Aborigine people have inhabited Taiwan for thousands of years before the arrival of Chinese settlers

They are the First Nations of Taiwan.

My first contact with aborigine people of Taiwan occurred around the year 1995, long time before i had any idea that one day i would have come to live in this island.

At that time a song, called "Return to Innocence", was on the Top 10 in several countries and also became the unofficial anthem of Atlanta Olympic Games

That song mixed an "ethnic" chant with electronic music.

As everybody else, i thought that the chant was from native americans.

I was wrong. As I discovered later in Taiwan - where everybody knows this story, the "ethnic" singers were a couple of Taiwan aboriginals, husband and wife, from the Ami tribe: Difang and Igay Duana.

Without their acknowledgment the traditional "Elders Drinking Song", performed during a culture exchange tour in France, was recorded and later sampled by the band Enigma for their hit.

Difang and Igay had to fight a long battle before receiving their deserved recognition from EMI Records. But this is another story ...

Who are the aborigine people of Taiwan

When Dutch colonized Taiwan in 1624, almost 400 years ago, the only inhabitants they found were Taiwan aboriginals. Before that event aborigine people have been living in Taiwan, almost undisturbed, for thousand of years.

Taiwan aboriginals have nothing in common with australian ones, except the name. "Aborigine" or "aboriginal" is a word derived from Latin that simply means "original inhabitant, native, indigenous."

The origin of indigenous peoples of Taiwan is still debated. It is certain that they belong to the family of Austronesian peoples.

Therefore Taiwan aboriginals are different from Han Chinese and rather similar to Polynesians, Malays and Filipinos. Today a quite popular theory argues that Taiwan is the original "home" of all the Austronesian people.

Hence the Austronesian would have migrated from Taiwan westward to Madagascar and eastward to Polynesia and New Zealand.

The great Austronesian migration from TaiwanThe Austronesian migrations - Map by Christophe Cagé on Wikipedia

Fourteen Aboriginal Tribes

Nowadays there are about 450,000 aboriginals in Taiwan. They account for only 2% of the population.

Map of aborigine people of Taiwan Taiwan Aboriginals Tribes
Map by Ling.Nut on Wikipedia

Taiwanese government officially recognizes 14 tribes, each of them different for culture and language. Here is a list:

  • Amis
  • Atayal
  • Bunun
  • Kavalan
  • Paiwan
  • Puyuma
  • Rukai
  • Saisiat
  • Sakizaya
  • Seediq
  • Thao
  • Truku
  • Tsou
  • Yami

Most aborigine people live on the mountains. Many have migrated to the cities, where often earn a living as costruction workers.

Culture of Taiwan Aborigines

Not long time ago being an aboriginal in Taiwan was often considered somewhat as a handicap. Something not to be very proud of, something that had to be kept hidden. This happened even if the vast majority of Taiwanese have aboriginal ancestors.

Because of the political and cultural freedom of the last 20 years that mindset has changed very fast.

The aboriginals themselves have rediscovered with pride their roots, their heritage.

Also, more and more ethnic Chinese have a more positive view of aborigine people. Especially some of the younger Taiwanese see, somewhat romantically, the aboriginals as pursuing a more "authentic" lifestyle.

To put it simple, more Taiwanese see the different people of Taiwan, including aborigine people, as fellows in that small boat called "Taiwan".

A new aboriginal slate house in Maolin, Southern TaiwanA new aboriginal slate house in Maolin, Southern Taiwan

Obviously sometimes there is also marketing in this new attitude. Tasteless amusement parks, soulless "traditional dances" and especially fake "made in China" aboriginal handcrafts have spreaded.

Anyway CDs of real aboriginal music, often extremely good and inspiring, are available and appreciated everywhere in Taiwan. And authentic aboriginal handcrafts are available also, especially if you go to the right places.

Another proof that Taiwanese aboriginals are "cool" now? Look at - and listen to - the following commercial of a new car brand - the incredibly beautiful and moving song is of course aboriginal, presented as the authentic signature of the "Taiwanness" of this car going out to the world.

Aborigine people songs and dances are rightfully famous. Music has always been part of everyday life. As the "Elders Drink Song" from Difang e Igay: a traditional song used to welcome friends and to express the joy of meeting and toasting them.

All the aboriginals of Taiwan had dances and songs to celebrate the community events: harvesting millet, hunting, love and, yes, also war and head-hunting.

Gorgeous traditional dresses, still used for ceremonies, are another important aspect of Taiwan aboriginal culture.

So aborigine people are more and more part of "mainstream culture" in Taiwan. One more example, the new movie by Wei Te-Sheng, a director very popular here in Taiwan after "Cape No. 7". The new movie, Seediq Bale, will be about the "Wushe Incident", the last unfortunate aboriginal rebellion against Japanese rule in 1930. Have a look to the trailer:

Where you can meet Taiwan aborigine people?

Aboriginals can be found almost everywhere in the mountains or along the East Coast. Each time you enter a village adorned with colorful decorations or with a church - aboriginals are mostly Christians - you can be sure you are on aboriginal land.

The most interesting places to meet aborigine people and their culture are maybe these:

  • Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines (Taipei)
  • Wulai - near Taipei (Atayal)
  • Bulau Bulau - Yilan (Atayal)
  • Smangus - quite remote (Atayal)
  • Sandimen and Maolin in Southern Taiwan (Rukai)
  • Buluowan (Truku) at Taroko Gorge
  • Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village in Sun Moon Lake
  • Lanyu/Orchid Island (Yami)

A book you must read

A very good resource about Taiwan aboriginals is the book "The Real Taiwan and the Dutch - Traveling Notes from the Netherland Representative". The book is from the former Dutch "ambassador" in Taiwan (and honorary Rukai chieftain), Menno Goedhart, and from Cheryl Robbins.

Menno Goedhart have been travelling extensively in the most remote corners of Taiwan during his post and, later, decided to make the island his permanent home.

The book is different from any other English travel guide I have ever read about Taiwan as lists a lot of unknown inns and aboriginal food and restaurants. It is a real work of love and a book I wholeheartedly recommend if you want to explore Taiwan off the beaten track.

You can find some previews on Books From Taiwan online bookstore.

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