According to the Library of Congress, aboriginal peoples once spoke 24 Austronesian languages, but seven of these languages are extinct, with only a few elderly people knowing a few words. Ralph Jennings of the Voice of America wrote: “Of Taiwan’s 42 indigenous languages, nine are considered endangered. One of them is used by just 10 people. Almost all aborigines but the oldest speak Mandarin, Taiwan’s official language. One language in danger is that spoken by the Sakizaya aborigine tribe, which has some 659 members. [Source: Library of Congress, Ralph Jennings, Voice of America, August 20, 2012 /*]

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “In Taiwan today all the country’s Aboriginal languages are facing grave threats to their future survival. Many of the spoken forms of the 14 recognized indigenous groups — whose languages and dialects gave birth to the collection of Austronesian languages that are now spoken worldwide by about 300 million people — are at a point of almost total collapse. [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~]

“When the UN’s global cultural arm UNESCO undertook an evaluation of 24 Taiwanese Aboriginal languages in 2009, it found that nine of them were already extinct. Particularly hard hit are those communities located on the nation’s west coast, including Siraya and Babuza. A further six languages — including Kavalan which is spoken in and around Hualien County and Thao which heralds from Nantou County — are critically endangered. In some cases only dozens of speakers remain. Even Amis, Puyuma and Paiwan — numerically some of the stronger Aboriginal languages — are struggling and are now listed by the UN body as vulnerable.” \~\

Among the languages from the Taiwan-Philippines that are an the verge of extinction are: 1) Arta (with 6 speakers); Bubuza (with 5 speakers); and Pazeh (with 1 speaker). Extremely endangered language: Siraiya, Hoanya, Saaroa, Papora, Taokas, Kulun, Ketangalan, Basay. Severely endangered language: Kavalan, Pazeh, Thao, Nataoran, Kanakanabu, Babuza. Endangered language: Tayal, Taroka, Amis, Bunun, tsou, Pyuma, Rukai, Paiwan.

Southern Taiwan is home to 300 ethnic Saaroa, only six of whom are native speakers. The Saaroa and neighboring Kanakabu (who have eight native speakers left) assimilated into the Bunun, a larger minority group. Many of Taiwan's indigenous languages have similarities with the Austronesian languages of Polynesia and Micronesia. [Source: Asia Society]

Kolas Yotaka, news director with Taiwan Indigenous TV, told Voice of America the use of native languages has disappeared as potential speakers are required to use Chinese in public schools and leave tribal areas in eastern Taiwan for work in the more urbanized west. She says the west is dominated by non-aborigines but that to survive and make money, aborigines must move there. Once they move to the west, she adds, those migrants are forced to speak Mandarin Chinese or the Taiwanese dialect to communicate. /*\


Taiwan Struggles to Save Indigenous Languages

Ralph Jennings of the Voice of America wrote:“Taiwan’s government sounded a cultural emergency. The native language of a village of aboriginal Rukai people is in danger of dying out. So the cabinet has begun collecting records that could save that dialect and eight others from being overtaken by the dominant Mandarin Chinese. The government says most indigenous people have little incentive to use or remember their native tongues as they marry ethnic Chinese or work away from tribal homelands. It fears that the most endangered languages will die out within 20 years. [Source: Ralph Jennings, Voice of America, August 20, 2012 /*]

“Since 2008, Taiwan’s government has tried to save these languages, but this year they are focusing on the ones most threatened with disappearance. That mission has broad support from the island’s ethnic Chinese majority, because many people look to indigenous culture as a way to distinguish Taiwan from its political rival China. Taiwan is studying New Zealand’s effective effort to save native Maori languages through one-on-one tutoring and allowing tribal autonomy over elements of the education system. The government has also contacted Canada, home to Inuit tribes near the Arctic Circle, and the tiny Pacific Island nation of Palau. /*\

“Faustina Rehuher-Marugg, Palau’s cultural affairs minister, says her population of 21,000 saved its native tongue by putting it in writing for students. Almost everyone in the former U.S. protectorate also speaks fluent English. On a visit to Taipei this month, the minister advised Taiwan to keep records. “I think they need to put their dictionary and grammar together and publish it as part of the curriculum because that’s how you actually get it written down," she said. "Because it’s part of the school, it has been taught from grade one.” /*\

“Taiwan may eventually transcribe its native languages, though the lack of native writing systems would make the job difficult. The government will spend about $220,000 this year on aboriginal language preservation. Part of that package goes to collecting whatever information is available in tribal villages and recording elders who speak the endangered languages. There are plans for informal language study programs and the use of exams to certify native speakers of aboriginal languages. To save the Rukai village language marked as urgent in July, the government must first survey the hamlet in southern Taiwan to find out exactly how many people still speak it. /*\

Importance of Saving Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages

Ralph Jennings of the Voice of America wrote: “Yang-Chao Jui-chun, endangered language project director with the government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples, says any losses would weaken the culture of Taiwan and the Asia Pacific. He says that is because local languages convey information about flora and fauna that would be lost along with the words themselves. [Source: Ralph Jennings, Voice of America, August 20, 2012 /*]

“He says that if no one can speak an aborigine language in 50 to 100 years, there would be no way to express cultural meaning and values, affecting Taiwanese people’s ability to respect other ethnic groups and live with one another. Cultural resources such as stories and knowledge would disappear along with the languages. For example, he says, the Rukai and Paiwan tribes have unique knowledge of certain snake species. /*\

Anthropologists also consider Taiwan’s aborigines key to understanding ethnically linked peoples across the South Pacific and Indian oceans from Easter Island to Madagascar. Taiwan’s tribes first reached the island from the Asian mainland. They used boats to fan southward about 3,500 years ago. Taiwan’s government says its aborigines remain ideal for study because they were largely left alone by Western missionaries. Taiwan’s cabinet today recognizes 14 tribes. Their numbers range from several hundred, to the Amis group at nearly 190,000. Their total population is about half a million and growing overall.

Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages and the Identity of Taiwan’s Aboriginal People

“There is an idea of a person’s identity and ethnicity in their language,” Truku-speaking Apay Yuki, who is a member of the Taroko tribe, told the Taipei Times. “If you don’t speak it then you don’t know who you are … Language contributes to a person’s identity.” Yuki, an assistant professor with the Department of Indigenous Languages at National Dong Hwa University , recently returned to her native homeland to carry out research into the health of her mother tongue. The findings, she says, are distressing. “You could see that the younger group are showing serious and ongoing language attrition and the local language is being seriously damaged. When people who speak Taroko fluently, generally those aged above 50, are gone then the language is gone,” she says. [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~]

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “ Yuki says that the loss of Aboriginal lands combined with years of repression — both at the hands of acquisitive Han Chinese settlers, colonial Japanese forces and the punitive period of Chiang Kai-shek’s Martial Law era — enacted a terrible toll on indigenous people as a result of which “social structures were changed.” However, she argues, while the oppression continues to haunt Aboriginal peoples, today’s linguistic threats are different. Waves of migration to cities away from traditional Aboriginal language strongholds as younger people search out work, coupled with a loss of value attached to local tongues, are dealing a double blow to already weakened languages. \~\

“Yuki adds that government policy has consistently failed to make the teaching of Aboriginal languages a priority. A 50-minute Aboriginal language class a week, often taught by a non-native speaker, is ineffective, argues Yuki, who also questions how resources are being used. “There is [government] funding, but I’m not sure how effective it is. The money is a waste … The first thing to do is to really dig out the root problem about why people are not re-learning their languages.” \~\

Re-Learning Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “Yuki argues that a “bottom up” approach would improve the re-learning of local languages and says the benefits of speaking the language of your elders is immensely rewarding. “We are now trying to convey to parents how important it is to speak our languages and what cognitive benefits it brings. Personally, after re-learning my language, I feel — as a family — we are closer, I feel a sense of belonging. I’m proud of being Taroko, it’s an affirmation.” [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~]

“The person charged with shaping and implementing government policy on Aboriginal languages is Ciou Wun-long, an official at the Council of Indigenous Peoples. The 40-year-old Bunun tribe member, who has headed the department’s Language Section for five years, says reviving Taiwan’s 42 Aboriginal languages and dialects is a “formidable” task. Ciou cites the 60-year-long ban on local languages, and today’s multi-racial society where there are “limited places where indigenous languages can be spoken,” as key factors explaining the demise of Aboriginal languages. \~\

“However, he maintains “there is still hope,” and cites the council’s 2001 Aboriginal Language Skill Certification Examination as a bureaucratic achievement designed to arrest the slide toward extinction. “In addition to the language proficiency test, Aboriginal dialects have also been included into the school curriculum … [which] has also helped relevant teaching materials come into being, and has helped to cultivate teachers of Aboriginal languages,” Ciou says. Furthermore, Ciou argues, the council’s drive to establish written systems for indigenous languages has boosted conservation efforts, with 13 dictionaries completed thus far. \~\

“However, Ciou concedes that with the number of programs the council is endeavoring to push ahead, government resources are insufficient. “The government only allocates an annual budget of between NT$110 million and NT$120 million into language revitalization, an amount that is inadequate to fund the works the council has been doing,” Ciou said. By contrast, the government spent over NT$215 million on a two-night rock musical to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China. \~\

“While there may be a growing recognition of the value of local languages at certain levels in government, some argue that there are familiar patterns at work. Daniel Kaufman, a linguist and a director of the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance explained in a recent email interview that “endangered languages are found throughout the globe, but it is most often disenfranchised ethnic minorities who are most affected”. Kaufman, an expert in Austronesian languages, says that the loss of Taiwanese Aboriginal languages is like losing branches from the Austronesian family tree as all of the connected languages spoken outside Taiwan can be traced back to a single ancestor language that left the island around 4,000 years ago. \~\

Keeping Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages Alive in the Cities

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “Kaufman meanwhile says that his agency is increasingly working in cities. “We find that, contrary to expectations, some of the best and brightest speakers of threatened languages are now living in the diaspora. This does not mean that working with diaspora communities can replace working with communities ‘in-situ.’ On the contrary, we find that working with diaspora communities is often a bridge to the home communities. But in an era of increasingly unstable funding, it is imperative that we work with as many communities as possible … if we are to have any impact at all on stemming the tide of language death.” [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~]

“This model is one that finds a local manifestation through the Bethel Center in New Taipei City. Established over a decade ago by the non-profit Zhi-Shan Foundation, the center takes care of over 100 Aboriginal children and teaches Aboriginal languages to pupils while also respecting Aboriginal culture. It is an example that has been cited by the Control Yuan and lawmakers as evidence that locally-run facilities targeting Aboriginal people can produce results. \~\

“Given the gravity of the situation faced by many languages worldwide, Web titan Google recently helped to set up The Endangered Languages Project. The online resource is a drive to “record, access and share samples of and research on endangered languages, as well as to share advice and best practices for those working to document or strengthen languages under threat.” \~\

Native Languages Suffer as Taiwanese are Forced to Learn Mandarin

The emphasis on learning Mandarin has meant that many of Taiwan's 23 million people have limited ability to speak the dialects native to the island for centuries. Peter Harmsen of AFP wrote: “When Taiwanese scholar Shih Cheng-feng was a boy, he was forced to speak a language that was not his own, and four decades later he still feels handicapped by his education. He grew up under a nationalist regime that had fled China and now wanted him and everyone else to speak the dominant dialect of the mainland, with the right Beijing accent. This included a difficult sound not common on the island that involves rolling up the tongue, and students who lapsed into their native Taiwanese were humiliated with a tag saying "I'm no good. I speak dialect". "Sometimes people have only developed their Taiwanese to elementary-school level," said Shih, now a 52-year-old political scientist at National Dong Hwa University in east Taiwan's Hualien city. "They don't know the academic terms, even if they want to use them... We lost values, traditional wisdom, everything." [Source: Peter Harmsen, AFP, July 29, 2010 *]

“Millions of Taiwanese have the same experience as Shih, meaning that the island today is left with a complex linguistic legacy that determines its fate in numerous ways. "The justification for imposing Mandarin was to unify people with the same language, but there was a hidden agenda," said Shih. "If you want to crush people, you should deprive them of their history, their culture, their language." *

“The Chinese Nationalists took over Taiwan from a defeated Japan in 1945, immediately striving to revive a Chinese consciousness among locals who had been under Japanese colonial rule for 50 years. Although there might have been an economic rationale for teaching Mandarin in Taiwan, the main aim was political, said Jennifer Wei, a scholar at Taipei's Soochow University. "The high-handed language policy in the 1950s and 1960s was not all for economic development but had to do with the all encompassing efforts to keep a tight control of the people," she said. "If the Nationalists only had the economic development in mind, then they shouldn't ban the use of Japanese." *

“Bruce Jacobs, a Taiwan expert at Australia's Monash University, remembers visiting a local dissident's house with a friend around 1980, trying to speak to the dissident's daughter in the Fujianese dialect. "My friend said she can't speak it. At that time very educated parents would speak Mandarin at home. She was 11 at the time," he said. "Just like the British in India and the French in Algeria, the Nationalists pushed the colonial language." *

Keeping Aboriginal Culture Alive in Taiwan

Oscar Chung wrote in the Taiwan Review, “On a December morning in 2011, one of the halls at Huashan Creative Park in Taipei came to life with indigenous sounds and colors. The event was a fashion show where models displayed clothing inspired by the weaving traditions of the Atayal, one of the 14 officially recognized aboriginal peoples in Taiwan, while traditional aboriginal music played in the background. “We’re starting to think about commercializing the clothing we make. By doing so, it’ll be easier to enhance the visibility of our culture,” says Yuma Taru, the major figure behind the event and a researcher known for her efforts to preserve Atayal weaving legacies over the past 20 years. [Source: Oscar Chung, Taiwan Review, March 2012 |+|]

“In fact, the show was the third staged last year by Lihang Studio, a group created by Taru in Xiangpi, a small community nestled in the mountains of Miaoli County, northern Taiwan. Still, the woman of mixed Atayal and Han Chinese heritage thinks the present level of support given to the preservation of indigenous cultures from both Han Chinese and aborigines themselves is far from sufficient. “Indigenous people are still expected to learn how to mix with mainstream society. We’re often advised not to look back at the old ways of our ancestors, which many think became obsolete long ago,” Taru says. Even her mother, who is Atayal, would rather her daughter took up a regular job than spend her time working to preserve her tribe’s culture. |+|

“Mainstream society and aboriginal groups are becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect indigenous cultures. At the end of 1996, the Cabinet-level Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) was established, which led to the birth of the government-funded Taiwan Indigenous Television station in July 2005, the first of its kind in Asia. At the same time, individuals throughout Taiwan like Taru have set up cultural workshops in an effort to revive interest in indigenous cultural practices such as weaving and traditional rituals, as well as rehabilitate the public perception of traditional facial tattooing. |+|

“As more and more indigenous people devote themselves to this area, we’re starting to see encouraging successes,” says Wsay Kolas, CEO of the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Foundation (IPCF). Since it was established in August 2009, the foundation has promoted indigenous cultures through a variety of projects, which are approved and funded by the CIP. One such project begun in 2010 offered subsidies to 41 schemes that promoted aboriginal culture in an innovative manner, including Yuma Taru’s fashion venture. Taru received a subsidy of NT$600,000 (US$20,000) to develop and create clothing, as well as to stage a fashion show, which was held at Huashan Creative Park in December.” |+|

Motivation for Preserving Aboriginal Culture in Taiwan

Oscar Chung wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Oftentimes it is a sobering personal experience that galvanizes these cultural crusaders into taking action to honor the legacies of their ancestors. Previously a full-time public servant at the government-run Taichung Cultural Center in central Taiwan, Taru did not realize how little she knew about Atayal weaving traditions until she was asked to plan an exhibition of indigenous textile arts for the government center in 1990. She later quit her job at the cultural center, giving up a stable income in the process, in order to study Atayal traditional textiles at the Graduate School of Textiles and Clothing at New Taipei City’s Fu Jen Catholic University, from which she obtained a master’s degree in 1997. During that time, as she built solid academic knowledge about traditional weaving, Taru recruited young women in her native community and trained them as weavers for Lihang Studio. Thus, her epiphany about being disconnected from her roots eventually developed into a mission to preserve Atayal weaving traditions. [Source: Oscar Chung, Taiwan Review, March 2012 |+|]

“Wsay Kolas notes that the measures taken by the Japanese colonialists and then the Republic of China government, which took over in 1945, to move mountain-dwelling aborigines such as the Atayal to the plains also had the effect of uprooting them and undermining their culture. Indeed, when it comes to cultural preservation, geographical isolation is often deemed an advantage. “The Amis are facing a greater threat of assimilation than most other indigenous groups mainly because they have long inhabited the plains, living among the Han Chinese,” says Kolas, herself a member of Taiwan’s largest indigenous group. She says the culture of the Yami, or Tao, people, for example, is better preserved than other indigenous groups because they live on remote Orchid Island, which lies off the southeastern shore of Taiwan. She worries that the recent boom in tourism to the islet poses a serious threat to Tao cultural integrity, however. |+|

“Cultural displays that pander to tourists distort or stereotype indigenous cultures, Kolas says. That is a great concern for Lalan Unak, an Amis man from Hualien, who began to document the cultural aspects of his tribe’s daily life in the 1980s by videotaping everything from folk religion practices to folk medicine to traditional rituals. “It’s wrong to attract tourists by vulgarizing culture. We need to develop tourism and retain our cultural roots at the same time,” he says. |+|

Fataan Pangcah Cultural Workshop

Oscar Chung wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Unak founded the Fataan Pangcah Cultural Workshop in 1996. Today, his research into the tribe’s culture complements the various tourism services he offers, which range from guided tours of the local area to hands-on experiences such as his tribe’s traditional style of fishing. Unak insists on presenting genuine examples of indigenous traditions to visitors, including the famous harvest ritual, a performance of singing and dancing long practiced by Amis tribes. “Most tourism operators tend to stage performances featuring young girls in revealing costumes and using exaggerated gestures. I feel uncomfortable with that,” he says. Instead, his troupe consists of men and women from the local community who have actually performed the ritual for its own sake since their youth. Unak is also serious about the details of the costumes and says the clothes can be quite expensive to make, which is why he never lets tourists try them on. The troupe sometimes even travels to other Amis tribes to teach young people about the ritual. “It’s revived tribal culture in many other communities. This is probably its greatest contribution to cultural preservation,” he says. [Source: Oscar Chung, Taiwan Review, March 2012 |+|]

“Unak’s workshop hopes to sustain this revival by expanding its activities. The organization offers complete courses in woodcarving to tribespeople, some of whom already have their own studios. Last year, the workshop was commissioned by the Hualien Forest District Office under the Cabinet-level Council of Agriculture to carry out a survey of native plants in Unak’s community that are used in traditional folk medicine. As dozens of local people have been trained in the survey methods of identifying local plants and medicines, tribe members are becoming more aware of their surroundings and the tribe’s history. |+|

“Meanwhile, the IPCF continues to seek talented individuals dedicated to preserving and extending indigenous traditions. This year, one of the major events organized by the foundation will be a national visual arts contest focusing on indigenous culture, with winners announced in the second half of the year. “Both Southern Min and Hakka people [two major groups of immigrants originally from mainland China] are Han Chinese, and share the same basic culture, language and ethnicity as people in mainland China. It’s indigenous culture that makes Taiwan distinct,” Kolas says. “The government should look at it as one of Taiwan’s treasures and give it more support, especially considering how indigenous peoples still lag behind economically and educationally.” |+|

“The sense of urgency Yuma Taru feels about preserving indigenous culture has pushed her to offer a new ethnic education project for children in her tribe. In September 2011, six children from 2 to 5 years old took the free classes in Atayal culture using teaching materials created by Lihang Studio. But, despite her studio’s success in reproducing indigenous attire—Lihang was entrusted to create the vast majority of indigenous costumes for the recent high-profile film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale—her mother still tried to dissuade Taru from taking up the new challenge. “She just wants me to have an easier life. We talked about this nearly all night,” Taru says of the discussion between mother and daughter on the eve of the December fashion show in Taipei. Taru has not heeded her mother’s advice, however, and is just as determined to continue her work of boosting Taiwan’s indigenous cultures as Kimi Sibal and Lalan Unak. “This project is of great significance,” Taru says. “Hopefully, it can inspire other people who wish to improve the state of indigenous cultures through education.” |+|

Problems Faced by Aboriginal Groups

Problems faced by Taiwan’s aboriginal groups include poverty, lack of education, high unemployment, poor health, forced assimilation, and the dying out of their languages. They are often portrayed in the media as having alcohol problems and high crime rates and engaging in unsavory practices such as selling their daughters into child prostitution. The stories are sometimes true but often exaggerated. Some tribe members have been tricked by human traffickers to give up their daughters.

Although aboriginal peoples were the earliest dwellers on the island, much of their traditional culture has been lost due to their assimilation into groups of later immigrants to Taiwan, mainly Han Chinese and Japanese. Fewer than half the members of each tribe can speak their native language. Among young people, many of whom leave the villages to live in the cities, the proportion is smaller. Taiwan’s aboriginal groups own about seven percent of Taiwan’s land but most of it is on steep mountains slopes unsuitable for farming. The pan aboriginal movement lacks charismatic, unifying leaders and is vexed by divisions between tribes and within tribes.

The struggle over culture and land rights continues today. Indigenous villages have been relocated by the government without consent to build dams, airports, and national parks: forests where it is illegal for indigenous peoples to hunt or fish in their traditional territories! However, the Taiwanese Council of Aboriginal Affairs has begun studying the possibility of creating autonomous regions for aboriginal peoples in several parts of Taiwan; regions where indigenous peoples (Yuanzhuminzu) will have an active role in the preservation, sustainability, and governance of their lands and culture.

Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, Life in the tribes, however, could not ready the people for the cities. Aboriginals have long found themselves lacking the know-how to compete in the job market. Take education. Only 13 percent of the aboriginal population has received a college or higher education, for the rest of the population the figure is 31 percent. And while hunting skills are useless in the industrial world, there has been little vocational training to help aboriginals acquire something more practical. As a result, finding a job remains difficult. According to the Employment Status Survey of Taiwan's Indigenous Peoples released by the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) in July 2006, the unemployment rate for the aboriginal workforce was 4.7 percent while that for the nation was 3.9 percent. But there are other inequalities. Aboriginals have a lower per capita income — NT$31,000 (US$939) per month versus the national average of NT$44,000 (US$1,333) — indicating that aboriginals usually work in lower-paid jobs. [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, August 2007]

Problems Faced by Aboriginal Groups in Taiwanese Cities

Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Sinan Tamuaden, a Tao who now runs a sanitation and cleaning operation in Taipei, left Orchid Island to work in a textile factory in Taoyuan when she left junior high school in 1978. "The factory was recruiting workers in front of the school on the day of the graduation ceremony," she recalls. "We had to leave home to work, there wasn't any had we stayed." Sinan Tamuaden had worked in several factories over a 10-year period before setting up her own garments business. That lasted for another decade before the entire industry moved overseas in quest of lower production costs. Kao Chin Su-mei, who is half Atayal aborigine and sits in the Legislative Yuan as an aboriginal representative, says the most common jobs for aboriginals are those others do not want, the so-called 3D — dirty, dangerous and difficult — jobs such as construction work, mining and deep-sea fishing. "The jobs are tough, but we are not complaining," she says. "The hard-earned money is very helpful in improving living standards at home." [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, August 2007 |]

“The superior physical strength of many aborigines is a competitive advantage in jobs like these, but employers are concerned about their often sub-par performance and high turnover rate — usually the result of drinking. A CIP survey shows that only 5 percent of aboriginal workers drink often or everyday, but Sinan Tamuaden says that, for many, drinking comes before work. "I've seen too many of them already," she says. "Sure having a drink with your fellows is great fun, but that doesn't feed you."|

“With many aboriginal employees still struggling between the temptation of rice wine and the need for a paycheck, their position has worsened since the early 1990s when the government started allowing the import of foreign laborers. Taiwan has had up to 400,000 foreign workers — the current number is somewhat below this peak — while the aboriginal workforce totals only 220,000. Kao Chin explains that despite language barriers and cultural differences, people still want to use foreign workers because they are much cheaper. Employers only need to pay the minimum wage, currently NT$15,840 (US$480) per month. "Foreign workers solved the manpower problem and created profit for the employers, but it has been at the cost of indigenous people's work rights," she says. "Most aboriginal workers were left with two choices: take the same minimum wage as the foreign workers or take a hike." |

Aboriginal Rights and Support in Taiwan

For five consecutive Labor Days from 1995 to 1999 aboriginal groups protested their treatment. Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “In response, the government began to act, by passing the Indigenous Peoples' Employment Rights Protection Act in 2001. The act requires that government agencies, public schools, state-run enterprises and contractors of public works have at least one aboriginal worker for every 100 employees. An amendment that requires the private sector to employ an aboriginal worker for every 150 employees is being deliberated. Those who do not meet the requirement need to pay a fine equal to the minimum wage to the indigenous peoples' employment fund managed by the CIP. "The intention is good but enforcement is lax," Kao Chin says. "People still don't hire aboriginal workers because there are ways to get away without paying any fines." She points out that more than NT$1.3 billion (US$40 million) of the NT$8 billion (US$242 million) that should have been collected is still owed. [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, August 2007 |]

Other measures such as putting restrictions on foreign labor recruitment and creating training programs and more part-time job opportunities have also been taken. Government statistics show the situation has improved since mid-2002; the unemployment rate for aboriginals dropped from triple the national average to below double. But looking only at the unemployment rate can be misleading. "The unemployment rate is lower, but the average income has dropped by 10 percent," Lu notes. "It's hardly an improvement when there are more people not making enough to support their basic needs." |

Helping Taiwanese Indigenous Groups Form Businesses

Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “If competing in the job market can be tough, being a business provider also has its problems. Sinan Tamuaden is actually one of the few indigenous people who run their own business in the cities. Before starting her sanitation and cleaning business in 1998, she spent several years surveying the market and get the necessary licensing. Still, she felt discriminated against. "As soon as clients know where I'm from, they start to negotiate on price," she says. "It seems that people are under the impression that we are nothing more than cheap labor." She never compromises on her price and backs this up with the highest quality service. After several years of hard work, the business, though small, has established its reputation and a regular customer base. [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, August 2007 |]

“The main reason that Sinan Tamuaden could begin a business is that she saved some money from her factory work and used it as starting capital. "Getting a loan would have put a lot of pressure on me," she says. "I don't like the feeling of owing money even before I start doing any business." Actually, had she tried to get a loan from a bank she would probably have been disappointed. Banks usually require land or property as collateral. But the situation with land titles in aboriginal reserves is chaotic. Some land is owned by individuals, some by the government, some is tribal property and some, while it can only be sold to aborigines, has been illegally sold to non-aborigines. Although the law says that privately owned property in aboriginal reserves can be used as collateral, the haziness and confusion surrounding land titles means that few banks want to take the trouble or the risk and usually reject such applications. |

“The CIP has actually initiated a low-interest loan program to offer help. Under the program, the CIP serves as a guarantor and makes up the difference between the low interest rate the borrower pays and commercial rates. The CIP has full authority on approving applications, but unfortunately has found itself making some bad calls. Lacking the ability to successfully run a business, many of the borrowers have defaulted; the lenders naturally turn to the guarantor for repayment. Currently, the CIP has to pay off debts of NT$180 million (US$5.5 million) and this sum is expected to rise to NT$400 million (US$12 million).” |

Economic Development in Aboriginal Areas

Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Taking measures to ensure indigenous people's work rights and economic security has become a global trend, but Lu thinks that most of the measures taken are supplementary or on a social welfare basis. They do not provide long-term jobs or steady income. He believes that the fundamental solution is to promote the economy of the tribal areas themselves. "We've been pulling aborigines away from their homes and cultures, assuming that they can fit into another system which, in fact, discriminates against them," he says. "A tribe-centered policy with local values and characteristics can work much better than one based on social integration." In fact, the CIP survey has also shown that while 14 percent of aborigines want to stay in the cities, two thirds, if given the choice, prefer to work at or near home. [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, August 2007 |]

“Given the natural resources and tribal heritage, the tourism and culture-related sector seems to be the most promising one to develop. Tourism, in fact, was one of the earliest tribal "industries." In the 1950s, aboriginal dances and songs, though "modified" by Han authorities, were a principal entertainment when visiting the Atayal in Wulai or the Thao at Sun Moon Lake. The aboriginal dance troupes did so well at the time that they not only attracted tourists but also performed abroad, before the balmy days for domestic tourism ended when the government opened overseas tourism in 1980. |

“With the resurrection of the domestic tourism market in recent years the government has seized the opportunity to promote tribal tourism, initiating the Tribal Six-Star Project two years ago. Tribes are encouraged to make use of their natural resources and cultural assets to attract tourists. The government, in addition to assistance in loans and infrastructure construction, also helps publish brochures, provide training programs on ecological tour-guiding, hotel operations, food and beverage management and the like. |

“Some aboriginal areas started to develop tourism long before this project and there seem to be problems that the project is not solving. Take Wulai, where half of the population is Atayal and aboriginal culture has always been one of its selling points. Tourism in the area has its ups and downs, but since hot spring baths have become popular in recent years, Wulai is now one of the most popular spots in northern Taiwan. Tourists, in addition to enjoying the hot springs and scenery, can also visit the local museum where they can learn about Atayal culture as well as enjoy dances and music. According to the township office, Wulai draws more than one million visitors a year. The only problem is that much of the tourism income has been going into the pocket of the non-aboriginal outsiders who own most of the businesses there. |

“The program nevertheless works fine in some other places. Take the Mataian area in Hualien County. Mataian has Taiwan's largest Amis population and the largest in-land wetland. After touring the local museum, converted from a 70-year-old traditional Amis house, tourists are guided through the wetland ecological system and watch the tribespeople using their traditional ecologically friendly fishing methods, before taking the catch to the nearby restaurant for a taste of Amis cooking. Shops selling aboriginal souvenirs also create job opportunities and bring in profits. Earlier this year, Mataian was designated as one of Taiwan's top 10 traditional fishing and farming villages. "The approach is to use local resources and the cultural heritage to support themselves," Lu says. "It forms a sustainable tribal economic system without exhausting the resources." |

That sounds familiar. Although the "source" of supply has changed from hunting and fishing to tourists' pockets, this "sustainable tribal economy" seems to resemble how things had functioned before people were forced to engage with another system. It seems ironic that after such a long and bitter struggle in the cities, aborigines should find it better to return to their tribes and live on their natural resources and cultural heritage, just as their ancestors did a century ago.” |

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.

Last updated June 2015

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