Sun, Aug 10, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Returning to the land of the ancestors

High in the mountains Of Hsinchu County, the Atayal Aborigine village of Smangus is cautiously opening its doors to the outside world

By Max Woodworth  /  STAFF REPORTER

A young boy from Smangus is dwarfed by one of the tribe's home-made hunting rifles used to bring down mountain pigs and flying squirrels.

PHOTO: MAX WOODWORTH, TAIPEI TIMES

As an envisioned mountain retreat, the Atayal tribal village Smangus will have little competition in offering quiet isolation. By the villagers's own description, the hamlet is "the most isolated place in Taiwan," a slogan the residents evoke with obvious pride.

Being the most isolated community in the country wasn't always a point of pride, though. For decades the tiny village deep in the lush mountains of Hsinchu County was known as a "black tribal village" (黑色部落) for its lack of access road, electricity and telephone line. Until recently, most able-bodied adults abandoned Smangus as soon as they found work in the more urbanized coastal areas, while those who stayed behind lived off the land in abject poverty.

But now, tapping a spirit of tribal communalism, the village is attempting to reverse its fortunes by pooling its limited resources to transform what was previously a cluster of run-down hovels into a picturesque alpine idyll that will attract deep-pocketed city-dwellers in search of fresh air and a nearby grove of cypress trees that are up to 2,500 years old.

Returning home

People began leaving the village in 1983. By 1989, only seven households remained. However, the introduction of foreign laborers into the workforce in the early 1990s squeezed many Aboriginal migrants out of low-skill factory jobs and forced many to return to their ancestral homes.

"Our people are coming home. We're up to 22 households now, with 141 permanent residents," said Yuraw, one of the town's elders. "Only one household still lives in the valley."The rapid repopulation of Smangus and the completion in 1994 of the first semi-paved road into the village set several forces in motion that seem to have given the tribe a new lease on life.

The road allowed for what began as a trickle of visitors to grow into the scores of hikers who every weekend brave the perilous three-hour drive through stunning gorges to reach Smangus.

Meanwhile returnees brought home with them some of their savings, or, at the very least, returned with the bitter experience of life as second-class citizens in the cities. From this arose a dedication to reinvigorate traditional Atayal life in the mountains among their own people.

Another impetus for returning, according to residents, was the elders' call for the tribe to come back to Smangus to rebuild the village and preserve Atayal culture.

"Atayal life is communal. People in the valley are different and it's hard for us. Like when we kill a mountain pig, the whole tribe gets a piece of meat. Individual ownership of property is superceded by the needs of the community," Yuraw said.

In this vein, the tribe devised a tourism development plan in which its assets are communally owned and operated. The idea arose in part as a natural application of the tribe's tradition, but also after witnessing the experience of Baling and Lishan, both less successful models of Aborigine hamlets turned into tourist destinations.

"We didn't want competition for tourism business to emerge between residents of Smangus. We saw from Baling and Lishan's experience that once tribe members are pitted against each other the community degenerates into a situation where some are big winners but most end up big losers. The end result is that the losers sell their land to Chinese and for us this is unacceptable," Yuraw said.

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