An Insider or Outsider? Lessons from the Recognition of Mixed-Background Indigenous and the Pingpu Peoples in Taiwan 

Written By Nikal Kabalan’an (Margaret Yun-Pu Tu).

Image credit: DSC_3366 by Gimi Wu/ Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Regarding identity formation in Taiwan, the historical context of colonialism plays a crucial role because the arrival of each foreign ruler has resulted in varying degrees of assimilation. Such a theme has inspired numerous Taiwan Studies scholars who have produced a great number of pertinent works, including “Is Taiwan Chinese?” by Melissa Brown,“Becoming Japanese” by Leo Ching, and “Becoming Taiwanese” by Evan Dawley. One of the contestable issues in this field is the Indigenous status and recognition. 

Currently, the ethnicity of Taiwan consists of “over 95 per cent Han people (including Holo, Hakka and other groups that originated from China), 2 percent Indigenous Malayo-Polynesian peoples, 2 percent new immigrants, primarily from China and Southeast Asia,” according to the statistics released by the Taiwanese government. Yet, there are still many questions that continue to be debated surrounding these numbers, such as how to determine a person’s status in respect of ethnic groups in Taiwan. In the context of this essay, we may question more specifically, “Who are the ‘Indigenous Malayo-Polynesian peoples’ or the Taiwan Indigenous peoples?”

National Law Establishes an Insurmountable Barrier

On formality, the ROC government answered by passing the Status Act for Indigenous Peoples (the Status Act) in 2001, which was just amended in 2021. In reality, however, the design of the law results in a certain number of the mixed background and the Pingpu peoples (or the Plains Indigenous) being excluded under social pressure or historical context.

In Clause 2, Article 2, the Status Act defined Indigenous status based on certain registration records, which relies on the “census registration records show individual or immediate kin of individual is of indigenous peoples descent. Individuals are registered as a plain-land Indigenous peoples in the village (town, city, district) administration office.” This Act divides the “Mountain” and the “Plain” Indigenous peoples. Based on the historical context, the ancestors of the Pingpu peoples could be in the category of the Plain Indigenous peoples. However, some Pingpu groups could not register because the authority in Taiwan deemed them “too Sinicised” to be qualified as Indigenous peoples. Also, some younger generations of the Pingpu peoples could not register because their ancestors failed to register in 1956, 1957, 1959, and 1963, when the government opened the registration windows in limited time slots.

In Clause 2, Article 4, the law decides child(ren) of a mixed background (born from Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples) could acquire the Indigenous status by taking the surname of the Indigenous parent or using the traditional Indigenous name. But be mindful of the fact that this Status Act is a patriarchal society context, where 98% of children’s surnames are from the father’s side. Also, the legislators had a presumption that, after Indigenous women marry into non-Indigenous families, they tend to be more Han in lifestyle, and the child(ren) might not recognise themselves as Indigenous peoples.

On April 1, 2022, the ROC Constitutional Court declared Clause 2, Article 4 of the Status Act was unconstitutional. Months later, on October 28, the same Court declared Clause 2, Article 2 of the Status Act was also unconstitutional. Yet, the fire that arose in the Taiwan Indigenous communities did not cease by the Court’s rulings. While some acknowledge the Justices’ interpretations, others disagree with arguments that had been long raised, such as there will be too many Indigenous peoples and they will snatch government resources. As a result, the danger of discrimination emerges: some mixed backgrounds and the Pingpu peoples are still outsiders and excluded from the recognised Indigenous communities, even though they self-identified their Indigenous identity and have consanguinity in their blood.

The Potential for Conflict and Alternative Future

Is self-identification of Indigenous peoples possible? If not, who has the authority to decide? Intuitively, the Indigenous communities should be the ones who provide the solution. However, if there is discrimination within the communities, how can the disputant get justice? The Case of Mixed-background Indigenous and Pingpu people has already been an obvious example. If it is now up to Indigenous groups to recognise who should be considered Indigenous, would discriminated individuals, such as those with a certain gender or sexual orientation, be excluded?

Since the Justices often ruled in legislative reform, the future of the Status Act should be reconsidered in an alternative way. The recently formed Mixed Indigenous Youth Forum Working Group (MIYF) initiative dialogues for the Indigenous youth. The mixed background and the Pingpu peoples (no matter currently with or without the Indigenous status) are all included in the forums hosted throughout regions in Taiwan in hopes of opening a safe space to talk. In the forums, the uneasy journey of Indigenous status and recognition was shared between participants. The interaction between an individual and their family members or the Indigenous origin communities is never easy. It is even more complex for those not born and raised in Indigenous communities, coming from mixed backgrounds, or without a formally identified status as an Indigenous person.

The allocation of government resources or benefits, such as the lands reserved for Indigenous peoples or the additional score policy for Indigenous students, has long been a contentious issue in many discussions over Indigenous identity in Taiwan. Some may consider that decoupling the Indigenous group from government resources or advantages is the simplest solution, but it may not be the most effective approach to address the issue. In fact, many Indigenous youths started to consider their Indigenous identity and roots after encountering difficulties in life and sought assistance, according to the variety of life stories shared by the participants in the MIYF forums. This demonstrates that Indigenous status cannot simply be regarded as an identity issue. Instead, the structural constraints that impede the ability of Indigenous peoples to survive should also be given enough concern. As a result, to link government resources or benefits and the Indigenous status is not only to ensure the critical social security consideration for the families and individuals with survival concerns in society but sometimes an opportunity to invite those who never thought to make the connection to their Indigenous roots. Therefore, the authority needs to conduct more investigation and research on the issue regarding resources or benefits. So, a delicate policy can be formed to accommodate the full diversity of Indigenous peoples in Taiwan.

“Identity and how one identifies are not fixed but constructed, and contingent on changes in social context and life experiences,” Indigenous scholar Jolan Hsieh (Bavaragh Dagalomi) wrote in her article “Restoring Pingpu Indigenous status and rights”, published as a chapter in the “Taiwan’s Contemporary Indigenous Peoples”. There is no easy answer when it comes to identity recognition. Whether it is in ethnicity or other “categories,” a person seeks to find the definition of oneself. The idea of “insider” and “outsider,” or the reality of being “included” and “excluded,” are not patent to the mixed background or the Pingpu Peoples in Taiwan. Perhaps, it is a broader issue in thinking of – how to make Taiwan a more inclusive nation.

Nikal Kabalan’an (Margaret Yun-Pu Tu) is a PhD Candidate in the School of Law at the University of Washington. She is also affiliated with the University of Washington Taiwan Studies Program and the Centre of Austronesian Studies (COAST) as an Associate Research Fellow.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Indigenous Recognition for Siraya People.

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