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Members of one Indigenous tribe in Taiwan reflect on their indentity


In Hualien County, Taiwan, we're on the eastern edge of this island, where lush green mountains loom over the Pacific Ocean. It's a region where many members of the Indigenous Truku tribe live.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: Since our team has been in Taiwan, we've been asking two central questions - what does it mean to be Taiwanese, and who does Taiwan belong to? You don't often hear answers to those questions from the people who've been on this island long before anyone else - before the Chinese, the Japanese or the Dutch - the people who were in Taiwan first.

Ciwang, so nice to meet you.

CIWANG TEYRA: Nice to meet you in person.

CHANG: (Laughter) Finally.


CHANG: Ciwang Teyra is half Truku - on her father's side. She grew up here in Hualien.

And you're Ciwang's father?


CHANG: Teyra? Teyra?

YUDAW: My name is Teyra Yudaw.

CHANG: Ciwang's father, Teyra Yudaw, now runs a bed and breakfast, and he greets us with a traditional welcome song.

YUDAW: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: He's singing, I wish you strength, because you need strength to survive in these mountains.

YUDAW: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: Growing up, when people would learn that Ciwang was Indigenous, they would sometimes ask the most ridiculous questions, like whether she rode a wild boar to get to school.

OK, have you ever ridden a wild boar to go to school?

TEYRA: Of course not.

CHANG: (Laughter).

TEYRA: You know, wild boar is very aggressive.

CHANG: (Laughter).

TEYRA: It's impossible for us to ride a wild boar to go to any place.

CHANG: Ciwang says ignorance like this led to the research she's doing today. She's a professor of social work at National Taiwan University in Taipei and focuses on the historical trauma that Indigenous communities suffer.

Today, Indigenous people form about 2% of this island's population. The Taiwanese government tries to hold up those communities as part of what makes Taiwan a distinct society. President Tsai Ing-wen has formally apologized to the Indigenous people for centuries of abuse, and Indigenous culture is now being taught in some schools. But Ciwang's father, Teyra Yudaw, says a lot of people in Taiwan still look down on his people.

YUDAW: (Through interpreter) A lot of average Taiwanese people would say to me, you're Indigenous. You're not Taiwanese. I say, because I'm Indigenous, I am a real Taiwanese person.

CHANG: Even when people on this island refer to Taiwanese as a language, they usually mean a language spoken all over Taiwan called Hokkien.

Hokkien - it's what I spoke...


CHANG: ...When I was a little girl growing up, and I was taught to call it Taiwanese. But that feels exclusive to you.

TEYRA: Exactly, yeah. I think because, in Taiwan, we have at least 16 Indigenous groups. We have our own different languages. But why every time when we mention Taiwanese...

CHANG: As a language.

TEYRA: ...As a language, then that's a particular, specific language.

CHANG: A language that is never Indigenous.

TEYRA: No, no.

CHANG: Yeah, yeah.

TEYRA: Indigenous people also face a long history of colonial oppression - for example, like a forced relocation, assimilation policy...

CHANG: Forced assimilation?

TEYRA: Forced assimilation. Yeah. Because...

CHANG: In what ways have Truku people been forced to assimilate here?

TEYRA: I feel like an entire lifestyle change.

CHANG: What Ciwang means is how Truku people were forced from their homes in the mountains down to the foothills, where now the soundtrack to their daily lives is the noise of traffic.


CHANG: Indigenous people were also punished if they ever spoke their native languages instead of the required Mandarin. Ciwang says stripping her people of their cultural roots has led to enormous mental health challenges, like substance abuse.

TEYRA: Traditionally, we don't have a substance abuse problem. We don't have a domestic violence problem. We don't have increasing suicide issue. And so I started to realize, yeah, I can see the impact of colonial oppression.

CHANG: Indigenous peoples say one form of ongoing oppression is Taiwan's conservation laws, which restrict their hunting. Hunting is central to the Truku way of life. And Ciwang explains that hunting, to them, is about much more than killing animals for meat. It's a spiritual practice, a communion with ancestors. And, she says, ecological balance is already built into their concept of hunting.

TEYRA: Hunting in our language is thasamma. Thasamma means living with animals. We need to coexist with them together in order to maintain our daily life and in order to have the next generations. So I feel like that's very important for our psychological and spiritual health.

CHANG: And Ciwang's research has found that revitalizing traditional practices like hunting can help heal intergenerational trauma.

TEYRA: If we are able to practice hunting, we are allowed to follow our elders. In this way, we can see intergeneration relationship-building. If we are able to practice hunting culture without any worry about legal impact, then we can heal.

CHANG: That's why her father and other members of the tribe are working to restore certain hunting rights.

LOH SHI: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: At this point, one of the elders in Ciwang's community, Loh Shi, leads a prayer as two hunters set a trap.


CHANG: They've been kind enough to demonstrate some traditional hunting techniques.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: You stick the stick in the ground. Then you want to thread this very thin rope through that notch, and you're creating an open loop.

And that loop grabs an animal by the leg and yanks it up.

(Shouting) Oh (laughter).

Although the government has recently granted elder Loh Shi and other Indigenous people permits to hunt certain species in limited areas, he says they still can't hunt on some of their traditional homeland because it's now a national park.

SHI: (Through interpreter) We don't need the government to regulate the way we hunt because the Truku people - we already regulate ourselves. For example, we don't hunt during mating season. We hunt in a way that preserves the balance of nature.

CHANG: And that's why Indigenous people keep pushing for greater hunting rights. Teyra Yudaw has been meeting directly with President Tsai Ing-wen as part of an Indigenous advisory committee. And although he recognizes that her administration has done more than any other president to work with Indigenous people, he says there is still a long way to go.

YUDAW: (Through interpreter) We've become second-class citizens. Even though our feet are planted on this land, we're not allowed to manage our own affairs. We are wanderers on our own land. Every colonizer is the same to us. They all came to subjugate us. But at least the Japanese didn't destroy our culture. It was the government of the Republic of China that assimilated us. It was the people who came from China who exploited our land.

CHANG: If China ends up exerting more control over Taiwan, do you think that would be good or bad for the Truku people and other Indigenous people on this island?

YUDAW: (Through interpreter) Well, if you talk about China invading Taiwan, we would definitely risk our lives to resist China. But it's not about defending Taiwan. It's about protecting our land.

CHANG: OK, now I'm going to ask a simple but big question - who does Taiwan belong to?

YUDAW: (Through interpreter) This land belongs to people who understand its history begins with Indigenous people. As long as you love this land and you recognize that history, then you are a friend of the Indigenous people of Taiwan.

CHANG: He says, whether your ancestors came 70 or 300 or thousands of years ago, now, they all live on the same land. And if you can recognize the beginnings of that shared history, everyone in Taiwan can live in harmony.

YUDAW: (Singing in non-English language).


This story was produced by Jonaki Mehta and Mallory Yu, with Hugo Peng. Patrick Jarenwattananon edited the story.

YUDAW: You're my dear friend. I'm happy to meet you...

CHANG: Oh...

YUDAW: ...Make it strong, your life.


CHANG: ...I wish you strength as well. Oh, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]