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Taiwan's Indigenous Peoples Get More Recognition


Taiwan's legislature this year passed a law guaranteeing autonomy for the island's 12 indigenous tribes, which have endured centuries of repression. VOA's Steve Herman recently visited Taiwan and discovered the island is making other efforts to reverse the legacy of discrimination, something that has not gone unnoticed by the mainland Chinese government.

The newscast on cable channel 16, at first, appears no different than any other on the dozens of Mandarin language television channels in Taiwan. But then something different happens, one of the anchors begins speaking in a language most people on the island cannot understand.

It is the tongue of the Amis people, the largest indigenous minority of Taiwan. The broadcast airs daily on the island's newest channel, the Indigenous Television Network, ITV.

There are about 140,000 Amis people, a matrilineal tribe, who mostly live in the eastern valleys and coastal areas. They are one of 12 recognized aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, totaling less than two percent of the population.

ITV also recently began broadcasting snippets of news in two other tribal languages, Atayal and Bunun.

The tribes have cultural and genetic links to ethnic groups in Malaysia and Indonesia, not to the Han Chinese who dominate both Taiwan and mainland China. Some tribe members are identifiable because of their larger eyes and darker skin than the Han, but others, largely because of marriage with Chinese or Japanese over the centuries, are less distinguishable.

For centuries, they were looked down on by the Han, and faced social discrimination. One survey taken about a decade ago found that 70 percent of Chinese Taiwanese parents would not want their children to marry tribal people.

But in recent years, members of Taiwan's tribes have gained prominence and popularity, especially in contemporary music and sports.

This comes after a long period of tension between the Han Chinese, who began migrating to Taiwan in large numbers from the mid-14th century, and the indigenous people, whose history there goes back thousands of years.

The director of the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, Eric Yu, says the native people had good reason to be wary of their new neighbors.

"When they moved to this island from mainland China they tried to cheat, rob - they did a lot of bad things to take the property from the indigenous people," he explained.

But the new immigrants viewed the natives as barbarians, in no small part because many of them were headhunters and tattooed their faces.

The Han forced the aboriginals to take Mandarin names. When the Japanese colonized Taiwan in 1895, the situation went from bad to worse. The colonial masters wanted the aboriginal people to take on Japanese identities and, to reinforce the message, shelled some villages or bombarded them with mustard gas.

Taiwan returned to Chinese control in 1945, and in 1949, Nationalist forces, which had lost a civil war with the Chinese communists, took over the island. The new rulers regarded the tribes as either collaborators with the Japanese or sympathizers with the communists.

However, with the advent of Taiwanese democracy in the past decade, tribal people gradually began to speak out against their unfair treatment. The government responded by enacting laws to protect tribal lands and giving preferential treatment to ethnic minorities in competitive high school and university entrance examinations.

Walis Pelin is a former Catholic priest from the Atayal tribe. He is now the government minister overseeing the Council of Indigenous Peoples.

Mr. Walis says the pursuit of rights by Taiwan's indigenous people was a grassroots movement, not something the government pursued for its own domestic or international interests. He says the struggle has its roots in the near total destruction of tribal society during the Japanese colonial era.

Sylvia Feng, now a senior producer for Taiwan's Public Television Service Foundation, led the fight to broadcast the island's first programs produced by indigenous minorities.

"They're not afraid to say 'I'm from this nation or that nation, I speak a language different from yours and I have a different culture.' Whereas when we started the training program it was totally different. They were easily intimidated. We were discouraged by a lot of people and we did encounter some very unfriendly treatment," she recalled.

Now just about everybody seems eager to embrace the Amis, the Atayal, the Bunun, the Rukai, the Yami and the other tribes, as well. Several months ago, Taiwan's prime minister, Frank Hsieh, said he believes his great-grandmother was an aboriginal, because whenever he hears music of the Bunun tribe he becomes "excited and emotional."

The improvement comes as Taiwan grapples with its own identity. Some Taiwanese favor eventual unification with China, while others yearn for a declaration of independence or insist the island is already de facto independent. For the separatists, the indigenous tribes represent a unique history and culture distinguishing Taiwan from the Chinese mainland.

Ms. Feng of public television says the Beijing government has not hesitated to try to lure Taiwanese aboriginal figures into its camp.

"They do try to get in touch with some of the indigenous people here though organized efforts, establish contact and have them go over to China to show that they support Chinese unification," she noted.

Beijing considers Taiwan's indigenous people as among China's 56 official ethnic groups.

But for most of the indigenous people their priorities have little to do with cross-strait politics. Poorer and less educated than Han Chinese, the priorities of the indigenous people are better jobs, education and housing and improved rights to ancient tribal lands.

Kolas, an ITV news anchorwoman from the Amis tribe, who mentors the station's ethnic reporters, says her major challenge is bringing the traditional tongues, most of which have no written tradition, into the age of electronic media.

"Most [of the] young generation in Taiwan, they can't speak native tongue. But the elder one[s], most of them can't get used to the modern infrastructures [technology] and they even can't use a computer, so that is the most serious problem facing us," she explained.

The challenge has not deterred the indigenous broadcasters. They've already introduced the first Bunun soap opera.

Until more directors and producers can be trained to create programs in the native languages, the bulk of ITV's schedule will air in the Mandarin. However, there is an upside to that. Mainstream Taiwanese are tuning in and learning more about their island's increasingly trendy minorities.

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