Compared to the Waishengrens, the Hoklos, and the Hakkas, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan are the smallest ethnic group but they have a rich culture. With at least 14 different tribes, each has its tradition, lifestyle, language, and ritual, the indigenous peoples can hardly be seen as one integrated group.
The first tribes that came to Taiwan were the Atayal, the Tsou, the Thao tribes, and the Northwestern branch, which then separated into Saisiat and Pinpu after arriving in Taiwan, some 6,500 years ago. Then some 1,500 years later, the Paiwan, Puyuma, and Rukai tribes arrived, followed by the Amis, Ketagalan, and the last one, Tao tribes, 500 years ago.
The names of the tribes vary, but many of them refer to a single meaning, the human race. For example, Saisiat, Bunum, Atayal, Tau, and Tsou all mean human. “Tama” means father for the Bunum and Rukai tribes, and “ama” for the Tau and the Thao tribes. The similarity in the terms shows that the tribes have similar origins, according to the Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples website.
Taiwan’s indigenous peoples write a page of their history with more tears and sorrows than joy.
These peoples experienced different periods of colonization, such as the earliest by the Dutch who ruled for 38 years in the 17th century, followed by the Spanish and the Japanese, whose regimes established laws, social systems, and cultural values in Taiwan. The then indigenous communities, especially those who lived on the plains witnessed the transformation of their societies. European missionaries introduced Christianity and this became their prevalent religious belief.
According to Anthropologist Hsieh Shih-chung, they underwent five phases of societal and power transformations from being the sole owner of the land in Taiwan before 1620, to gradually losing it and eventually becoming a disadvantaged group, in terms of educational level, average income, and living standards.
On the other hand, as Taiwan became a more modern and industrialized country, tribal children left their hometowns to study or work in the cities, adopting different lifestyles and value systems, weakening their bonds with their tribal culture.
"Indigenous peoples have almost lost their ethnic identity after the 1960s. They gave up their tribal names, they ceased to speak their tribal language, and became oblivious of tribal rituals. In the 1970s most of them had the anxiety of who they really were,” writes Sun Da-chuan, scholar, writer, and Minister of the Council for Indigenous Peoples in an essay.
In the 1980s, a pan-indigenous identity was constructed through a series of social movements. “Although indigenous peoples are of diverse tribes, they face similar unfair treatment in a Han Chinese dominant society, they share each other’s emotions,” writes Sociology scholar Wang Fu-chang in his book exploring ethnic groups in Taiwan.
Laws and policies were gradually revised to favor the aborigines. Their customs, such as how they acquired names, gained attention soon after Martial Law was lifted. In 1995, the Taiwan government recognized their tribal names instead of requiring them to use Han Chinese names for official documents.
Some indigenous people have excelled in fields such as sports, the arts, and music. The late Yang Chuan-kwang, Taiwan's first Olympic medalist was from the Amis tribe in Taitung; baseball outfielder Chen Chin-feng of Pinpu tribe’s Siraya branch, was the first player born in Taiwan to play in Major League Baseball.
Indigenous singers are known for their powerful and soulful voice. For instance, Kimbo, or Hu Te-fu’s “Pacific Wind” won the Best Song of The Year and Best Lyrics in the 2006 Golden Melody Awards.
Bulareyaung Pagarlave of the Paiwan tribe, is a distinguished choreographer and dancer who started a troupe named Lafa with his professional and life partner Sheu Fang-yi. Lafa just performed at the World of Music, Arts, and Dance (WOMAD) in Adelaide, and at the Arts Festival of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver in March.
A Puyuma musician’s story
Sangpuy Katatepan or Lu Chieh-hsing, his Chinese name, is a musician from the Katipul Village of the Puyuma tribe in eastern Taitung County. Inspired by his grandfather singing Puyuma songs in his childhood, Sangpuy naturally developed an interest in music.
"I have always enjoyed chatting with elders. My knowledge of legends and the history of my tribe come from them, as well as my singing skills” he wrote in a self-introductory essay. “People say that I sing in an old man’s voice. Perhaps I was influenced by them.” Sangpuy is now in his thirties.
Sangpuy loves ethnic music, especially when accompanied by traditional instruments. He spent extensive time in the "palakawun”, Puyuma’s renowned Men’s House, and learned skills to sing and make instruments with bamboos, woods, and other natural materials.
Palakawun is the Spartan, rigid training given to male Puyumas. It is meant to transform a boy into a man and ultimately into a fierce warrior.
"You can’t call yourself a man without going through Palakawun,” said Sangpuy in a phone interview on April 7.
He served in the palakawun after finishing his military service. He was first the deputy head and then the head of the palakawun in Katipul, his village, for 6 years. When he was around 12 years old, he learned all about his village, tribal customs, and the ways of palakawun.
"During my term, I was responsible for training youngsters, mainly on singing Puyuma ballads,” he said.
Sangpuy worked with an indigenous music band called Feijuyuenbao Synectics that travels both domestically and internationally to perform. From Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, to Korea, the 2006 WOMEX (World Music Expo) in Spain, to music festivals in Mexico, Germany and Norway, he has performed and recorded with different partners.
"Audiences are often amazed by how inspirational Taiwanese tribal music is when we perform abroad; I felt great when we got to know other cultures by means of music.
A sense of mission to spread knowledge of my tribe was strengthened during the years I worked with the band,” he said.
Feijuyuenbao Synectics was established in 1999 by a group of indigenous singers from various tribes, and a Han Chinese cellist to revive indigenous culture and create music that sings of the tribal spirit. The group spent a lot of time and energy on doing thorough research before launching their compositions.
"The best part of traveling performances is I get to meet musicians from different cultures. I learn from them and improve my own music,” said Sangpuy in the phone interview.
The group of musicians he worked with for around 7 years disbanded in 2007; Sangpuy moved to Taipei to work with his cousin as a mechanic to earn a living. When asked if he would like to spend more time on music, he said “life has to go on, too”.
"This is a problem everyone faces. I work on my music and perform when there’s an opportunity, at the same time I work as a mechanic if my cousin needs my help.”
Indigenous music has a much smaller group of fans compared to popular music in Taiwan. Sangpuy is working to make a change. He thinks that if people here enjoy listening to foreign music whose lyrics they don’t understand, they might also get to like indigenous music.
"I heard music from different cultures while I performed with the band, and that pushed me to think of ways to make ethnic music more popular in Taiwan,” he said. In Taipei, Sangpuy has a studio with recording equipment that he uses to move closer to his dream of popularizing indigenous music.