The house of Zingrur wasn’t sure if they wanted Muakaikai to remain outside the ancestral village. The family would have preferred their daughter to return home to Kaviyangan (Jiaping) Village (佳平) in Pingtung County’s Taiwu Township (泰武) after a long absence, but knew they wouldn’t be able to properly care for her. So they agreed on a compromise: find her a husband who could.
Muakaikai is approximately 300 years old. She stands 150cm tall and has four heads. She is made of wood, formed a support pillar in a royal family’s home and symbolizes the Kaviyangan community’s original female ancestor.
Since the Japanese colonial era, she has been kept at National Taiwan University’s (NTU) Museum of Anthropology and, due to her uniqueness and cultural significance, the Ministry of Culture’s Bureau of Cultural Heritage recently listed her as a national treasure. She is the third of four Aboriginal objects to be thus labeled.
Photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei Times
“Some people advised us to dispute NTU’s decision and have Muakaikai returned to the village,” says Adrucangalj Lavan, the Jiaping Village head. “But we realized that there was no simple way to have her returned. So we changed our approach and decided that the university should give us something in return.”
For the elders that meant NTU’s museum had to give other relics, which had been removed earlier from the community and kept at the university, as betrothal gifts. The museum agreed, and in a ceremony held in September 2014 in front of the museum, NTU president Yang Pan-chyr (楊泮池) married Muakaikai.
After the ceremony, the community returned to Kaviyangan. Muakaikai remains in Taipei, where she is on display at the museum.
Photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei Times
Labeling Muakaikai and other Aboriginal relics as national treasures marks a shift in the way the government perceives objects of cultural value. No longer limited to imperial Han-Chinese artifacts held in elite institutions like the National Palace Museum or the National Museum of History, the designation is meant to honor and protect the nation’s rich cultural heritage and serve as a marker that differentiates Taiwan from China.
The recognition, however, comes at a cost: Poorly funded Aboriginal communities don’t have the resources to preserve the treasures according to the government’s strict legal guidelines, which means they are certain to remain outside the communities from which they originate, even though they want them repatriated.
Photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei Times
The abandoned settlement where a Japanese anthropologist found Muakaikai in 1932 while conducting fieldwork in Taiwan is today known as the Kaviyann Cultural Area, a 20-minute drive from the Kaviyangan village and close to the summit of Nandawushan (南大武山).
Giljegiljav Malivayan, director of the Jiaping Community Development Association, says that although it is uninhabited, the settlement serves as a tangible link to their past. It is used by the community in rituals that enable them to communicate with their ancestral spirits, and roots finding cultural activities that teach the community’s younger generation about the importance of their heritage and identity, of which Muakaikai is an important part.
“We lost so many traditions during Japanese rule and after the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] took over Taiwan. But in the last 20 years, there has been a growing awareness of what it means to be Aboriginal,” Giljegiljav says. “We’ve recently begun to do cultural revival activities … [when] we sense our ancestral spirits coming to help us… While we try to instill our culture in the younger generation, [Muakaikai] provides concrete proof of our community’s identity.”
Photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei Times
Zuljezulj Zingrur, the youngest daughter of chief Aligning Zingrur, expands on Muakaikai’s importance.
“Muakaikai represents the spirit, the essence of our community,” Zuljezulj says. “Many of our traditions have been weakened and Muakaikai represents our history, which we can pass on to subsequent generations.”
Soon after I arrive at the Zingrur family home in Taiwu Township, several of the royal family and other members of the Kaviyangan community take their seats and chat animatedly around a large table stacked high with sweets, cookies and crackers.
Photo courtesy of Chien Ching-hui from his book ‘Reflecting Taiwan’s Aborigines’
Large glass vitrines in one corner of the hall display clothing, weapons, glass beads, feathers, pots and other sacred objects that have been in the Zingrur family for generations.
Giljegiljav, like many others, is dressed in colorful patterned clothing and carrying a ritual hunting knife.
The celebratory atmosphere at the Kaviyangan home is noticeably lacking at the Vungalid community (望嘉部落), from which a 300-year-old double-sided carved stone pillar that represents the male and female ancestors of Djialuvuan originates. Declared the fourth national treasure in 2015, the stone pillar was removed from an abandoned settlement by Japanese anthropologist Nenozo Utsurikawa — it’s not entirely clear if bought, stolen or exchanged — and brought to NTU, then known as Taihoku Imperial University, where today it stands a few meters from Muakaikai. The Vungalid, like the Kaviyangan, only learned about the relics’ existence when anthropologists tracing its history told them about it.
photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei Times
The contrast between the Kaviyangan and Vungalid suggests the former is far more unified and proud as a community — evidence that is shown in other ways.
The current and future Vungalid chiefs, Lo An-shan (羅安山) and Lo Chun-chieh (羅俊傑), are the only ones to appear for the interview (though others, seemingly out of curiosity, drop by later) dressed casually in sweats. Whereas Lo Chun-chieh offers bottled water, the Kaviyangan provide appealingly strong coffee, fresh brewed with ground beans grown on the community’s plantation high in the mountains.
The Kaviyangan insist that I use Romanized transliterations of their Aboriginal names, each of which is diligently written out in my notebook — twice — by Giljegiljav; Lo writes out his Chinese name and, after some prodding, his Aboriginal name — in Chinese.
Photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei Times
While the Kaviyangan frequently visit the settlement where Muakaikai was found, the Vungalid have to ask the current owners for permission to visit their ancestor’s settlement because they no longer control the land, an all too common story of forced migration at the hands of colonial governments, natural disasters and overpopulation.
After touring the grounds where a replica of the stone pillar stands positioned so that it can watch over a large field and the mountains beyond, Lo An-shan expands on its significance for his community.
“We elders have a very strong respect for [the pillar]… It should not be placed inside a building, but in the highest possible place to protect the rivers, our territory, the local village. Doing so will ensure a good harvest every year,” he says.
Asked for their reaction when they first heard about the pillar’s existence, the Vungalid leaders give a familiar answer.
“We wanted it returned,” Lo Chun-chieh says. “But there was the issue of preserving it. We don’t have the facilities like the NTU museum to protect it.”
The issue of preservation is the crux of whether or not Aboriginal artifacts can be returned to the communities from which they originate. When labeled a national treasure, the artifact must be protected according to strict guidelines found in the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act (文化資產保存法), and there are no Aboriginal communities that have the resources or infrastructure of NTU or Academia Sinica to do so.
While the communities perceive the objects as a status symbol that protects the land and serves as a tangible link to their ancestors while passing on their culture to their descendants, for the government and the research institutes that it funds, the treasures represent Taiwan’s unique cultural diversity — one that should be preserved for the entire nation.
“A culture must have its roots,” Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chiun (鄭麗君) says at the homecoming ritual for the stone pillar at NTU, adding that the ceremony serves as a model for the preservation of these objects.
The irony of the Republic of China (ROC) government today wanting to protect symbols of Aboriginal culture that it had a hand in suppressing for most of the past 70 years is not lost on Giljegiljav.
“It is a little odd that the government, who we see as colonialists, would designate these objects national treasures,” Giljigiljav says. “But at the same time, it shows that our culture has been noticed and treasured by the colonialists. Before, the government took little notice of our culture and consequently much of our cultural heritage was lost.”
Much of the media abets the government’s line, reporting that the communities are only too happy to part with their ancestor’s relics. A report by the Central News Agency (CNA) from 2015 discussing Muakaikai and the carved stone pillar, offers a specific example of a more general tendency to discuss Aboriginal issues through the lens of government officials and academics:
“According to [NTU’s] museum, tribal residents warmly welcomed the visiting government officials and expressed their support for having their relics classified as national treasures. The museum said the initiative had garnered unanimous support from Paiwan residents, who worry that continued exposure to the elements could cause the pieces irrevocable damage.”
Contrary to what CNA wrote, the communities told me they want their ancestors’ objects returned. The article also says that “Paiwan residents” offered “unanimous” support.
The reality is that only the communities where these objects originate — the Kaviyangan or the Vungalid — have any opinion about what happens to these objects, so to generalize that all Paiwans, encompassing dozens of communities, want a say in what becomes a national treasure is misleading.
The article frames the issue as though the communities are the ones that want the objects preserved at research institutes, as though they are the ones who initiated the permanent removal of these objects, rather than academics and bureaucrats. But perhaps the oddest part of this passage is that it gives the reader the impression that the communities understand the very definition of “national treasure.”
Adrucangalj says he first heard the term when representatives from Academia Sinica informed the community about Mulidan, another four-sided wooden post that would eventually become the second national treasure. It is similar to Muakaikai, but represents the Zingrur family’s male ancestor.
“When the first spirit pillar [from our community] held by Academia Sinica was labeled a national treasure, we didn’t even know what it meant,” Adrucangalj says.
Adrucangalj says that learning that the object would be labeled a national treasure came as a “huge shock.”
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Kolas Yotaka, a member of the Amis Halawan community in Hualien, says that the label national treasure is “highly abstract,” a Han-Chinese designation employed for Han-Chinese consumption under the guise of preserving objects of cultural importance.
“We don’t have a definition for [national treasure],” Kolas tells me in her office. “It’s all outsiders. It’s not our idea at all.”
Kolas, who supports a regulation that would see the government “recognize Aboriginal rights to at least one-third of Taiwan’s public land and is trying to pass legislation that addresses restoration, acquisition, disposal, planning, management and utilization of the land and sea area owned or used by indigenous peoples,” says that those who define the artifacts as “treasures” — whether Christian missionaries four centuries ago or the Japanese 100 years ago — do so “because they are exotic, they are indigenous.”
What that means on the ground is that the government’s perception of their cultural value trumps those of the communities.
“Other people keep categorizing our ancestors’ objects as national treasures, and in doing so those artifacts will forever be lost to us,” Adrucangalj says.
Kolas says that if Aboriginal relics are to be repatriated, it will require the government to form a “national project” that would enable Aboriginal communities to regain control over their ancestors’ objects and display them in their communities.
“There are different levels of treasures,” Kolas says. “They could be old photographs or pictures from 100 years ago when the Japanese were here or the old dress or patterns of clothing… People would like to preserve the local community history [and] pass down their knowledge.”
That is a notion echoed by Lo Chun-chieh.
“It would be best to build a museum to exhibit the objects here in the community. We’d prefer to use our own methods to introduce our history. Our position is that in the future, the protection and introduction of Aboriginal objects should be in the hands of the communities,” Lo Chun-chieh says. “If you want to understand us, you should come here.”
Vuruvur Pacekelj, chairman of the Taiwu township council, says the government has to accept the way in which Aboriginal people view politics revolves around the communities, not a national project.
“Each community is a country,” Vuruvur says.
TOP DOWN, BOTTOM UP
Much of the government’s willingness to grant Aboriginal communities a voice in the process of labeling the stone pillar and Muakaikai as national treasures, and securing the funding to allow these communities to travel to Taipei to hold the rituals, is due to the tireless work of Hu Chia-yu (胡家瑜), a professor in NTU’s anthropology department.
Hu has been researching Taiwan’s Aboriginal communities since the 1980s, when she was a student at NTU. Over coffee at the university’s museum, she tells me that the government’s support of Aboriginal culture and identity is tied up with a more general emergence of a national identity that is Taiwanese, which, on the cultural level, took shape in 1981 with the appointment of her teacher, Chen Chi-lu (陳奇祿), as the first Chairman of the Council for Cultural Affairs (now the Ministry of Culture).
“[Chen] really appreciated Aboriginal and local Han-Chinese culture and not … Chinese imperial culture,” says Hu, who is currently researching a book on Taiwan’s Aboriginal objects held by the British Museum.
Hu says that by the 1990s, the government was actively supporting culture at the local level because “it wasn’t related to politics, so it was safe.”
At the time, Hu realized that it wasn’t only the government that had a responsibility to proactively involve these communities in decisions that have a direct impact on them.
“[Academics] shouldn’t just go into a village to collect information, but also return some information preserved in the research institute,” she says.
The change in Hu’s way of thinking reflected broader forces shaping Taiwanese society. Hu cites the second Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration, which tasked the Bureau of Cultural Heritage to broaden the definition of what constitutes objects of national importance.
“[The Chen government] realized that heritage is related to cultural identity,” Hu says. “Taiwanese identity.”
A political dynamic had also begun to emerge. Kolas says that when Aboriginal rights movements began to gain support in the 1980s, the focus was on the fact that Aboriginal people had inhabited Taiwan for far longer than Han Chinese, a notion that could increase Aboriginal rights and shore up Taiwan’s emerging democracy in the 1990s.
“The whole idea of democratization is the [desinicization] of Taiwan,” she says. “When you say democratization, you mean [desinicization], or anything related to China... Though these democratic movements are mostly led by Hoklo, by Han Chinese, they include indigenous identity, to let people know we are not part of China.”
But the government’s top-down, one-size-fits-all approach often didn’t suit the needs of the individual Aboriginal communities, a problem that still persists today.
“The communities think [the government] is too bureaucratic. At the same time, some public servants are lazy. They don’t have the passion to help,” Kolas says. “Communication problems, bureaucracy and paper work are the big problems for indigenous people.”
It is a reality that Hu is only too familiar with. She offers her experiences with the bureau wanting to label the Pasta’ay ceremony, a festival from the Saisiat (賽夏) community when songs and rites are performed to bring good luck and ward off bad luck, intangible cultural heritage.
“In the beginning, I was very annoyed with the bureau because a lot of the administrative personnel didn’t understand the communities. They did a lot of things that might destroy their identity or destroy the unity of the community,” Hu says, adding that many of the conflicts revolved around competition for scarce resources.
The bureau offered her a compromise: join the committee responsible for intangible cultural heritage and national treasures and sway the other members to change the way things are done. So she did.
“I tried to force [the bureau] to accept the concept of ‘bottom up,’ to really understand the condition of the community, their background and what their perspective is,” Hu says.
Hu says that involved urging government officials to “directly face the communities” and listen to their needs. Hu also insisted that Aboriginal communities become involved in committee deliberations, so as to exert some control over how their culture is passed on.
“The transmission of culture is not the business of the government. It is the communities’ business. If the government wants to try and transmit culture, it will be dead culture,” Hu says.
Although Hu was instrumental in advancing the interests of Aboriginal communities with regards to national treasures and, more recently, encouraging Aboriginal communities to visit the NTU museum so that they can, for example, relearn how to make their crafts, Kolas says the communities would prefer to represent themselves.
“Some indigenous communities count on and trust academics, but in the end, indigenous people are kind of compromised because … they are bound by what the law says,” she says.
And the law is clear: National treasures must be protected in a way that only research institutes have the resources for.
As Aboriginal communities are seen as an inseparable part of Taiwan’s national identity, they are demanding a more collaborative relationship with research institutes that hold their ancestors’ relics — a change from the past when the institutes decided what to do with the treasures without community input.
When the Vungalid were negotiating with NTU, one of their conditions was that the community could make a replica “as a home for our ancestor’s spirits,” Lo Chun-chieh says, an exception to the heritage law that bans replicating national treasures.
A related condition was that the community would become “sworn brothers” with the university, a ritual that would allow the community’s ancestral spirits to travel to the community and reside in the tablets whenever the Vungalid held rituals or festivals.
The Kaviyangan have also taken a more proactive approach when dealing with the government. They held the wedding so as was to maximize the return of the artifacts — glass beads and clothing — that had been removed from the community and offer a public display of its status.
“We wanted to make it difficult for NTU to take our ancestors’ relics,” Adrucangalj says.
“Muakaikai is our female ancestor. If NTU wants [her], they needed to prepare a lot of things,” he adds recalling the discussions that led up to the unusual wedding.
At one point during the wedding ceremony, the museum presented the community with seven eagle feathers. However, according to the family’s status, it should have received nine.
“We were intentionally picky,” Adrucangalj says, “to symbolize that marrying out our daughter was very hard for us… Because NTU didn’t prepare properly, we punished them.”
For the slip in etiquette, NTU had to give the community an iron pot.
After the ceremony, Yang and Maljeveljev Zingrur, the first royal daughter, drank from a double cup symbolizing “that the two families have become one,” Adrucangalj says.
One last bit of negotiation was that if in the future the community has the resources to care for Muakaikai, then she should be returned to the village.
“You know, we’ll divorce NTU,” Adrucangalj quips.
NTU was non-committal.
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