A Proposition of Indigenous Diplomacy for Taiwan-Australian Indigenous Peoples

Written by Suliljaw Lusausatj.

Image credit: Aboriginal tent embassy, canberra by Feral Arts/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

In its engagement with Oceania, the Taiwan government has invested in various development projects in Palau, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Nauru, along with signing the ANZTEC agreement with Aotearoa New Zealand on bilateral free trade. At the community level, Taiwan’s Indigenous People have launched their own wayfinding initiatives with Indigenous Oceanian communities during the past few decades. Similarly, the Australian government pursued stronger ties with the Taiwan government, through educational, economic, and technological exchanges, with some Taiwanese visitors to Australia, as students or tourists or on working holidays. 

The Australian government has been working towards this goal by organising the annual Reconciliation Week that serves as a key moment of recognition for both Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders. In addition, the National Indigenous Australians Agency, Australia and the Council of Indigenous Peoples, Taiwan, are working on the draft of an Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda. The visit of the representative of the Australian Office in Taipei, Jenny Bloomfield (露珍怡), to the Council demonstrates the importance of mutual recognition for a multicultural society not only in Taiwan but also in Australia. 

Although Australia’s Indigenous Peoples are not Austronesian language speakers, with direct historical links to Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples, they share a broadly similar experience of colonial histories, national governance, social and economic environments, and most importantly, reliance on traditional subsistence practices and the importance of ancestral territories. Both peoples have experienced a gradual process of formal recognition. For example, the Prime Minister of Australia and the President of Taiwan issued formal apologies for the injustice done to Indigenous communities in 2008 and 2016, respectively. 

Despite these similarities, the Indigenous Peoples of Australia and Taiwan have not yet opened a constructive dialogue due to geographic distance, national policies and approaches to academic studies. This also applies to educational disciplines and uneven historical memories of colonialism. Therefore, perhaps it is important to think about the possibility of using new forms of diplomacy to build these relationships drawing on the traditional practices of Australian and Taiwan Indigenous Peoples. 

Finding Out a Way for Indigenous Diplomacy

Born and raised in an Indigenous-Han family in Kaohsiung City, my parents used to take my elder sister and me back and forth between the urban and village areas since I was a child. This momentum has also influenced the path of my academic career, encouraging me to study overseas and conduct fieldwork in places with which I am not familiar. For example, when I was doing my fieldwork in Samoa, Aotearoa, New Zealand and Mo’orea, French Polynesia, I noticed that sharing behaviour was a significant way to build bridges through which villagers could readily begin storytelling about individual achievements, memories, family genealogies, legends, and landscape and experience in negotiation with dominant societies. 

Regarding the history of Indigenous mobility such as traditional marriage to non-Indigenous or other Indigenous spouses, being recruited as Takasago Giyutai (高砂義勇隊), going fishing in the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean and relocating to cities in western and northern Taiwan, etc., these mobile experiences across intercity and transnational territories have inscribed in our genealogies and further paths a way for our descendants to explore new places. All these forms of interaction can be considered as Indigenous diplomatic exchanges through a process of wayfinding based on shared histories. This wayfinding has nothing to do with pursuing profit but instead with engaging ancestral values in common. This self-empowerment is not limited to the customary realm and can be extended to mass media and governments in search of reconciliation and collaboration with Indigenous communities and states. 

I propose Indigenous diplomacy as a model for constructing transnational relationships, emphasising the role of Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples, who share similar cultures, languages, and histories with the Indigenous Peoples of the central and eastern Pacific. This advocacy role also acknowledges Indigenous Peoples who are not necessarily Austronesian speakers residing on islands and landmasses but who recognise traditional diplomatic forms of cross-cultural engagement, such as marriage, becoming sworn relatives, material exchange, etc. Australian and Taiwanese Indigenous Peoples can draw on these customary practices in the meeting by acknowledging shared cultural values that distinguish them from European and Chinese societies. 

This proposition shows particular promise for studying cultural forms such as painting, tattooing, and carving, which both Indigenous communities in Australia and Taiwan share. For example, Indigenous Australian rock art practices have served as a deep historical record of continuities in cultural practice. Likewise, in the Paiwan community, we use designs, or vecikan, in tattooing and carving to document social and historical connections. In the customary diplomatic domain, Yolngu People in the Northern Territory have historically maintained cross-sea exchange relationships with Makassar People, Austronesian speakers from Sulawesi. Similarly, Paiwan People used to obtain glass beads exchanged from Southeast Asia. In recent years, young Paiwan people have also begun intra-community visits supporting cultural revival movements. With these Indigenous protocols in place, Indigenous Peoples can forge stronger diplomatic connections with the Australian and Taiwan governments internationally. 

Indigenous Diplomacy in Practice

I have outlined the context above to create connectivity fairly smoothly between countries. In practice, this proposition reconsiders the difference between ‘Indigenous cultural exchange’ and ‘Indigenous diplomacy,’, particularly in Taiwan. While the former denotes an interaction amongst two or more groups, the latter amplifies ancestral values through Indigenous ways, such as the kava ceremony in many Oceanic nations, cooperating a mutual understanding in pursuit of decolonisation. Unlike diplomacy, which originates from the West and emphasises state-to-state relationships, Indigenous diplomacy refers to inter/intra-community interactions in which negotiation and reciprocity are engaged. This concept does not imply political, military, and economic benefits between two or more modern states. Instead, it serves as a relationship built on the familial community on Indigenous levels. 

Although the Australian National University (ANU) has engaged extensively with Indigenous communities in the Pacific, it has paid little attention to Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan, who lie at the origin of the Austronesian-speaking peoples with which the scholars of the College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU have been working. The Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at ANU has actively commenced teaching on Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan, but this is less than sufficient. I suggest that the ANU should work more with Taiwanese Indigenous students and those interested in Indigenous topics to pursue a deeper and broader understanding of Aboriginal issues in Australia and Taiwan. 

Many physical events have been paused or cancelled during the Covid-19 lockdown and its prolonged influence. Cultural practices such as Indigenous tattooing, which should be conducted at a fairly close distance, had been halted organising. However, it does not mean that ancestral practices should be limited. As we have seen, many events have switched onto the Internet through demonstrations of their artwork or workshops on a storytelling about ancestral legends and lifetime histories, etc. We could take advantage of this changed form of exchange to engage with Australian Indigenous elders and audiences of Taiwan to talk about ancestral stories we valued. This can be viable as a Canadian Indigenous tattooing artist, Dion Kaszas, had convened a virtual artist talk on ‘Body Language’ in 2021.  

To conclude, I began this article by recognising Taiwan’s existing diplomatic alliance in the Pacific, bringing out the fact that Taiwan and Australian Indigenous People shared history in this massive ocean. Upon this foregrounding, I suggest it is worth advocating for Indigenous diplomacy between People-to-People, which can foster nation-to-nation relationships. Of course, my proposition of Indigenous diplomacy is not limited to the Austronesian-speaking family. Still, it interweaves those Peoples who ancestrally live on the Continent–Australia, with and without the global stagnation caused by the pandemic. 

Suliljaw Lusausatj is a Paiwan man born and raised in southern Taiwan, currently pursuing his doctoral degree in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Suliljaw’s PhD thesis examines trans-Indigenous diplomacy through Sāmoan tatau and Paiwan vecik.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Pacific Encounters.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s