Unrecognised Indigenous Groups of Taiwan and their Struggle for Language Revival

Written by Barnaby Yeh

Image Credit: DSC_3633 by Gimi Wu/Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Siraya people during night festival

Before colonization, Taiwan was home to dozens of unique Austronesian languages. Over centuries of settler displacement and assimilation policies, many of these languages have been largely forgotten, as descendants of their original speakers gravitated towards Sinitic (Chinese) languages instead, a process that continues today. Under the rationale that they “assimilated”, these groups, now known as “Plains People”, were not given special status as Indigenous peoples by the ROC dictatorship. Today, after democratization, with more attention being paid to Taiwan’s diversity, these people are re-asserting their identities and attempting to revive their languages, but still face major obstacles as unrecognized peoples.

Mainstream linguists have pinned Taiwan as the homeland of the Austronesian language group, which stretches from Madagascar to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), due to the sheer diversity of languages on a small surface area of a little over 32,000 square kilometers. Robert Blust has identified 9 primary branches of Austronesian on Taiwan, distinct from all other Austronesian languages belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian branch. Beginning from the Japanese colonial era, scholars have identified around 30 ethnolinguistic groups indigenous to Taiwan, each as distinct from another as English is from Russian.

Yet today, all official materials and statements about Taiwan’s indigenous peoples only identify 16 ethnic groups, and even fewer in prior decades. They are said to number around 569,000 people, or 2.38% of the total population. These are the indigenous people as recognized by the Republic of China’s government.

However, a significant swath of Taiwan’s indigenous groups remains without any government recognition. A non-exhaustive list of these groups is: Basay, Ketagalan, Kulon, Qauqaut, Taokas, Pazeh, Kaxabu (pronounced ka-kha-bu), Papora, Babuza, Arikun, Lloa, Siraya, Taivoan, and Makatao. Because they lack a separate census category, among other factors, it is difficult to ascertain even a ballpark number for their population. (Noteworthy is that in 1935, a Japanese census counted them at 57,812, or about 1.1% of the total population at the time.)

The reason for their lack of visibility is very much tied with colonialism. The aforementioned groups lived on the western coastal plains and were thus given the collective designation “Plains People” (平埔族, pingpu zu) by colonial governments. Since the start of colonization in the 17th century, they have not only faced mass displacement and racial discrimination by settlers, but also government policies deliberately designed to assimilate them into Han Chinese culture. Under such pressure, they began to adopt the languages of the colonists, primarily what’s known today as Taiwanese Hokkien. Because of this, they were also known by the derogatory term “Cooked Savages” (熟番, shou fan), in contrast to the “Raw Savages” (生番, sheng fan) who lived mainly in the mountains and could better resist assimilation, retaining recognition as indigenous peoples today.

Although they enjoyed recognition as distinct under Japanese authority, the Kuomintang (KMT) that followed chose not to recognize them at all, deliberately excluding them from registering indigenous status, and counting them into the larger Han population – a finalization of the assimilation process that began under the Qing. This has resulted in a rapid loss of their cultures, including the extinction of the majority of their languages.

Even after democratization and localization, these groups, now known under the more sympathetic moniker “Plains Indigenous Peoples” (平埔原住民族群, pingpu yuanzhumin zuqun), have still not been recognized as indigenous peoples with the rights conferred therein. 

With a special emphasis on Taiwan’s multicultural diversity in recent years, Plains Indigenous have become empowered to start a cultural and linguistic renaissance. Some like the Siraya and Taokas have meticulously reconstructed their languages from past data, while the Pazeh and Kaxabu never lost their mother tongues. However, because they remain unrecognized, they are ineligible to receive government funding for cultural events or education. Although the government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples (原住民族委員會) has established initiatives to assist Plains Indigenous in cultural activities, namely under the Tribe and Settlement Vitality Project (部落與聚落活力計畫), the Ministry of Education, which oversees language education in schools, does not offer any assistance to unrecognized groups whatsoever, refusing to fund textbooks and excluding their languages from being taught as regular courses in public schools. This produces an ironic situation where new immigrant languages such as Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian can be taught as regular mother tongue courses in schools, but many of Taiwan’s own indigenous languages cannot be – even Pazeh-Kaxabu, the only continuously living indigenous language(s) of Taiwan to be unrecognized.

Nearly all Plains Indigenous language advocates emphasize the importance of recognition from the national government. As summarized by Kaisanan Ahuan, a Taokas activist from Puli, lack of government recognition is the primary obstacle to a full-fledged revival. “Because Plains Indigenous are not nationally recognized as Indigenous people, their languages are not national languages. Therefore, we cannot teach our mother tongues under the national education framework. If these groups get recognized, only then can mother tongue instruction materials be legalized [for teaching in schools], bringing along government policies and resources to help mother tongue revival.”

Unrecognized indigenous groups that hope to promote and transmit their ethnic languages must do so either outside the public school system, or use creative loopholes to get in. Taokas teacher Kala Liu Chiu-Yun (劉秋雲), was recently able to teach a mother tongue course in Houlong Xin’gang Elementary School (後龍新港國小), but only because the school principal invited Liu to teach under the guise of “local culture”. Meanwhile, the Pazeh have primarily conducted classes within the church environment, while the closely related Kaxabu opted for community classes, sponsored by the local academic and cultural organizations.

In contrast to the above, the Siraya people enjoy recognition from the government of Tainan City, which provides them with resources necessary to conduct cultural events and language classes. With their assistance, they have been able to expand to a significant number of Siraya classes in schools across Tainan and Kaohsiung.

Siraya teacher Lici Talavan of Xinhua, Tainan says that even though Siraya enjoys local support, Siraya teachers still need the power of central government recognition to overcome the deficiencies arising from insufficient resources. In an interview on Taiwan Indigenous Television (TITV), she says: “Because the Siraya, along with other Plains Indigenous groups, aren’t recognized on a national level, we aren’t eligible for the resources necessary to create new teaching materials, fund existing teachers, and hire new teachers. Our current teachers are stretched so thin that they must travel far across Tainan, and some even have to take other jobs. Currently all Siraya classes must be extracurricular. Only national recognition would allow us to teach in schools as regular language classes.

“The teachers must know that they aren’t wasting their time, and they have enough backing, be it in terms of educational resources, financial resources, or policy.”

Yet there remain major obstacles on the long way towards recognition, with opposition coming from both the Han majority and the state-recognized Indigenous population, mainly among those affiliated with the KMT. The latter often raise the fear that if Plains Indigenous groups get recognition, then pre-existing resources given to them would instead be given to Plains Indigenous, whom they feel are less deserving due to being more assimilated.

Meanwhile, Plains Indigenous have been either met with indifference or rejection from greater society. Although the former County Magistrate of Miaoli, Liu, Cheng-ching (劉政鴻), is an ethnic Taokas, the ultra-conservative Miaoli government has never paid particular attention to minority cultures. Moreover, UNESCO declared Pazeh a dead language upon the 2010 passing of Pan, Jin-yu (潘金玉), supposedly the last native Pazeh speaker at the time, when there had reportedly been 5 living native Pazeh speakers. Assuming that Kaxabu is the same language, the situation would have been even less critical. The proclamation of the death of Pazeh would appear to be part of a persistent attempt to paint Taiwanese Plains Indigenous cultures as extinct, their descendants assimilated into the Han Chinese majority. This is especially ironic considering the bigotry that Plains Indigenous peoples had endured at the hands of Han settlers and their descendants for their distinctive appearances.

All of this has made language revival a major uphill battle. Despite this, Plains Indigenous activists have proven great ingenuity in their efforts, using whatever resources and tactics at their disposal to overcome the obstacles that come with lack of recognition. The Taokas, Pazeh, Kaxabu, and Siraya come from different places, both geographically and in terms of circumstance, but they have all been able to produce full-fledged revival programs that have entered the mainstream indigenous and non-indigenous worlds. The Pazeh and Siraya have also had the accomplishment of training news anchors on TITV, who would broadcast in their respective ethnic languages. Bauké Dai’i, a Kaxabu activist, says that this would greatly increase visibility for the Plains Indigenous community overall.

As Taiwanese society becomes ever cognizant of not only its diversity contained within, but also on rectifying injustices committed in the past. There has seldom been a bigger injustice than the erasure of a significant portion of Taiwan’s indigenous people. For Taiwan to be seen as the progressive society that it desires to be, it must achieve justice for Plains Indigenous people, yet there has been insufficient action on this front, and they remain largely invisible and neglected. The situation is even more dire when considering that Plains Indigenous elders, guardians of their cultures, are departing, taking valuable knowledge with them. As the government tarries, even more would be lost past the point of no return. That would deliver the ultimate victory to imperialist colonialism, which Taiwan claims to resist.

Still, the island’s unsung natives endure, continually fighting for the right to be recognized on their ancient homeland.

Barnaby Yeh, known in Makatao as Lobun, is a Plains Indigenous activist currently based in the United States. He hails from the Kalapo tribal settlement in northern Pingtung County, known for its active cultural preservation and revival programs. His work, including a publication in Chrysanthemum: Voices of the Taiwanese Diaspora, focuses on the issues of language, culture, and identity with emphasis on unrecognized Plains Indigenous peoples and their relationships with surrounding ethnic groups.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Multilingual Taiwan.

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