Aboriginal Tribes & Festivals
This month our feature is the twelve aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, the Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Thao, Truku, Tsou, and Yami. Each aboriginal tribe has its own culture, lifestyle, language and stories, and many of their age-old traditions remain alive today. There is no better time to experience these unique tribal cultures than at their festivals, when the tribespeople, clad in colorful headdresses and costumes, perform their traditional dances and songs.
This month we're going to introduce the twelve aboriginal tribes. We'll also highlight a few of their main festivals, which we recommend to visitors when they come to Taiwan.
Aboriginals have been in Taiwan for around 15,000 years and are said to have come over the water from Southern China around 3,000 BC. Another new theory states that Taiwan may in fact be the ancestral homeland of all the Austronesian tribes currently scattered over the Pacific. What is certain, however, is that Taiwan is one of the last places on earth where you can experience the age-old cultures and customs of the Pacific peoples, whose rituals often center on sowing, harvesting and hunting.
The twelve tribes can be found in the mountainous areas covering most of Taiwan. The Saisiyat dwell in Hsinchu and Miaoli; the Thao live in Nantou; the Tsou people in Chiayi's Alishan area; the Rukai in Kaohsiung and Taitung; the Paiwan at the southern end of the Central Mountain Range; the Puyuma in the southern valley of Taitung; the Bunun in the middle part of the Central Mountain Range; the Amis are in Hualien and Taitung; the Atayal are located in the mountain areas of mid to northern Taiwan; the Kavalan live in Hualien and Taitung; the Truku reside in the Taroko Gorge area; finally the Yami, the only oceanic tribe, live on Lanyu Island.
The Saisiyat have a population of about 5,000 and are made up of different clans, all of which have their own totems and symbols. The Saisiyat cultivate rice, millet, sorghum, wheat and sweet potato. The tribe worships the Ta-ai, or the Short People, who taught the Saisiyat about agriculture, and gave them seeds. To the Saisiyat, the Short People were a great influence and their most important benefactors, for whom the Saisiyat hold the Ritual of the Short People, or the Pas-taai every other year. The ritual lasts three days and three nights sacred songs and dances may not be performed till one month before the ritual commences.
The Atayal live mainly in the mountains of northern Taiwan. Facial tattooing is the main cultural feature of the tribe. Facial tattoos mark the coming of age for the Atayal men and women. The men's tattoos are usually on their forehead and chin while the women's are on their forehead and cheeks. Facial tattooing was banned during Japan's colonization of Taiwan, so now the tattoo can only be found on the faces of very old Atayal tribesmen. Another unique feature of the tribe is that it doesn't have a chieftain. Only when the tribe is faced with an outside threat is a chieftain elected to lead the tribesmen.
With a population of around 146,000, the Amis are Taiwan's biggest aboriginal tribe. Amis society is organized according to two distinctive features: the age hierarchy among its men, and the matrilineal system. Among the Amis men, seniority is highly valued and work is allocated according to age. However, the tribe as a whole is a matrilineal society. The Amis are best known for their dancing and singing, and their singing was featured as the theme music for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
The Bunun are noted for their brave hunters and the world-famous Pasibutbut, a chorus of eight chromatic alterations sung in prayer for a bountiful millet harvest. The chorus is composed of eight ascending scales which complement one another to create some of the most harmonious and amazing works of music in the world. The ascending chromatic scales create a sound world which echoes through the mountains ranges that are home to the tribe.
Similar to the Yami and Saisiyat, the Tsou are a very small tribe with a population of around 7,000 people. The Tsou have a patriarchal society consisting of different political institutions. Tsou men have an assembly hall called the Kuba, which is off-limits to the women. In the Kuba teenage boys are trained before they come of age and marry. The Tsou's most important tribal ritual is the Mayasvi, or the Victory Ritual, in which the god of war is worshipped and honored with sacrifices, singing and dancing.
The Yami have a population of only 4,000 and are the only oceanic tribe among Taiwan's 12 aboriginal groups. Located on Orchid Island, or Lanyu, the Yami's elaborately decorated fishing canoes, the loincloths worn by Yami men, the Flying Fish Festival and the traditional semi-subterranean dwellings are some of the tribe's unique cultural features.
The Paiwan have two hereditary social classes: the nobles and the commoners. Class distinctions are shown by costume, the carvings on the dwellings or the utensils, and the tattoos. One of the Paiwan's mostly commonly seen decorative patterns is the hundred-pace snake, which is a sacred animal symbolizing nobility.
Like the Paiwan, the Rukai also have social classes. While the landed nobility is socially superior, the common Rukai people can elevate their social status by improving their agricultural skills, cultivating leadership and most importantly, through marriage. To the Rukai, the lily is a sacred flower, and the chieftain awards lilies to brave Rukai hunters and chaste Rukai women.
The Puyuma were once a very populous tribe, but their numbers have fallen to only about 10,000. The tribe consists of eight sub-tribes, and each with its own tale of origin. For example the Beinan sub-tribe consider themselves born of bamboo, while another sub-tribe regards the stone as its first ancestor. The Puyuma has a matrilineal family system, in which the eldest daughter controls the family and inherits everything. Like the Tsou, the unmarried Puyuma men also gather at an assembly hall where they are trained to protect their tribe. The assembly hall is also where the coming of age rituals for young men are performed. For most people, the Puyuma's most distinctive cultural artifact is their weaving, which is extremely complex and intricate, with numberless colorful patterns.
The Thao is another small tribe with only about 3,000 people, who live primarily near Sun Moon Lake in Nantou. According to Thao legends, the tribe used to live in the Alishan area. One day on a hunting expedition, some tribesmen chased a white deer to the beautiful lake. The deer was chased into the water before it was shot down by the Thao hunters. Its blood attracted many fish which were caught by the hunters, who found them delicious. The Thao ancestors decided to move from Alishan to settle by the lake, where they remain to this day.
The Kavalan originally lived in the plains of Yilan and were forced to moved south to Hualien and Taitung during the Cing Dynasty, when the Han Chinese started to populate the rich soils of Yilan's plains. The tribe's primary economic activities are fishing and farming, on which many of its festivals center. It has a matriarchal social system in which women play an important tribal role similar to that of a priest. Among the men there is also an age seniority system as there is in many of the other aboriginal tribes.
The Truku were not officially recognized as an individual tribe till early 2004. Their society is patrilineal and the Truku men hunt while the women weave cloth. Its chieftain is decided via the tribesmen's joint recommendation, in what must be a very early form of democracy.
The best way to experience the full variety and uniqueness of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan is to attend one of their many amazing festivals, which are still celebrated throughout the year.
Every July, the Festival of Austronesian and Formosa Cultures is held in Taitung. Austronesian languages are widely dispersed throughout the islands of Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and even on continental Asia. Some archeologists think this large language family originated in eastern to southeastern China. It then migrated to Taiwan several millennia ago, before it spread further to the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia. At this year's festival, fabric dyeing and weaving is the main theme. It aims to explore and display the traditional fabric weaving and dyeing techniques of the Formosan tribes as well as the Austronesian tribes from Southeast Asia. Folk dancers and music groups from around Taiwan and the world perform at the festival. In addition to this, various cultural exhibitions are also on display for visitors who wish to understand more about the Austronesian cultures. The festival lasts for about two weeks and is a must-see when you visit Taiwan.
The Yami on Orchid Island are born fishermen whose main catch is the flying fish. Every March to June is the season for flying fish and the Yami hold their famous Flying Fish Festival from February to April as a ritual in expectation and celebration of a great harvest. The dancing and singing Yami men in loincloths carry their hand-carved fishing canoes, and toss them up high to pray for a good catch for the year.
The Bunun hold the Ear-shooting Festival every April to May. Bunun hunters bring back the ears of wild boars, deer or other animals which they have caught on their hunt and hang the them up in the trees as offerings, to honor and show thanks to the spirits of the hunting tools. At the festival the Bunun men sing the world-famous Pasibutbut, a chorus of eight chromatic alterations, to pray for a bountiful millet harvest. In February, May, August and September the Tsou, Atayal, and the Amis all have their own harvest festival, at which visitors can witness colorful costumes, exotic singing and dancing and other ancient traditions. In recent years the Hualien County Government has held a joint harvest festival in the summer for the Amis, the Bunun, the Kavalan and the Truku. The festival has become a major tourist event in Hualien. If you venture into the individual small aboriginal villages during this time, you may also be able to witness some smaller local harvest festivals.
In the indigenous Tsou language, "fona" refers to a bean commonly known as the hyacinth bean. It comes from a perennial plant which grows well on barren soil and in adverse conditions. Thus, for the Tsou the bean symbolizes life and the continuation of the tribe. The Fona Festival is held every October, and consists of a modified Tsou marriage, representing a symbolic effort to continue the tribe. The bean is an important offering in the ceremony, which begins with the bride and the groom being separately fitted with headdresses and then receiving a light "spanking" with a large wooden paddle. The couple then walk together under an arch of spears held by the men of the tribe. An exchange of trinkets is then performed during which the groom gives his bride a bamboo cup and the bride gives her groom a pouch decorated with flowers. They then drink millet wine together from a bamboo vessel with two cups joined together. Finally, they receive blessings from the elders. The ceremony ends with songs and dances performed by the members of the tribe, all dressed in the tribe's traditional costume. Throughout the ceremony, wild boar meat and millet wine are served.
There are many other aboriginal festivals held around Taiwan at different times throughout the year. Fascinating tales and intriguing meanings lie behind every ceremony, ritual and artifact of the aboriginal tribes. If you are looking for a vacation on which you can experience and witness the world's different cultures, Taiwan is the perfect place for you!