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What you should know about being Indigenous in Taiwan

Time to think more about Indigenous heritage and devote more resources to its preservation

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Yukan Hayung shares his stories in college

Yukan Hayung shares his stories in college (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — "I was in third grade when my dad brought the family back to the tribe; people were celebrating for a wedding, and at that time, my grandpa, who lived in the tribe with other relatives, gave me the indigenous name 'Yukan,'" said the 19-year-old Atayal man.

"For the first time," he continued, "I felt connected to something that I had lost for long."

The story of Yukan Hayung epitomizes those of many other young Indigenous Taiwanese. His mother is a Han Taiwanese; his father an Atayal Indigenous person.

Growing up in Taipei, he knew he belonged to Ilan Nan'ao's Atayal tribe, but he only visited occasionally. He has always been in the minority at school, though his appearance and skin tone are not obvious indicators, and he speaks Mandarin as his mother tongue.

Hayung entered one of the country's top-ranked universities, and the occasional mockery from his friends about Indigenous stereotypes never bothered him. However, the lack of attention paid to Indigenous history and culture throughout his education means he had to embark on the journey of self-exploration with little guidance.

In fact, Hayung's experience only reflects a small portion of the challenges faced by Indigenous people in Taiwanese society.

Although only accounting for 2.43 percent of the total population, Taiwan's Indigenous peoples have dwelled on this island since long before any other ethnic group. After more than 300 years of colonialism under the Dutch and Spanish briefly and then followed by the Chinese and Japanese, Indigenous Taiwanese have not only lost most of their land and tradition but suffer from educational and economic disparities.

What you should know about being Indigenous in Taiwan
Distribution of 16 officially recognized tribes in Taiwan (Taiwan News, Chris Chang image)

One study in 2017 showed the average annual income of Indigenous households was US$25,207, which is lower than the national average of $34,671. Over the past decade, Indigenous workers in Taiwan consistently earned less than the majority; the monthly wage gap remained at $360 in 2019.

Around 50 percent of the Indigenous population works in the manufacturing, construction, hospitality, and retail industries, but only about 10 percent take management and high-skilled positions. Data suggests that nearly half of the Indigenous workforce did not earn over $1,031 per month in 2019.

In terms of higher education, although more than 95 percent of Indigenous students do enroll in high school or vocational training, their college entrance rate is 53.92 percent, which is 31.84 percent lower than non-Indigenous students, according to research from 2018.

What you should know about being Indigenous in Taiwan
Data from the Council of Indigenous Peoples (Taiwan News, Chris Chang image)

To address the consequences resultant from decades of mistreatment, the Taiwanese government began undertaking affirmative action measures to stimulate social mobility in the late 1990s.

Passed in 2001, the Indigenous Peoples Employment Rights Protection Act established the principle of proportional recruitment, which mandates there should be one Indigenous employee per every fifty-to-one-hundred staff hired in governmental bodies and public schools. This proportion has to reach a third in Indigenous regions.

Moreover, to encourage Indigenous students to receive higher education and learn their tribal languages, the government offers up to a 35 percent increase of a score's total to those possessing Indigenous language certificates on high school and college entrance exams.

Using laws to guarantee such direct and exclusive benefits for the Indigenous community is almost unheard of in other countries, said Wang Rue-yng (王瑞盈), director of the General Panning Department at the Council of Indigenous Peoples, who has worked in the field of Indigenous affairs for 20 years.

Wang also pointed out that there are six reserved Indigenous seats in Taiwan's legislature, which is another advantage enjoyed by few ethnic minorities in other nations.

For Wang, these policies deliver striking effects: the gap in the unemployment rate between Indigenous adults and the national average narrowed to 0.23 percent at the end of 2019, dropping from a high of 2.34 percent in 2009 during the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The percentage of Indigenous first-year high school students with language certificates passed 50 percent for the first time in 2019, too.

What you should know about being Indigenous in Taiwan
Data from the Council of Indigenous Peoples (Taiwan News, Chris Chang image)

Despite the results, the benefits exclusive to certain ethnic minorities are still seen as privileges by many outsiders. For them, Indigenous peoples, especially those who live in the cities, enjoy the same resources as the general public.

When other non-Indigenous peoples are also devoid of the means to access higher education and well-paid jobs, how can ethnicity be a deciding factor for choosing who gets more benefits?

For Jolan Hsieh (謝若蘭), all these extra benefits are merely transitional protection for a group forced to abandon its identity and deprived of land and culture through systemic oppression. Hsieh, who is the director of Dong Hwa University's Center for International Indigenous Affairs, originates from the Siraya tribe that spreads across southwestern Taiwan.

"Indigenous rights are absolute rights. They are entitled to these rights that were removed by invaders and colonizers throughout history," she said, emphasizing that contrary to the popular misconception, the advantages granted to the Indigenous population on exams or job opportunities are not predicated on other ethnic groups' sacrifice.

In her telling, the primary goal is to eliminate the past injustice and the ubiquitous disparities in society.

"One dilemma that Indigenous Taiwanese are facing is that the stronger their cultural identity and language ability, the more likely they are put in a disadvantageous position," she noted. "For instance, people might tell an Indigenous student that she is not qualified for a speech competition because her Chinese pronunciation is not accurate, and she will never be competitive on the tests that are focused on memorization."

Hsieh believes the absence of affirmative action does not mean true equality, and only when Indigenous students can access higher education, can they empower themselves to explore who they really are.

The truth, however, is that even though these policies may help young Indigenous Taiwanese like Hayung rise in the social hierarchy, they do little to strengthen their Indigenous identity. Hayung began learning Atayal seriously in middle school to receive bonus points on exams, but he later realized the language he learned differed from the dialect spoken in his tribe.

It struck him only through self-directed efforts would he ever truly connect with his roots.

Hayung is now leading Absoundtrack, a student club in his college that holds regular lectures and activities to advocate for Indigenous issues and serves as a community. He visits his tribe more often now and has even found time to learn its language, which he hopes to pass down to his future offspring.

"In our school books, there are always only a few pages dedicated to the stories of Indigenous Taiwanese, but I think education is critical for how we see the Indigenous peoples of this island," he said. "The mission of Absoundtrack is to carry our voice to every corner in Taiwan."

What you should know about being Indigenous in Taiwan
Absoundtrack advocates for the Indigenous community (Facebook, Absoundtrack image)