Before Aug. 1 became Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the anniversary of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) official apology to Aborigines, it was known as the day in 1994 when the government officially dropped the hated “mountain compatriot” (山胞) designation for Aborigines in favor of yuanzhumin (原住民, original inhabitants).
Some might say that the change was merely a symbolic move that did not tangibly improve the lives of Aborigines, but it was an important early victory for the then-fledgling Aboriginal rights movement, which took root in about 1984 and continues today.
The designation issue was at the forefront of an ethnic movement that sought to unite the Aborigines and solidify their identity as a collective people under a name of their own choice.
Today we take the term for granted, but it did not come easily, despite a survey by the Academia Sinica showing that only 7 percent of Aborigines at the time approved of the term “mountain compatriots.”
Even so, the National Assembly dismissed their request and wrote “mountain compatriot” into constitutional amendments in 1991 and 1992.
Reluctant to acknowledge Aborigines’ claim as the first inhabitants of Taiwan, the government in 1992 even suggested terms such as “early inhabitants” (早住民) and “ethnic minorities” (少數民族).
These sound absurd after 25 years, but Taiwan was then a society in transition, only recently removed from authoritarian rule, according to which everyone was “Chinese.”
That said, the government’s refusal to comply might have been a blessing in disguise, as it helped raise the public status and visibility of Aborigines.
With each protest detailed in the newspapers, this was the beginning of a shift in public consciousness from Aborigines being an impoverished, backward populace who did not matter to the long-oppressed first inhabitants of the land who would be silent no more.
Looking at these reports, it is apparent how invisible Aborigines were and how oblivious mainstream society was to their plight.
A 1991 Taiwan Times article had to refer to the American movie Dances With Wolves to highlight what Aborigines were going through.
However, the designation issue quickly became a national debate, with university students publishing letters supporting the cause.
So it was more than just a symbolic achievement.
The eradication of the term “mountain compatriots” from government use should always be remembered.
However, what is often not mentioned is that the change was just one of many requests presented by the Taiwan Aboriginal Rights Association to the National Assembly in 1991, 1992 and 1994.
As early as 1988, the association made a declaration of rights that touched on issues that are still pertinent today, such as land rights, cultural and linguistic preservation and self-governance. That year saw the first large-scale protest for Aboriginal land rights — the same topic as the most recent demonstrations.
Unfortunately, these issues are much more complex than a simple name change and remain mostly unresolved. Even the granting of official status to Aboriginal languages might not reverse their path toward extinction.
Aborigines are angry at Tsai, whom they claim has not lived up to the promises she made in the apology.
While it takes time to implement new policy, it is also important to understand their frustration. There is just so much patience and trust a group can have in the government if they have been fighting for the same thing for decades.
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