. “Meanwhile, I don’t speak my mother’s language and I don’t know enough about her culture, but I am still Bunun.”

She does not expect to be elected. The vote is nationwide, meaning it favours the larger tribes. At 36, she is much younger than her opponents, all of whom are over 50, but she hopes for a big vote from young indigenous people “who are discovering and valuing who they are”.

How important is democracy?

“That is one of the complications of being both Taiwanese and Bunun,” she says. “As a Taiwanese person, I think democracy is so important. So that means we have to fight China if necessary to preserve our democracy. But as an indigenous youth, a member of a minority, I wonder why we talk in such glowing terms about democracy, when for people like us it is so hard to have our voice heard, and to get our issues discussed.”

She feels more connection with the other Austronesian nations than she does with mainland China. As for Xi Jinping’s claims, Valincinan is in agreement with all the other indigenous people interviewed for this essay, if more bluntly spoken. “Fuck him,” she says. “He knows nothing about who I am or how I live in Taiwan.”

A few hours’ drive from Lumaq cafe, back on the traditional lands of the Saisiyat, Away Titiyon is visiting her great uncle, Siyat Taro Titiyon, who is to the best of anyone’s knowledge the oldest living member of the tribe. He recalls when the KMT recruited him to fight against the PRC in 1955 during what became known as the Straits Crisis, a brief armed conflict after the KMT retreated to Taiwan.

The shells from the artillery, he remembers, “fell like rain”. Far from their traditional lands, Siyat and his fellow mountain people dug themselves trenches in the mud. He didn’t expect to survive. He didn’t understand why the Chinese were fighting other Chinese, but “they told us we had to go and fight, so we went”. The KMT told them they were on the frontline “because we tribesmen were the strongest and the bravest”.

Today Siyat lives in a family compound, in a house he built himself. He brews his own rice wine, makes offerings to the ancestral spirits and worships at the Christian church. He doesn’t pay much attention to politics these days, but he understands that once again, the indigenous tribes of Taiwan are being used in a conflict between one set of Han Chinese and another. This time there are no artillery shells. Rather, for the first time in his life, people are visiting him and asking about his heritage.

So, I ask him, who owns Taiwan?

Siyat says his people didn’t use to have a concept of land ownership – he learnt that from the KMT. But this place is where he and his family have always been.

Meanwhile, under land rights legislation, Away Titiyon’s family have successfully made a claim to a piece of land nearby. Her father, Sean Kaiteri, is passionate about supporting his daughter’s engagement with her roots. And he also sees the land as a place of retreat.

If mainland China invades, the family will head for the mountains. Thanks to his daughter and her culture, here they will belong. Here they hope the ancestors will smile on them, and here they will sit it out.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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