Sat, Jan 27, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: What's in an Aboriginal name?

One of Taiwan's more inspiring characteristics is the striking degree of harmony that exists between its indigenous Austronesian population and the Han Taiwanese community, and particularly in the light of the nation's bloody past. Compared with other countries in the region such as Australia and China, Taiwanese Aborigines are quite free of the aggressive racism of officials and ordinary people in the former nation or of the political and religious repression of the latter.

So when the Council of Indigenous Peoples announced the nation's official recognition of a 13th Aboriginal "tribe," it was a credit to activists, the government and the wider community that the desire of people to be known by others as they would know themselves was embraced so smoothly. The 13th "tribe" is the Sakiraya (also rendered as Sakizaya) of northern Hualien County, who were formerly included in the Amis, the nation's largest group of Aboriginal people.

Celebrations aside, an opportunity is presented to identify deeper problems that official recognition and ceremonial pride tend to shield from wider view.

The concepts of "tribe" and even "people" are misleading in categorizing Taiwan's indigenous populations, because traditional Aboriginal lives revolved around the village or groups of allied villages, often of varying size. The idea that a common language in itself united Aboriginal communities in practical terms is fallacious, even though the current naming scheme seeks to do just that.

Since the arrival of the Japanese, and especially since the arrival of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government, conceptions of village loyalty and the anthropological structures that bolstered them were manipulated and often damaged by officials seeking to inculcate devotion to the Japanese emperor or to the Chinese state.

When modern-day Aboriginal activists began fighting back against the KMT in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the need to establish a respectful group title was the priority; the end result in the mid-1990s was the term yuanzhumin (original inhabitants).

The derogatory or racist terms that yuanzhumin supplanted have little currency these days. And now that Aborigines have their own Cabinet-level bureaucracy, the symbolic fight has turned away from distinctiveness from Han Taiwanese and toward distinctiveness from each other.

The Council of Indigenous Peoples is not keen to stress this, but the fact remains that even today Aboriginal society does not readily lend itself to pan-ethnic solidarity, and this applies as much at the present "tribal" level as the catch-all "Aboriginal" level. This problem has been institutionalized by divisions that flare up at election time as a handsome majority of candidates apply the lessons of their one-time KMT masters and bribe as many voters as their campaign budgets will possibly allow.

Democratic processes have, ironically enough, wrought damage on the most fundamental level of Aboriginal society in order that Aborigines can compete with and have a voice among Han Taiwanese at the county and national levels.

So when Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) links the success of the Sakiraya in attaining official ethnic recognition to the struggle of the Taiwanese people to secure their own identity and sovereignty, pause is warranted. For Aborigines, there is potential for conflict lurking inside the opportunities that official recognition brings, and this conflict is not magically resolved by democratic processes.

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