Taiwanese Mountains and Plains Indigenous Peoples: Facing Different Trials, Yet the Same Fate

Written by Chen I-Chen.

Image credit: The “ma-olau” (an annual ceremony of the Makatao tribe) of Kapulong community by Chen I-Chen.

The Classificatory System of Indigenous Status in Taiwan

Is Indigeneity a self-evident category? Or is “Indigenous” defined differently by the policies and politics of each nation-state? On June 28, 2022, a constitutional review of the Supreme Court’s debate on the Indigenous Status of the “Plains” peoples (the “Pingpu,” 平埔族群) shed light on the discussion surrounding Taiwan’s national recognition of Indigenous status. The “Plains” peoples, headed by the Siraya, had fought for more than three decades to have their Indigenous status recognised under the category of the “lowland” Indigenous peoples (平地原住民)”. As a crucial result of the long struggle for the Plains peoples’ legal status, the final judgement will be declared no later than this late November.  

Long before the Republic of China, the Japanese colonial regime, the Qing Dynasty, and even the Europeans settled in Taiwan, numerous Indigenous Peoples’ tribes had already inhabited this island, formerly known as “Ilha Formosa”. Each tribe had its own language, territory, cultural traditions, and social structure, all of which played significant roles in Taiwanese history. However, subsequent regimes often arbitrarily categorised these people due to how they encountered them. 

Inheriting the Qing Dynasty’s classification of peoples in Taiwan, distinguished by the extent of governed and educated, the Japanese regime continued the categories of ethnic groups and applied them to the registration system for holistic governance of Indigenous Peoples. At almost the end of the Japanese period, the government divided Indigenous Peoples into two major categories:  Mountains Indigenous Peoples (高山族) and Plains Indigenous Peoples (平埔族). The government of the Republic of China maintained the classification system; further subdivided Mountains Indigenous Peoples into “highland” Indigenous peoples (山地原住民) and “lowland” Indigenous peoples (平地原住民) while did not maintain the category of Plains Indigenous Peoples.

The Distinct Encounters Each Group Has Been Facing

What made the regimes’ decisions different after they encountered the two groups? From their perspectives, what are the differences between the Mountains Indigenous peoples and the Plains Indigenous Peoples? One noticeable and fundamental difference is the degrees of “civilisation,” which was why dominators divided Indigenous Peoples into Mountains and Plains. Whereas most of the so-called Mountains Indigenous Peoples lived in the centre and east coast, most of the Plains Indigenous Peoples resided on the beach, plains, and hills in western Taiwan. Since western Taiwan was exploited earlier than eastern Taiwan, where Indigenous Peoples inhabited determined how they interacted with Han immigrants from China and when their traditional culture was eroded by Han culture. 

Geographically, the areas inhabited by the Plains Indigenous Peoples were considerably more accessible than those inhabited by the Mountains Indigenous Peoples. This characteristic made the fates of the Plains Indigenous Peoples, who consequently had more interactions with the foreign powers. During the Qing Dynasty ruling over Taiwan, the Han population on the island increased dramatically, leading to the acculturation of the lives of Plains Indigenous Peoples. By intermarrying with Han, adopting an agricultural lifestyle affected by Han, and learning Mandarin from Han, Plains Indigenous Peoples were gradually “civilised”; on the contrary, Mountains Indigenous Peoples maintained their original customs, which were considered “uncivilised by dominators.

Another aspect of the difference between Mountains and Plains Indigenous Peoples, which relates to the former one, involves an issue in the “authenticity” of ethnicity. Ironically, the Taiwanese government now distinguishes Mountains Indigenous Peoples from Plains Indigenous Peoples because of the more authenticity the former showed. Currently, there are sixteen tribes recognised by the Taiwanese government, including sixteen of the Mountains Indigenous Peoples and none of the Plains Indigenous Peoples. Despite the social, cultural, and political rights that Mountains Indigenous Peoples have already acquired, the government has not yet proposed any plans to amend laws for their collective rights. Not to mention the national recognition of the status of the Plains Indigenous peoples. Mountains Indigenous Peoples own three seats of legislators. At the same time, the political right of the current plains Indigenous Peoples status is not guaranteed, meaning that the members of these Peoples can not run for the legislator election as Indigenous representatives.

The Similar Fate both Mountains and Plains Indigenous Peoples Confront

Though Mountains Indigenous Peoples and Plains Indigenous Peoples appear to have had distinct encounters with Han immigrants and now hold different statuses, they have faced the same fate throughout history. Despite the distinctions made by a series of authorities, these two groups of Indigenous Peoples share the same ancestor and the same challenge.

Plains Indigenous Peoples are considered Austronesian-speaking people, with linguistic and genetic ties to other Austronesian peoples, just as Mountains Indigenous Peoples are. Aside from language, these two groups of Indigenous Peoples also share—to a varying degree—common cultural characteristics, including widespread traditions and technologies like tattooing, rice wine making, embroidering, and various woodcarving motifs. Both celebrate the annual harvest festival, sing and dance hand-in-hand in an open circle, and express gratitude to their ancestral spirits. Many Plains Indigenous Peoples, like some of the Mountains Indigenous Peoples, are matrilineal societies. Many thought the two groups owned social and cultural internal consistency, respectively, and were opposite to each other; however, not only Mountains Indigenous Peoples but also Plains Indigenous Peoples contain abundant diversity of cultures within more than ten tribes they each include.

The cultural survival dilemmas that Plains Indigenous Peoples faced in the past are comparable to those that Mountains Indigenous Peoples will face in the future and even now. Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples experienced economic competition and military conflict with colonising peoples for centuries. Government policies designed to foster language shift and cultural assimilation have resulted in varying degrees of language death and loss of original cultural identity. NeitherPlains Indigenous Peoples nor Mountains Indigenous Peoples could escape from being ethnicised, nationalised, modernised, and capitalised. By including, but not limited to, identity, economic, and environmental issues, Plains Indigenous Peoples and Mountains Indigenous Peoples share similar social and cultural milieus. They strive collectively to defend historical and transitional justice. 

In this regard, Mountains Indigenous Peoples and Plains Indigenous Peoples are different yet alike. Although these two groups of Indigenous Peoples seem to differ in many historical discourse contexts, such as “civilised versus “uncivilised” and inauthenticity versus authenticity, they share much more than one common experience. The cultural basis and the destiny they face are astonishingly similar. Furthermore, their differences probably contribute as much as their similarities toward our understanding of transitional and indigenous justice. Honestly, the social and cultural issues faced by two groups of Indigenous Peoples are the general challenges the whole society in Taiwan confronts.

The Plains peoples’ fight can remedy the vulnerable cultural and economic situation they are struggling with and be conducive to pointing out the limitations and blind spots of contemporary ethnic politics in Taiwan. Just like the transitional justice process, reconciliation is not only between the State and Indigenous Peoples, but the entire community shall understand and participate.

The system of classification of Indigenous Status in Taiwan (Illustrated by Chen I-Chen).

Chen I-Chen graduated from National Taiwan University with a master’s degree in anthropology. Her research tracks the dynamic of the practice of ethnicity, contemporary cultural revitalization, and the assembling nature of ritual in Taiwan’s Indigenous communities.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Invisible Discrimination in Taiwan.”

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