Return to the Land and People: Contemporary Indigenous Knowledge System Project in Taiwan

Written by Yi-tze Lee.

Image credit by the author.

Following the Construction of the Taiwanese Indigenous Knowledge System (hereafter IKS) Project initiated by the Council of Indigenous Affairs (原住民族委員會), the establishment of the regional Indigenous Knowledge System Center is booming in 2022. The commissioned project results from a long fight for the indigenous cultural right, an example of autonomy in indigenous studies, and efforts on identity awakening. This article will explain the background of the IKS project, discuss the expectation, and reveal some critiques of the project in general. 

Background of the Studies of Taiwanese Indigenous Knowledge

Taiwan is an island of multiple ethnicities and is famous for its indigenous cultural diversity. Officially, Taiwan has sixteen indigenous ethnic groups (or, following the First Nation context, nations) recognized by the state. However, from the Japanese colonial regime to the postwar nationalist KMT government, the state policies towards indigenous people had been setting on the prohibition against cultural practices, suppression of traditional territory and cultural rights, and, most harmfully, banning the use of native languages in daily life. 

All these difficulties had been exploded as (among others) the Indigenous Name Rectification Movement in 1994. They resulted in recognition of “indigenous peoples” or 原住民族 Yuanzuminzu (instead of “maintain compatriots” or 山胞 Shanbao) and indigenous cultural rights substantialized in the Constitution. This is a major change in the indigenous status. As a result, with the advocacy of academic researches and political distance from the great Chinese identity, Taiwanese Indigenous Peoples have been highlighted with the Austronesian linguistic heritage and the Pacific cultural family and gradually considered the core of the Taiwan identity by the current government. This is the background of the contemporary resurgence of indigenous cultural rights and policy initiatives in Taiwan, ranging from experimental indigenous education to rectifying indigenous hunting rights by Constitutional amendment. 

According to UNESCO, “local and indigenous knowledge refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings.” Based on the definition, indigenous knowledge systems also greatly impact climate change, biodiversity, public policy, and knowledge transmission. On the other hand, major difficulties, such as land grabbing on traditional territory, loss of language and cultural knowledge, and most importantly, self-identity crisis in the modern world, have been great concerns of contemporary indigenous communities. 

Indigenous scholars and policymakers noted that applying indigenous knowledge and cultural practices requires systematic reviews of traditional norms to deal with ongoing issues. The Indigenous knowledge system has also been highlighted as the philosophical foundation of indigenous rights movements against state governance and commercial capital. The collection and reflection on traditional knowledge systems have been key concepts for the scholars of anti-colonial epistemology, such as Fikret BerkesTuhiwai Smith, and Kyle Whyte, as well as indigenous activists on climate ecology, sustainability, and land rights. 

In 2009, Taiwanese indigenous scholars Tibusungu e Vayayana (Cou), Tunkan Tansikian (Bunun), and Safulo Arik (Amis) started the very first project on the collection and review of the indigenous knowledge system. This pioneering project was aimed to combine with an indigenous experimental education curriculum for further development. The three scholars have critically reflected that Western and scientific knowledge cannot be the basis of indigenous education and proposed using indigenous concepts for long-term research and education purposes. Since then, indigenous-centred studies on traditional knowledge have been the mission of related research and governmental policy. In 2021, “The Construction of Taiwanese Indigenous Knowledge System Project” (建構原住民族教育文化知識體系中長程計畫) proposed by the Council of Indigenous Affairs as one of its major policies, have been commissioned to the School of Indigenous Studies, National Dong Hwa University for four years. It is aimed to collect cultural contents and practical systems of indigenous groups and to promote regional and ethnic-based knowledge centres around Taiwanese indigenous communities. 

Image 1: The concentric model of the Taiwanese Indigenous Knowledge System Project

The Format of the IKS Project

The idea and graphical presentation of the Taiwan Indigenous Knowledge System is a concentric model with three circles (see Fig 1). The most inner one is called “Core Categorical Knowledge” or CCK, which includes the idea of “Being/Becoming the Real Person” in every indigenous group, such as Cou (鄒), Dao (達悟), Pangcah (阿美) that all indigenous people consider the most beautiful and respectful name for their own people. This inner circle also represents a three-part view of the “real person,” including Concepts of Person (人觀), Time/Space (時空), and Spiritual world (靈界). Therefore, the inner aspect of the knowledge system will need to address these three aspects and find balance. 

The second circle of the knowledge system will be divided into eleven components of the practice of the knowledge system, which we call “Secondary Categorical Knowledge” or SCK. There eleven components are the results of a long discussion among scholars and local indigenous knowledge holders, but they are still under debate and revision. The eleven SCKs include 1. Believing System and Taboo, 2. Seasonal Rituals and Festivals, 3. Ceremonies of Life Cycle, 4. Narratives and Histories, 5. Self-Governance and Determination, 6. Communication and Learning, 7. Materials Cultures, 8. Cultural Performance, 9. Territories and Resources, 10. Subsistence Strategies, 11. Health and Caring System. All these eleven aspects are not mutually exclusive but may be intertwined or overlapped with some other elements. 

The model idea is derived from similar concepts proposed in other indigenous research/education communities worldwide. For example, Australian IKS has been portrayed as the “dream chart” of three realms of the Human World, the Physical World and the Sacred World (see Fig 2). Or we can also see that the Inuit people of the North Pole have developed their IKS as the Lifelong Learning Model and are portrayed like the classroom scene in the Igloo (Fig 3). These are just some pictorial examples that lure aspiration and imagination into the practice of IKS in different circumstances. The Taiwanese IKS project is just at the beginning of its development. With the help of National Dong Hwa University as the project base, several local indigenous/ethnic knowledge centres have been established, including the Atayal IKS centre at National Cheng Chi University (政治大學), Bunun IKS centre at National Chi Nan University(暨南大學), Seediq IKS centre at Providence University (靜宜大學), Puyuma IKS centre at National Taitung University (台東大學), and Kanakanavu IKS centre at National Kaohsiung Normal University (高師大). All these IKS centres function independently and have particular indigenous communities as their consulting advisors. 

Image 2: The Dream Chart of Australian IKS
Image 3: Inuit Holistic Lifelong Learning Model

The Outlook and Future of the IKS project in Taiwan

Nevertheless, there are also critiques of the model of this massive project. For the philosophical model aspect, the concentric model has been criticized as static and not dynamic enough on the transition and changing of the contemporary situation; it is difficult to show how the IKS really function in everyday circumstances and may not apply to reality. 

For the knowledge production and practice aspect, the project has been questioned about its elite perspective, which has over-emphasized foci on literal representation and may not be practical for the actual need of indigenous people. There are very understandable critiques that need gradual revision and responses from the indigenous communities/peoples, who are the actual users and carriers of IKS in the contemporary world. The IKS Construction Project is just in the burgeoning stage. Every SCK (secondary categorical knowledge) has been discussed by the advising committees formed by representatives from the indigenous education system, ethnic councils, traditional knowledge holders, and researchers. 

This project is just beginning and coming along with the contemporary needs of the indigenous communities and the education system. In the future, this project is to be proposed in several ways, including the library system for the collection and bibliographical system of indigenous studies, the experimental education system and curriculum design of different age sets and ethnic regions, the practice of local councils and traditional leaders for their ritual advises and cultural teaching, and the transmission of IKS from universities to indigenous/local groups that can preserve and extend the work of IKS. Based on the discussion on models and contents of the IKS now, there are more and more indigenous activists and cultural carriers on the way. With the Construction of the Indigenous Knowledge Project, we look forward to the return of land and people in the traditional and ancestral territories.

Yi-tze Lee is an anthropologist by training. He is currently an associate professor at Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures, National Dong Hwa University, Taiwan. His research interests cover the contemporary Amis culture, ritual performance, indigenous knowledge system and STS. He is now working on two projects: one on infrastructure and indigenous agricultural transition, and another on the change of Amis ritual practice due to urbanization and environmental impacts.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.

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