The Aborigines or indigenous peoples of Taiwan speak some 16 Austronesian languages and appear closely related to the Malay peoples of south and southeast Asia. Now constituting about 2 per cent of the population, or around 460,000 (Source: Council of Indigenous Peoples, January 2006), they are thought to have been living in Taiwan for thousands of years. There are thirteen officially recognised indigenous peoples: the Ami, Atayal, Paiwan, Bunun, Puyuma, Rukai, Tsou, Saisiyat, Tao (Yami), Thao, Kavalan, Taroko (also Truku), and Sakizaya (the latter officially recognised as Taiwan's 13th aboriginal tribe on 17 January 2007), as well as a number of unrecognised smaller groups. Most Aborigines are Christians.
The main concentrations of Aborigines are in Orchid Island and the mountainous central and eastern parts of Taiwan. Aborigines are often – though not always accurately – distinguished between highland and plains Aborigines. The traditional social organisation of some of these, such as the Amis, are mainly matriarchal, with the husband moving into his wife's family home after marriage and the wife taking care of most family matters. Many groups practised a sexual division of labour, with men hunting – and sometimes headhunting – while women would do most of the cooking and farming. Traditional customs such as facial tattoos have steadily been set aside in recent decades, partly due to opposition by Christian churches, and many of the languages of the smaller indigenous groups are endangered.
Other than for a brief presence of the Dutch and Spanish (which introduced Christianity to many of the island's indigenous peoples), the relative isolation of the Aborigines lasted until the mid-17th century, after which Han Chinese settlement began in earnest after Ming loyalists defeated the Dutch and remained in control until the annexation of Taiwan by the Qing Dynasty of China in 1683. By this time Chinese immigration and intermarriage with mainly western plains indigenous groups resulted in the latter being increasingly assimilated into Han culture and the Chinese and Aborigines both having about equal shares of the island's population.
Initially, Qing policies mainly sought to isolate indigenous populations from Chinese settlers, but these were seldom completely enforced. As the Chinese population grew, Qing authorities increasingly moved into the central and western lands and imposed their rule over Aborigines.
As with many other indigenous groups in the world, some tribes were able to retain substantial control and ownership of their lands in part because of their populations' substantial sizes and the need for authorities to maintain good relations with them for military and other purposes. But as their relative size in relation to the increasing Han population diminished during the 18th and 19th centuries, more and more land was to pass to Chinese hands by imperial edicts, as well as at times coercion and fraud. There was still armed and guerrilla resistance against Qinq authorities by some Aborigines until the end of the 19th century who fought against the intrusions into their traditional lands. Still, by some estimates 50 per cent of the land in Taiwan was still controlled by indigenous groups at the time of Taiwan's transfer to Japan by treaty in 1895, especially in the mountainous core of the island.
The Japanese occupation which lasted in Taiwan until the end of 1945 saw a brutal attempt to crush the resistance of those Aborigines not fully under the control of authorities. For example, a campaign against the Taroko (also known as Truku) people by Japanese armed and policy forces saw perhaps some 10,000 killed. One of the last cases of armed resistance by an indigenous group, the Atayal, occurred as late as 1930 in what is known as the Wushe Incident. The Japanese sought to exploit the island's resources in a systematic way, thus pursuing for this purpose a policy of ‘pacifying' the Aborigines and nationalising indigenous land. From 1930 authorities started to embark in policies aimed at turning the Aborigines into Japanese: whole communities were forcibly moved to low-lying areas near Japanese military and police outposts, the hunting down and killing of rebels, and enforcing the use of Japanese language and names.
The policies of the Kuomintang after 1945 were in many ways similar and just as devastating as those of the Japanese. The sudden huge influx of more than one million Han Chinese migrating to Taiwan within the space of a couple of years, the new measures adopted by the government which imposed the exclusive use and domination of the Mandarin language on all aspects of public life, and the further erosion of Aboriginal land rights continued and accelerated the processes of assimilation. All land in the mountain areas was nationalised, for example, with Aborigines retaining only limited use rights; just as the Japanese had done, the Kuomintang authorities adopted policies designed to assimilate the indigenous populations, prohibiting the teaching of their languages and prescribing not only the use of Mandarin, but also the adoption of Chinese names.
Legislation adopted in 1968, ostensibly to protect Aboriginal lands, in reality had the almost contrary effect: unless land was cultivated for 10 years, it became state property. This meant that Aborigines had to abandon their traditional hunting, gathering, and slash-and-burn agricultural activities, thus signaling a near deathblow to many aspects of their cultures. The legislation also contained a number of ways for government and Han Chinese individuals and corporations to ‘lease' land for commercial and other uses, and these often resulted in further disenfranchising indigenous peoples from any real control over their remaining land, as some of this land eventually ended up being owned by Han Chinese, sometimes illegally.
As the end of the Kuomintang domination was ebbing in the 1980s, Taiwan's move towards a liberal democracy gave indigenous peoples their first opportunities to freely claim their rights to land and culture. The first non-governmental organisation specifically dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights and interests of indigenous peoples, the Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines was founded in 1984. By the 1994, this resulted among others with the amendment of the Republic of China's Constitution, with indigenous peoples being recognized as ‘original inhabitants' instead of ‘mountain compatriots'. Aborigines began again to be allowed to officially use their indigenous names on identity cards, and seats were reserved for them in the legislature. More recently, indigenous students receive subsidies for higher education and some municipal governments have departments dedicated to assisting Aborigines.
The situation of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan has in general been improving in the last few years. One of the main recent legal-political developments for the indigenous peoples of Taiwan has been the drafting of a new constitution that includes an explicit recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, including a right of autonomy presented as self-determination. This autonomy would potentially extend to the use of traditional lands, language, customary law and other rights. These reforms are part of a long-term process which is expected to be completed by 2008. In November 2007 the Taiwan Cabinet approved a bill specifying that the nation's 13 Aboriginal tribes' autonomous areas should enjoy administrative status equal to that of a county and any dispute between the autonomous regions and county governments should be referred to the Cabinet for settlement. The bill still however has to pass through the legislative process.
Indigenous languages have additionally started to be supported by authorities, after decades of active government suppression, with a number of initiatives for total language immersion education being set up after 2001 in some districts. A special affirmative action programme also started in 2005 covering the admission of indigenous students to university, and 2004 legislation requires that, for a firm with 100 employees or more wishing to compete for government contracts, at least 1 per cent of its employees must be Aborigines. Another aspect of this affirmative action programme if the Ministry of Education's announcement in 2006 that Aboriginal students would have their high-school or undergraduate entrance exams boosted by 35 percent for demonstrating some knowledge of their tribal language and culture.
A new Education Act for Indigenous Peoples was adopted in 2004, as well as a 2005 Basic Law for Indigenous Peoples. The latter recognises the autonomy of indigenous peoples on their designated land and states that government funds will be made available to develop indigenous languages and prohibits the forced removal of indigenous people from their land. While these developments continue the substantial progress which Taiwan has made in the nature and content of its policies in relation to Aborigines, it is still too early to know the actual impact the implementation of these new laws and policies will have.
The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) and Council of Agriculture jointly ruled in September 2007 that Atayal aborigines from the Smangus and Cinsbu subtribes in Hsinchu County are entitled to use natural resources within their traditional territories for cultural, ritual or personal purposes. The ruling is significant, because it is the first time that aboriginal people's traditional territories have been recognized by the government,
The ruling also sheds light on the case of three aborigines from the Smangus tribe who were found guilty of theft in April 2007 for attempting to remove the trunk of a tree that fell in 2005, blocking the tribe's only connection with the outside world. The three defendants filed an appeal with the High Court which was subsequently rejected, however the their sentences were shortened from six months to three months and, according to reports in the Taiwan Journal, the CIP hopes the recent ruling will persuade the court to amend its verdict to not guilty.
Taiwan Indigenous Television (TITV) was launched in July 2005 and claimed to be the first TV station in Asia fully dedicated to an indigenous population. However in September Aboriginal producers protested that most programs broadcast on TITV are made by non-Aborigines and demanded that they be given priority in producing the programs.