TAIWAN’S MAJOR ABORIGINAL TRIBES: AMIS, BUNUN, PAIWAN, PUYUMA, SAISIYAT, TSOU, YAMI

AMIS

The Amis are a Taiwanese ethnic group that lives in the eastern lowlands, primarily near Hualin, the largest city on the east coast, and at the southern tip of Taiwan in Taitung. There are about 190,000 of them, making them Taiwan’s largest minority. As for assimilation, on one hand the Amis have been acculturated to a large degree into Chinese society but on the other hand they are one of the few groups who still speaks their own Austronesian language. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]

The Amis—also known as the Ami or Pangcah—have traditionally practiced slash and burn agriculture, hunted and fished, made clothing from bark and raised dogs for hunting and chickens for sacrifices. They later adopted wetland rice and water buffalo plow agriculture. In the old days, blood feuds and warfare with the Atayal, Buni and Puyuma occurred and sometimes heads were taken. Head taking was an important part of the irisin renewal and fertility ceremony that followed the millet harvest. Amis villages used be protected by tenches and harp bamboo stakes.

Amis society has been traditionally been divided into matrilineal clans and newly married couples went to live with the bride’s family. Under the ambil-anak form of marriage, families without daughters could pay a bride-price to get a couple to live with them. Under the influence of boy-oriented Chinese culture the system was used by families with daughters. Political and social control have traditionally been by men’s age-grade groups. Religious and ritual leadership has been provided by men from matrilineal priestly families.

The Harvest Festival is the largest festival of the Amis tribe. Different villages hold separate festivals during July and August; the festival has three stages, including welcoming the spirits, feasting the spirits, and sending the spirits off. In modern times, the ceremony has been shortened and the religious ceremonies simplified. Several activities have been added, including a race, tug-of-war, and arrow shooting competition. The festivities, once limited to tribal participation, are now open to the general public. ~

See Separate Article on 1) TAIWAN’S ABORIGINAL GROUPS, THEIR HISTORY AND HEADHUNTING; 2) AYATAL; 3) TAIWAN’S ABORIGINAL GROUPS: THEIR CULTURE, LIFE AND FACIAL TATTOOS; and 4) PROBLEMS SUFFERED BY TAIWAN’S ABORIGINAL GROUPS AND EFFORTS TO KEEP THEIR DYING LANGUAGES AND CULTURE ALIVE

BUNUN

The Bunun are a Taiwanese ethnic group that lives in central Taiwan, primarily in an area around Yushan Mountain, Taiwan’s highest mountain. There are about 40,000 of them, making them Taiwan’s forth largest minority. . Most live in a “reservation area.” The speak a Proto-Northern Indonesian language which is related to the languages spoken by Aboriginals in Australia and people in the south Pacific. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]

Little is known of the Bunun’s origin. Oral history indicates they lived in the Puli plain in the 18th century but after that were forced to move to their present location by the Han Chinese and plain Aboriginals. There are five Bunun subgroups: the Isbukun, Takebaka, Takebanuan, Taketido and Takevatan. They each have their own dialect and culture. The Isbukun is the largest.

Many Bunun are mostly Christians today. In the old days they practiced head hunting, whose rituals were incorporated into belief system. The Bunun used to often take prisoners and inscribe prayers or messages to their dead on arrows, then shoot their prisoner with the hope their prayers would be carried to the dead.

According to their traditional belief system, each person and creature has a spirit ( hanido) and that spirit has its own powers. The power varies and is transformed or disappears when a person or creature dies. People generally have two hanidos: a good one and an evil one and situations in life can be viewed as a consequence of the conflicts between the spirits. The system was easily adapted to Christianity and its concepts of God and the veil.

The Bunun have traditionally believed that any one could have powers normally ascribed to shaman if they their spirts and powers were strong enough. In this way anybody could be a religious practitioner. The dead were often buried in different places. In many cases people that died natural deaths were buried in cemeteries in the woods near a village. People who died in accidents or as a result of violence were buried somewhere else because it was believed that these dead people become evil spirits. People who made great contributions to the community were buried near family houses in hopes that their good spirit would affect others.

Bunun Society

Bunun society is organized on the basis of a complex system of patrilineal clans and subclans. All members of the subclan have a common ancestor and use the subclan name as their surname. The subclans are ranked in hierarchal order on the basis of the birth year of the common ancestor with the oldest clans ranked the highest. Each clan has its own traditions and creation myth. Otherwise Bunun society is very egalitarian. Success is often achieved by merit rather than birth.

The primary social groups are family groups and villages. Villages have usually had two leaders: one who was in charge of leadership in the village and another who was in charge of relations with other villages. Contact between villages have often been kept to a minium unless there was a dispute or a need to form an alliance against a common enemy. Traditional inter-villages relations and the traditional justice system have been displaced by modern government.

Marriages have traditionally been monogamous and arranged to partners outside the subclan. Couple have some degree of choice within the arranged marriage arrangements and usually live with the father’s family after marriage. People live in extended family or extended-family-like groups. Inheritances has traditionally been determined on the basis of contribution to the group.

Traditionally, men were in charge of hunting and heavy agricultural work and women were in charge of collecting food and tending the fields and doing domestic work. These days, these divisions don’t apply because many Bunun are now employed in the market economy.

Bunun Life and Culture

The Bunun live in the highest elevations and smallest villages of Taiwan’s minorities. Surveys indicated that in the old days the average villages had 111 people and 68 percent of the Bunun lived at elevations above 1,000 meters. Anthropologists divide their settlements into three types: 1) large settlements with strict clan organization in the north; 2) smaller, more isolated settlements in the east and center; and 3) scattered, isolated settlement in the south.

Before the Japanese arrived in Taiwan, the Bunun practiced slash and burn agriculture and grew mostly maize and sweet potatoes. The Japanese forced them to grow rice. In the 1970s, when the Bunun began concentrating on growing cash crops, they gave up wet rice. The Bunun are mostly involved in trade or work at jobs. Traditional industries such as textiles, house building and metallurgy have largely been abandoned. Disputes between the Bunun and Chinese have occurred because Chinese traders have exploited the Bunun.

The Bunun sing harvest prayers in eight-part harmony and purify themselves by slaughtering pigs and washing in a river. The Ear-shooting Festival is the most important celebration of the Bunun people. Held atfrom the end of the April andto the beginning of the May, the celebration is divided into sowing rites, hunting rites, and ear-shooting rites; pig roasting, apportioning the meat, and storing the meat; work celebrations, witch inductions, and other major activities. The traditional ear-shooting ceremony starts well before the celebration itself when the young men of the tribe go into the mountains and hunt. Then they cut off the ears of their kills, sticking the ears on a pole or a tree branch for the village men to shoot with arrows. Little children, accompanied by their fathers and older brothers, also practice shooting arrows, hoping that this will enable them to become good hunters. ~

PAIWAN

The Paiwan are a Taiwanese ethnic group that lives in southern lowlands and foothills of the Taiwan’s central mountains. Many live around Daladalai, a village that can be reached on foot from Santimen. There are about 86,000 of them, making them Taiwan’s third largest minority. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]

The Paiwan used to have a reputation for being fierce and warlike. They traditionally lived in hillside villages, with 100 to 1,000 people, protected by bamboo and walls. Villages were independent and autonomous. The houses were often underground.

Traditionally the Paiwan were slash-and-burn farmers who hunted and fished and lived on land owned by aristocratic families. Descent could be on both patrilineal and matrilineal lines. Divorce, often over adultery, was common. Chiefs settled disputes and levied fines in accordance with what people could pay. Aristocrats were immune to prosecution for many crimes even theft.

The Paiwan lack a written language, In 2008, the tribe began creating a writing system based on Romanization. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Previous government efforts to record the tribe's culture failed because they used a bidding system, which brought in scholars. Tribal members were reluctant to pass their traditions to outsiders.” [Source: Cindy Sui, Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2009]

The Rukai are a Taiwanese ethnic group that lives in the mountains of south-central Taiwan. There are only about 12,000 of them and they are regarded as a subgroup of the Paiwan.

Paiwan Culture and the Totem of the Snake

The Paiwan are known for their wood carving, bronze dagger handles and wood and stone artwork. Tattoos were worn by aristocratic men and men who had successfully hunted heads. They also used to blacken their teeth and pierce their earlobes. All members of the same family are buried in a single grave under the family’s house. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The joint wooden cups of the Paiwan displays both their love of drinking and their wood carving skills. There are two kinds of joint wooden cups:one for two people drinking together at the same time and one for three people drinking together at the same time. The cup shapes are mostly octagon and square. At either side of the cup there is a handle to hold. The handles and connections between the cups are carved with decorations of people, snake, deer, and geometric patterns. The pair-joint cup is used more frequently than the three cup version. In the past, the cups were used at great occasions such as peace making between . Now they are commonly used at banquets of receiving guests and at weddings. When drinking with a joint cup, two people stand shoulder-to-shoulder, one holding the handle with the left hand and the other with the right hand. Drinking with the joint cups is an important way for Paiwan people to express their friendship and promote their unity and harmony. ~

Paiwan people are particularly well-known for their worship the totem of snake. The Paiwan have many mythical stories of snakes laying eggs and giving birth to their ancestors. They have traditionally believed that they are blood relatives with snakes and that snakes are their patron gods and possessors of supernatural powers and can protect the Paiwan from difficulties, sufferings, and misfortune. ~

In order to maintain good relations with their totem god and keep getting their help and protection, Paiwan people can not kill, eat or harm snakes. Also, they carve and paint snake images on their houses, ancestors' spirit posts, weapons as well as on various kinds of utensils such as wineglasses, spoons, tubes, and pots. Things carved or painted with the snake images are considered to be holy. When facing or using them, one is expected to be respectful and refrain from profanity. ~

Paiwan Mediums

Cindy Sui wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “When Djupelang Qrudu was growing up in her tribal village, her grandmothers saw something special in her and recommended an alternative to attending high school: becoming a witch. Djupelang, a member of the Paiwan indigenous tribe in southern Taiwan's Pingtung County, respectfully declined and became a nurse instead. But now the 51-year-old, her three children grown, is enrolled in a special class offered by the tribe to train people in the traditional skills of communicating with spirits. [Source: Cindy Sui, Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2009 <^>]

“Once highly respected in the community, Paiwan witches, or spirit mediums, treated illnesses, led the community in important ceremonies and protected their villages from evil. They also provided comfort in times of trouble. "It's like being a psychiatrist," says Djupelang, a cheerful woman who left her nursing career after being diagnosed with uterine cancer. But in the last 50 years, the number of mediums in the Paiwan tribe has dropped to fewer than 20 from more than 100. The introduction of Christianity, as well as modernization and assimilation into mainstream culture, has led to a near disappearance of the tradition. "The missionaries told us mediums were like devils," Djupelang said. "They said we were Satan's family because we had mediums in our family. I felt so ashamed." <^>

“In the old days, witchcraft was an important part of village life for the Paiwan, who lived mainly in southern Taiwan, near Dawu Mountain. Mediums, who were mostly women, would communicate with spirits. During ceremonies, the mediums called on the spirits to help the village. "Our type of witchcraft is not wild like the media have imagined it to be. It's based on life," Djupelang said. "For instance, if we are about to plant seedlings, the mediums conduct a prayer chant for planting. Before a harvest, we have a chant to pray for a good harvest. During funerals, we have a chant for mourning." No instruments, drugs or dance are used, just mesmerizing chants and songs. There are different chants or songs, depending on the occasion. <^>

Preserving Paiwan Mediums

Cindy Sui wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Nowadays, only villages that have a medium hold the traditional ceremonies. Most of the Paiwan are Christians, and many young people have moved to the cities for work. Since the Paiwan lack a written language, community leader Weng Yu-hua and others believe it is especially important to pass the witches' skills to the next generation. "Elder witches learned the chants by memorization, but we are now trying to record them," said Weng, who organized the class after obtaining funding from the Council of Indigenous Peoples within Taiwan's central government. [Source: Cindy Sui, Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2009 <^>]

“The women attend the classes, which cost $18 for 36 hours of lessons, with the understanding that teachers cannot instill psychic power in the students, but simply help them try to discover it within themselves. Students also must have witches or shamans in their bloodline or be the offspring of village chiefs. Djupelang said her grandmothers were witches who noticed she was special from the moment she was born. She seemed a lucky charm; everywhere they took her, people helped, good things happened. <^>

“For Djupelang, it took years of setbacks and frustration for her to recognize her true calling. She sought guidance from a medium in her village after experiencing personal problems, including a divorce and the cancer, which she beat. "The medium told me I should've been a witch," she said. Djupelang said that in the aftermath of the recent Typhoon Morakot, which brought severe flooding and mudslides, killing more than 600 people, she and a witch from her village used traditional chants to comfort villagers whose homes had been washed away. <^>

The compensation for her efforts, she said, is not expected to amount to much as it will depend on what people can afford. But Djupelang, who also makes and embroiders traditional Paiwan clothes and subsists mainly on a traditional diet of taro, yams and millet, remains devoted to maintaining cultural traditions. "I'm very happy to be learning this," she said. "If my ancestors knew, they would be very happy too." <^>

PUYUMA

The Puyuma are a Taiwanese ethnic group that lives in the eastern lowlands of Taiwan. There are only about 10,000 of them and most of them have been absorbed into Han Chinese culture. Traditionally they were farmers who hunted and fished and lived on land owned by aristocratic families. Most of their traditional customs are no longer practiced. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]

Former Taiwan president Chen Shui-ban, who is currently in jail, is member of the Puyuma ethnic group (See history). The Puyuma have unique coming-of-age rituals and used to be organized in age-based groups that served as military training schools. In the old days, young men between 18 and 22 were separated from women and lived in a men’s house, where they learned fighting skills. At age 22 men, were free to marry. When they did they went to live with their wife’s family.

The Monkey Ceremony and Hunting Ceremony are together referred to as the Annual Festival of the Puyuma tribe. The Puyuma were traditionally one of the most warlike of Taiwan's indigenous peoples. Every year toward the end of December, the tribe holds the Monkey Ceremony, a unique ritual that serves as a rite of passage that marks the entry of tribal boys into adulthood. Many call it the Monkey Piercing Ceremony as young men of the tribe go through a series of strict trials, the most important of which is the piercing of a monkey (today, the monkey is made of straw) with a bamboo staff. This is thought to build courage and cooperation among the young people. Participants have to complete four levels of trials, after which they are allowed to take part in the hunting ceremony. This requires a young boy to be able to hunt down a wild animal within five days. After this, the young boy is considered a man eligible for marriage. ~

SAISIYAT

The Saisiyat is a Taiwanese ethnic group that lives in northwestern lowlands of Taiwan in the coastal cities of Miiaoli and Hsinchu. There are only about 7,000 of them and most of them have been absorbed into Han Chinese culture. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]

The Saisiyat are organized into 17 clans which now have Chinese names. The clans used to own much of the group’s land but the introduction of wet land rice farming brought with it private ownership. Villages are have traditionally been organized along clan lines with sister exchanges being the preferred system of marriage. When these weren’t possible bride-service was practiced in which a groom spent some time doing obligatory service to the bride’s family.

The Sacrifice to the Short Spirits is the most important traditional rite of the Saisiyat tribe, with a smaller ceremony every two years and a large one every 10 years. The festival is held around the 15th day of the 10th lunar month, at the end of the harvest season, and lasts for four days and three nights. The first day of the festival starts with welcoming of the spirits, when tribal elders offer wine and meat and then, facing to the east, pray to welcome the Short Spirits. The second day is for entertaining the spirits, which is the centerpiece of the entire festival. The tribespeople engage in festivities and dancing to commemorate the Short Spirits. On the last day, rites for sending off the spirits off are performed. At the appropriate time, the tribes throw sheaves of grass and hazelwood sticks toward the east, signifying that the Short Spirits have already departed. After that, the rice wine, pork, and rice cakes that were offered to the spirits are given to the participants, bringing the festival to an end. ~

TSOU

The Tsou are a Taiwanese ethnic group that traditionally lived in the mountains of central Taiwan near Mt. Ami but were forced to resettle in lowland areas by the Japanese. There are only about 6,000 of them and they are known for their colorful leather clothes. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]

The Tsou traditionally lived in small villages, organized around a men’s house, in unique oval-shaped homes whose thatch roofs nearly touched the ground. Inside the house was a basket for sacred millet and shelf that displayed bones of animals that family hunters had killed. In the men’s house was a shelf where heads taken in battle were displayed.

The sexes have traditionally been segregated by strict gender roles. Men hunted, burned fields, and made baskets, nets and weapons. Women did field chores, took care of pigs and made cloth, pottery and embroidery. It was taboo to touch tools or products associated with the other gender group under the belief that spirits would bring hardship to the violator and his or her gender group. Descent has traditionally been along patrilineal lines. The village chief served as ritual leader, political leader and war leader.

The Mayasvi is the holiest of all the religious ceremonies of the Tsou. In the old days, it was held before a battle or hunt; today, it is held annually in February and is alternately organized by the communities of Dabang and Tefuye in Chiayi County. The ceremony is held at the tribal gathering house for men (Kupah). The tribe's war ceremony includes the rites of triumph, rites for the heads of the enemies, and welcoming rites for the gods. ~

YAMI

The Yami are a Taiwanese ethnic group that lives on Lanyu Island in the Philippine Sea. There are only about 4,000 of them. Lanyu Island is a small island 40 miles off the south-east coast of Taiwan. It contains some of the best tropical scenery in Taiwan. Lanyu means Orchid Island but actually the are few orchids here.

About 4,000 Yami live on Lan Yu. Up into until the Kuomintang came to power they wore loin clothes, lived in traditional stone huts, and used single-log, rechly-decorated canoes to fish and collect creatures from the sea. The Nationalists forced them to move into three-story apartment houses, where most still live today; took many of the fish from their fish fishing grounds; and built a nuclear waste dump on the island. When the Japanese were in power the only non-Yami allowed on the island were Japanese anthropologists who studied the Yami. Tourist have only been allowed to visit Lanyu since the 1980s.

The Yami (sometimes called Tao) are regarded as the most primitive of Taiwan's indigenous peoples. They still maintain much of their traditional culture and lifestyle. Their traditional stone houses are built mostly underground to avoid extremes of temperature as well as the ravages of typhoons. [Source: Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan) ~]

The Yami people have always depended primarily on the sea for their livelihood, a fact which is reflected in their unique culture. The men, for example, wear narrow loincloths for convenience when fishing or hunting; they traditionally live in semi-subterranean houses for protection against typhoons and the torrid heat of summer; and they perform elaborate ceremonies when they launch a new boat or begin the annual flying fish season.

The lives of the Yami people are closely intertwined with the Flying Fish Festival. Each year the flying fish come with the Kuroshio Current from January to June, and this brings a rich harvest of fish for the Yami living on Orchid Island. That is why the tribepeople believe that these fish are gifts from the gods, and why they treasure this natural resource. Some of the tribe's social customs and taboos are also closely associated with the coming and going of the flying fish. The Flying Fish Festival consists of ceremonies that begin in the second or third month of the lunar calendar and run for approximately four months. The festival is divided into different parts, including the blessing of the boats, praying for a bountiful catch, summoning the fish, first-fishing night ceremony, fish storing ceremony, and fishing cessation ceremony. The men of the tribe wear loincloths, silver helmets, and gold strips, and face the sea to pray for a bountiful catch. Participation is restricted to men. ~

Efforts to Save the Yami Language in Taiwan

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “The beautifully-named Orchid Island belies a sad truth. Like the fragrant tropical flower that lent this tiny outcrop of land its name, the local language — Yami — is facing extinction. Surrounded by the entirety of the vast Pacific Ocean the increasingly weather-battered island, and its Yami speakers, are now struggling to fend off global forces which could swallow them up whole. Liao Hui-ling, 37, one of Orchid Island’s only nurses and a member of the indigenous Tao people (known also as the Yami, , is sensitive about the loss of her mother tongue. “Without my language it’s like I don’t have water, and I’m thirsty,” Liao says. [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~\]

“Liao Hui-ling is just one of three names the married mother of two uses in daily life. To her parents she remains Sinan Matopush, her Aboriginal name. At work she uses her Chinese name and when dealing with the dozens of curious English-speaking tourists she hosts every year on the island, she uses the moniker Teresa. It is a multilingual existence that Liao leads — like many of her compatriots — but it comes at a cost. “I can speak my own language, but I can’t speak it well. My English is better than my Yami,” concedes Liao. \~\

“However, it is the influence of Mandarin Chinese that poses the greatest threat to her endangered mother tongue, Liao says. “When kids go to school they learn Chinese. When they study books it’s in Chinese. When they deal with the government it’s in Chinese. How can my language continue to the next generation like this?” she says. \~\

“Orchid Island’s lush, green mountainsides are the last vestige of Taiwan proper before the enormous ocean opens up to its east, an isolated outpost of human habitation that has provided the basis for life, and language, for thousands of years.Liao Hui-ling is wistful as she reflects on the potential loss of such ancient history within a few short generations. “Every tribe has a language and it’s a way to connect older and younger generations — language is key to that connection. How can we continue our ceremonies, if we don’t speak our language? Without your language you don’t have your own soul, your identity,” Liao says. “But, right now, our language doesn’t seem that important.” \~\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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