The indigenous peoples (also referred to as Aborigines) of Taiwan speak some 16 Austronesian languages and appear closely related to the Malay peoples of south and southeast Asia. Now constituting about 559,000 (2.4 per cent) of the population, they are thought to have been living in Taiwan for thousands of years. There are 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples: Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Hla’alua, Kanakaravu, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Seediq, Thao, Truku, Tsou and Yami, as well as a number of unrecognized indigenous communities including Pingpu of the plains. Most indigenous Taiwanese are Christians.
The main concentrations of indigenous peoples are in Orchid Island and the mountainous central and eastern parts of Taiwan. Communities are often – though not always accurately – distinguished between highland and plains peoples. The traditional social organization 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 gendered 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 communities 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 indigenous communities lasted until the mid-17th century, after which Han Chinese settlement began in earnest once 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 peoples resulted in the latter being increasingly assimilated into Han culture, and the Chinese and indigenous peoples 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 indigenous communities.
As with many other indigenous peoples across 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 guerrilla resistance against Qinq authorities until the end of the 19th century by some indigenous peoples which 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 peoples at the time of Taiwan’s transfer to Japan by treaty in 1895, especially in the mountainous centre 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 indigenous peoples not fully under the control of authorities. For example, a campaign against Taroko (also known as Truku) people by Japanese armed forces saw perhaps some 10,000 killed. One of the last cases of armed resistance by an indigenous community, 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 indigenous population and nationalizing indigenous land. From 1930 authorities started to embark on policies aimed at turning communities into Japanese: the forcible movement of whole communities moved to low-lying areas near Japanese military and police outposts, the hunting down and killing of rebels, and the enforcement of Japanese language and names.
The policies of the Kuomintang (KMT) after 1945 were in many ways similar and just as devastating as those of the Japanese. The sudden huge influx of more than a 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 indigenous land rights continued and accelerated the processes of assimilation. All land in the mountain areas was nationalized, for example, with indigenous peoples retaining only limited use rights; just as the Japanese had done, the KMT 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 indigenous lands, in reality had the almost contrary effect: unless land was cultivated for 10 years, it became state property. This meant that indigenous communities 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 KMT 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 organization specifically dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights and interests of indigenous peoples, the Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines, was founded in 1984. By 1994, this resulted in the amendment of the Republic of China’s Constitution, with indigenous peoples being recognized as ‘original inhabitants’ instead of ‘mountain compatriots’. Indigenous peoples 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 received subsidies for higher education, and some municipal governments have departments dedicated to assisting indigenous communities.
In November 2007 the Taiwan Cabinet approved a bill specifying that the nation’s recognized 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.
Indigenous languages also began to receive support from the 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. In 2005 the Indigenous Television Network was also established, in line with the requirement of the 1998 Aboriginal Education Law that there should be television programming devoted to indigenous culture and education.
A special affirmative action programme also started in 2005 covering the admission of indigenous students to university, and 2004 legislation required that, for a firm with 100 employees or more wishing to compete for government contracts, at least 1 per cent of its employees had to be indigenous. Another aspect of this affirmative action programme was the Ministry of Education’s announcement in 2006 that indigenous students would have their high-school or undergraduate entrance exams boosted by 35 per cent 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 recognized the autonomy of indigenous peoples on their designated land, stated that government funds will be made available to develop indigenous languages and prohibited the forced removal of indigenous peoples from their lands. However, in the ensuring years the Taiwanese government failed to implement its provisions, meaning the struggle for autonomy continues to this day.
The draft Indigenous Language Preservation bill that passed the Executive Yuan in 2015 failed to pass the Judicial Yuan before the transfer of government in May 2016. Following her inauguration, President Tsai Ing-wen’s government oversaw certain changes in the draft legislation, which passed the Executive Yuan in December 2016 and was again sent to the Judicial Yuan for final approval. The text had also attracted criticism from activists who saw its provisions as merely aspirational and pointed to a widespread lack of awareness of the legal debate among local indigenous community members themselves. The Indigenous Language Development Act was passed in May 2017 and came into effect the following month.
The situation of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan has in general been improving in recent years, with extensive legislation strengthening their rights, at least in principle – though many provisions, particularly relating to guarantees of autonomy enshrined in the 2005 Basic Law on Indigenous Peoples, have yet to be implemented. Furthermore, a number of indigenous peoples residing in the plains, known collectively as Pingpu, are still not formally recognized – though the government has taken some initial steps to change this.
Nevertheless, there have been some positive measures, including the 2017 Indigenous Language Development Act: this allows the translation of Chinese-language official documents into local languages in indigenous areas, comprising a total of 55 townships. This was followed in 2018 by the National Languages Development Act, outlining a range of measures, including equal protections for all languages, broadcasting services and expanded educational provision for endangered languages, with plans to offer these as elective subjects in schools by 2022.
The need to provide greater support is especially urgent when many of these languages are now under threat: according to UNESCO, nine of the indigenous languages and dialects spoken in Taiwan are already considered extinct (although one is marked as revitalised), five critically endangered (just one step removed from extinction), one severely endangered, another definitely endangered and a further eight are vulnerable. The law provides that the central government will fund research and studies in indigenous languages and that public signs in indigenous areas will include the local language. Indigenous communities will also be able to communicate in their own language during government or legal proceedings.
In 2017, the Council of Indigenous Peoples declared some 1.8 million hectares (around half Taiwan’s total land mass) to be ancestral land, most of which is public land. However, privately held land has been excluded from this designation. There have been indigenous demonstrations in response to steps to curtail the authority of local communities to veto certain activities on their territory. Given the historical failure of the Taiwanese state to deliver the provisions of its more progressive legislation around indigenous peoples’ rights and autonomy, it remains to be seen to what extent the indigenous population will benefit.
Another area of concern in terms of preserving indigenous cultural heritage and economic livelihoods is the issue of hunting. For many indigenous communities in Taiwan, hunting is not only about sourcing food, but also about social performance and gender identity: it can amount to a spiritual communication. However, despite its relative importance in indigenous culture, Taiwanese law only permits non-commercial hunting conducted for public ceremonies approved by local governments. Furthermore, a 2013 Supreme Court decision established that indigenous men could only hunt with homemade rifles and ammunition, which are dangerous and ineffective, though in January 2016 the Ministry of Interior announced the possibility of relaxing such regulations to allow indigenous community members to hunt during traditional festivals. This issue came to a fore with the controversial conviction in 2015 of Tama Talum, a 56-year-old indigenous Bunun man who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for illegal weapons possession and poaching. The conviction was subsequently suspended widespread protests and a high-level appeal to the Supreme Court to allow for his case to be reconsidered on appeal.
The cultural practices of Taiwan’s indigenous communities have also attracted increasing interest from outside the country. In July 2015, for example, the US-based Discovery Channel announced it would be releasing a programme called Taiwan’s Tribal Treasure, in close collaboration with the Council of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous cultural heritage in Taiwan received further recognition in October 2015 when the World Monuments Fund announced it was including Kucapungane, a 600-year-old ancestral Rukai village on its Monuments Watch list. Despite its significance in Rukai mythology, the village was largely abandoned in 1974 when the village council voted to relocate closer to modern infrastructure. Its inclusion on the Watch List highlighted the importance of its fragile physical remains and the valuable intangible Rukai heritage associated with the site.