President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), in her capacity as the head of state, issued an apology to Taiwan’s Aborigines, thus fulfilling the first of her election campaign pledges regarding Aboriginal affairs.
In her apology speech, Tsai said that by Nov. 1, the government would begin to delineate and publicly announce lands that traditionally belonged to Aboriginal peoples.
Tsai’s promise goes some way toward fulfilling her campaign pledge to restore Aboriginal land rights.
Simply demarcating territory and making public announcements will not be enough to restore Aborigines’ rights over their traditional lands. However, the demand raised by many Aborigines for the return of all the land that traditionally belongs to them will be extremely difficult to fulfill and will give rise to a large number of disputes.
For this reason, it would be preferable for the government to start out by restoring the original names of places inside traditional Aboriginal territories. Restoring the proper names would have the effect of returning the cultural significance of the traditional lands to their original owners. This can be done as a first step and discussions about the substantial return of land can be held later on.
Over the past four centuries, Taiwan’s Aborigines have not just had their living environments and natural resources seized from them; the sentiments, culture, history and spirituality attached to these lands have also been taken away. Their ancestral lands have become forestry areas and their sacred places have been turned into tourist areas and beach resorts.
Aborigines’ traditional lands form the backbone of their culture and emotions. Therefore, the return of traditional lands is not just about the return of tangible earth and soil, but is also about the return of something intangible: a people’s spirituality and culture. When returning traditional lands, the government should not neglect Aborigines’ right to interpret these spaces and name them as they wish.
Aborigines traditionally build a sense of spatial awareness through the naming of land, which forms a connection between space and society. Traditional land is steeped in Aboriginal culture and beliefs. It is also the resting place of their ancestors stretching back hundreds and thousands of years. All of this history and culture is expressed in the names Aborigines gave to their land. Traditional names include references to spirits, myths and legends, as well as wisdom about the mountains and forests.
For example, the name of Davalan (達瓦蘭) in Pingtung County’s Sandimen Township (三地門) means “the place where men were made.” This is the place where, according to legend, the Paiwan people were created. Abandoning traditional place names such as this has the effect of cutting Aboriginal people off from the foundations upon which their emotions and identities rest.
Following centuries of rule by various colonial powers, the culture of Taiwan’s Aboriginal peoples has already been uprooted. Their living environment has been snatched away from them and the original names of many places in their traditional lands have long since disappeared.
Through the framework of transitional justice, the return of traditional land rights must not be confined to property and natural resources alone. Traditional Aboriginal land names must also be restored; only then will it be possible to genuinely return land rights to the Aboriginal peoples of Taiwan.
Chen Chia-lin is deputy director of public relations for the Taiwan Solidarity Union.
Translated by Edward Jones
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