In recent years, Aborigines have frequently become embroiled in discord and conflict with the overall mindset, systems and operation of the state over issues related to the legal system and culture. Authorities must find this puzzling, because their policies have all been decided after discussions involving experts and academics, and there is no problem with them when they are applied in ordinary towns and rural areas. So why do they run into so many problems when applied in Aboriginal communities?
The crux of the matter is that mainstream society is not aware, or has forgotten, that Taiwan, as defined by social scientists, is a migrant settler society. This lack of awareness prevents mainstream society from correctly grasping the proper cognition and distinctions.
Being a migrant settler society, this land has not only settlers, but also its original inhabitants, namely the Austronesian people whose ancestors arrived here about 6,000 years ago. Today they are known as Aborigines. As one group of people arrived earlier than the other, there are differences between the two communities in their thinking, experience and value systems. That is only natural, and the way to surmount these differences lies in understanding the contradictions that exist between the two sides.
First, in the state’s view, all land belongs to it and cannot “unlawfully” belong to other groups. This is the conventional Chinese concept of “all land under heaven belongs to the king.”
It also follows the way in which Western empires have generally regarded Aborigine’s lands as terra nullius — nobody’s land — and proceeded to seize it. This concept, which makes it unnecessary to consider the original owners’ situation and demands, is how former colonial states set about colonizing other lands.
In contrast, Aborigines believe that the land has been handed down over generations. If that is so, what right does the state have to take that land for itself and designate it as forest compartments or “protected”?
Authorities say these designations were made long ago in accordance with the law, so how could there be any doubt about them? Do Aborigines have ownership certificates to back up their claims?
Aborigines would say that a mountain is our clan’s hunting and gathering ground and final resting place, and although we have no paper ownership certificate, we can tell you all the stories that have happened there since the Great Flood.
Second, the state thinks that all people should obey every law and regulation, so it proclaims all-encompassing laws and edicts and establishes administrative departments and schools in Aboriginal communities that take the place of customary laws and meeting places and supplant Aboriginal leadership systems.
Aborigines would say that they already have things like kuba (the Tsou people’s meeting places), gaga (the Atayals’ ancestral instruction system) and mraho (leaders), and these things have worked for hundreds or even thousands of years, so why does the state have to forcibly replace them?
Third, the state believes that historical and cultural orthodoxy has been handed down from the legendary emperors Yandi (炎帝) and Huangdi (黃帝) and from the Huaxia (華夏, the Han Chinese people’s ancestors), and it does not accept “remote” communities having alternative worldviews.
Aborigines, on the other hand, believe that their ancestors came from the mountains, such as Yushan (玉山), Dawushan (大武山) and Dabajianshan (大霸尖山). Their memories of ancient times and migrations are clearly preserved and have never been forgotten and they eulogize the exploits of their forebears at annual memorial ceremonies.
For Aborigines, China’s Yellow River and Central Plain are distant places. Aborigines are happy to be friends with the descendants of Yandi and Huangdi, but why should they accept those who came later telling other people to worship their ancestors?
Fourth, the state thinks that Aboriginal communities are incapable of rationally handling their own affairs until they have been educated and guided on how to do so, otherwise communities will come into conflict and land and sea resources will be ruined.
Aborigines, on the other hand, think that state laws and guidance are far inferior to the knowledge, experience and self-management mechanisms that have been formed over hundreds and thousands of years. As proof, they could point out that the sea around Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼) and the Central Mountain Range remained fertile under Aboriginal management. Which way is really the best? Hundreds and thousands of research projects and the personal experience and perceptions of the nation’s people are available for comparison.
Clearly, Taiwan has two different communities with different mindsets, experiences and traditions. These differences are natural and nobody is to blame for them, but because we have disregarded them, they have gradually grown into contradictions and obstacles between the two communities, with each side stubbornly sticking to its own point of view.
This divergence of views has become the source of disputes and clashes. Over many years, and as the result of much effort, we have established a legal framework, including the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law (原住民族基本法), that is more advanced than those of many other nations.
A great extent of ethnic autonomy has been proposed and discussions are under way as to how it can be implemented. However, the state still allows judges and police to handle matters connected with Aboriginal cultural heritage, such as hunting and gathering, according to biased laws that are far divorced from reality.
When considering such issues, they are unwilling to go back to the roots of the contradictions and this gives rise to many disputes. Hopefully, authorities can face up to these contradictions and think about how to resolve them. That would be a good thing for Aborigines and for the whole nation.
Pasuya Poiconu is a professor at National Dong Hwa University.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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