Taiwan island tribe clings to seafaring traditions

On this all but forgotten Pacific isle ruled by Taiwan, villagers have carved a traditional wooden fishing boat to teach their culture to an ethnic Chinese majority largely unaware of their existence.

Twelve men will row the boat, a super-sized model of what the island’s Tao tribe has used for centuries to catch flying fish, more than 65km eastward to Taiwan’s main population centres where they will show off their way of life to locals.

“We want people to know what ocean culture is, that it’s not just a fantasy,” said Shyaman Vengayan, organiser of the event.

Orchid aboriginals live now much as they have since Taiwan assumed control of the island 61 years ago.

But like many minority tribes across the globe, their way of life is being threatened by an influx of outside influences and departure of youth for the big cities of nearby Taiwan.

Families on this island, with its Hawaiian-like landscapes, feel ethnically closest to Austronesian minorities in the northern Philippines, with whom they traded on the high seas 200 years ago before ocean borders were drawn up.

The rowboat launch is just one indication that the Tao, also known as the Yami, hope to make the past their future despite decades of influence from a more developed Taiwan.

“There are a lot of people who still have the hope to keep our culture intact,” said Orchid vendor Sham Jagovat (35).

Numerous other traditions also continue. Flying fish can only be caught in the Tao-designated season, roughly from late March to early June, out of respect for their value to humans.

Women eat the best of the catch because they give birth, and only men can hang gutted fish for salting, drying and preservation.

Some of the 3 100 Tao on the island also live in traditional underground homes that keep out typhoons and stilt-supported pavilions that offer shade. They might consult shamans about medical issues, even though most are Christians.

The group maintains its traditions through an active effort, aided by isolation of their 45 square kilometre island, even as many youths go to Taiwan’s big island for work or study.

Assimilation drive

Many of the Tao have drifted towards outside lifestyles since the 1960s, when former leader Chiang Kai-shek pushed Taiwan’s 13 aboriginal groups to assimilate.

Orchid aboriginals now eat flying fish and a traditional taro-yam mash with wasabi sauce and alcoholic energy drinks.
They chew betel nut, a Taiwan staple. Some also use motorboats to fish or build Taiwan-style cement houses above ground.

They can freely move to Taiwan cities of more than one million people to gain university degrees and higher-paying jobs. Most Orchid Island youths speak Mandarin, with only the elders using the tribal language, which has no writing system.

Many youths who stay on the island find work building boats, but those who leave often don’t learn the craft.

Some work in a tourism industry founded on diving because of Orchid Island’s coral-bounded waters. But that business is less developed due to over-fishing and lack of transit links.

Despite limited opportunities, tribal elders hope that youths living outside will decide to return, using their education to record traditions, said Shya Pan Kotan (82).

“They’ll appreciate how we’ve lived, and they can write it down, so there won’t be an especially big loss,” he said.

Indigenous activists are also working to get Taiwan’s 13 recognised tribes, totalling about 400 000 people, to work together so they can lobby for their rights as a single tribe.

Activists say visits to the Philippines to study that nation’s inter-tribal activism as their own tribes drift apart could help Taiwanese aboriginals—some of whom are actually ethnically related to Philippine tribes—to better challenge developments threatening their way of life.

In a shift from its earlier policy promoting assimilation, Taiwan’s government will also do its part to try and keep the Tao traditions going.

The government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples will raise its budget for helping the 13 recognised aboriginal groups record and spread their cultures, a council official said.

“The new political regime has come in to rule us, but the old thinking can’t change,” said Fei Yu (37), an artist from Orchid Island. “We may go out to study and work, but we will eventually go back. We know we have our island we can return to.”—Reuters

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