Written by Langus Lavalian; translated by Nai-Wen Chang and Yi-Yu Lai.
Image credit: 著正裝的布農族人 by 鳥居龍藏/ Wikimedia commons, license: public domain.
In the area where the Isbubukun Bunun people reside, there is a myth:
Once upon a time, a couple gave birth to their twin children. Giving birth to twins is considered masamu, which refers to breaking Bunun taboos, and parents must abandon one of the twins into the mountain to resolve the course. The father reluctantly brought one of the children to the forest, where he put the unfortunate infant under a Taiwan arenga palm and covered him with a piece of white cloth. The next day, the worried father could not help but return to the Taiwan arenga palm to ensure the safety of his child. The child was gone. He searched every corner of the forest, but there was no trace of the newly-born. Suddenly, a two-headed havit, a viper with astonishingly beautiful patterns, appeared from underneath the cloth. It seemed that bestowing the cloth a special snake-like design from a distance…
Hailtang Istandaa, an elder from Bulbul village, told us this story and urged the younger generation not to forget it. It is critical since this is the genesis story of our weaving patterns.
Distinct Marks to Identify Who You Are
I am from the Isbubukun subgroup in the southern Taitung area of Taiwan. According to tales I heard as a child, during the Mapakaliava era, which was full of amazing mythologies, the earliest siblings had divided and dispersed to different mountains, evolving various accents. Bunun people can be classified into five subgroups according to their accent and living area: Takivatan, Takibanuaz, Takibakha Takitudu, and Isbubukun. Isbubukun has the most people and is the most widely distributed. However, we can still recognise each other through the accent and styles of the traditional attire and the name and siduh, known as the clan.
The weaving pattern of Isbubukun Bunun is exceptionally different when compared to the other Bunun. On the white-undertone plain-weave cloth, we use the inlay technique to create colourful rhombus patterns, representing the havit on both sides.
Cindun means “weaving” in the Bunun language, and it is a task belonging to women, embedding moral rules and taboos. These include the marital rule that the bride and groom must come from different clans, or they will consider masamu. When a woman marries her husband, her mother-in-law will teach her the patterns of her husband’s clan. Namely, families keep weaving patterns and techniques to themselves, circulating them only within the clan. As a result, we can tell people’s origins from the patterns of the traditional clothes they wear during a few rituals that allow for inviting other clans to enjoy and share. We can always see these gorgeous patterns light up the ritual site. At the same time, men chant is’i’is’av tu huzas, competing through words and sharing wine from the same cup, during malahtainga, literally “shooting ears,” which is primarily aimed at consoling spirits of prey.
With the passage of time and the deterioration of traditional culture, traditional weaving techniques are being forgotten, and the few remaining weavers are dying of old age. So then, how can we preserve the Bunun’s weaving culture?
A Lengthy Journey to Acquire the Skills
Since I was raised in my own Indigenous community in the early 2000s, my elementary school teacher, who was also an elder of the Bunun, would use her leisure time to teach weaving to a handful of female students, which were no more than a dozen. Only senior students could operate the warpers and weaving looms at that time. As junior students like myself were only permitted to assist in winding thread balls, I did not learn how to weave methodically. Unfortunately, my weaving education was suspended when I completed elementary school. I did not contemplate learning to weave again until I finished graduate school and returned to my hometown for work.
“Shall we learn from grandma how to weave?” I asked my sister. Since childhood, I have always been intrigued about who made our traditional weaving waistcoats of Bunun, known as habang, at home. Later, I discovered that my grandmother had made those habang, so I constantly desired to learn the skill from her. Consequently, in 2016, I persuaded my sister Ibu Lavalian to learn weaving with my grandmother alongside me.
Ibu is currently the youngest weaver in Haitutuan Township. When she was learning to weave with our grandmother, she had a dream in which she met a silent elderly female who requested Ibu to watch her weaving process. Traditionally, outsiders are not allowed to watch or learn the weaving process. However, this old lady appeared to be weaving purposely for Ibu and instructing her step by step. Since taisah, which refers to dream, is vital to the Bunun, Ibu believes that this is the path guided by our ancestors.
Regarding learning to weave, it is definitely a lengthy journey and a process that requires ongoing self-reflection. As weavers shuttle the warp thread back and forth to the weft thread, for instance, to make a woven waistcoat, the procedure can take anywhere from one month to six months. Ibu carefully follows the weaving taboos that our grandmother taught her: men are forbidden to touch women’s weaving tools and threads, which not only damages the weaver’s taisah (in this context translated as “luck”) and breaks the cloth being woven, but also traps the luck of men and makes their hunting difficult. In addition, our grandmother’s interweaving techniques and her special patterns cannot be freely shared with others since they are exclusive marks of our family. More importantly, she continually reminded Ibu that a weaver’s physical and emotional state would be reflected in the weaving. Therefore one must be sincere and work carefully when weaving.
The Odour of the Bunun
Why do we continue to learn to weave? Particularly in the present day, textile technology has advanced, making it quite easy to buy clothing. While some may argue that it is unnecessary to weave clothes with much effort, why must we, the younger generation, continue to weave? This is one way we maintain the connection with our ancestors.
After successive Japanese and KMT government colonisation, Indigenous practices and customs in Taiwan were compelled to be stopped and altered. The Indigenous people were therefore forced to be incorporated into the mainstream society without preserving our distinct ways of living. Consequently, our ties to our ancestors were eventually eroded or severed. How can we continue to refer to ourselves as Bunun people when we know that we cannot return to the past and our prior ways of life?
In addition to the immeasurable blood flowing through our bodies, the younger generation continues to live as the Bunun through numerous embodied practices. Following the weaving threads that our ancestors traversed and meeting them along the path of weaving could be one means. Similar to what our elders often say, it is vital to acquire the odour of the Bunun people. From my understanding, the odour emanates from the meats that males bring back after hunting in the mountains and from the threads that females use to weave patterns and paths. As Bunun people, we must walk slowly and gain experience on the paths so that our traditional wisdom would become part of contemporary Indigenous people’s life.
Langus Lavalian works at the Bunun Cultural Museum of Haiduan Township, Taiwan.
It was published as part of a special issue on “Indigenous Weaving and Its Evolving Cultures.”