Taiwan’s Aboriginal culture has won considerable recognition in recent years, with tribal identities and cultural practices reinforced both from within the communities themselves, and through support of government and non-government agencies. Despite all of that, Taiwan’s indigenous culture remains largely hidden, not just from foreign tourists, but to many locals as well.
Certainly for visitors from overseas, there are limited opportunities to appreciate the culture of Taiwan’s indigenous people, mostly due to a lack of adequate English-language information. Cheryl Robbins, a 24-year resident of Taiwan who now lives in Taitung County, wanted to remedy this situation, and has recently published the second in a series of three books about what Taiwan’s Aboriginal communities have to offer.
A Foreigner’s Travel Guide to Taiwan’s Indigenous Areas (台灣部落深度旅遊), which covers Hualien and Taitung, was published in May. A volume focusing on central and southern Taiwan was released in June last year, and a third on northern Taiwan (including Yilan County) is scheduled for release by early next year.
The three volumes of A Foreigner’s Travel Guide to Taiwan’s Indigenous Areas are bilingual books providing an introduction to the culture of Taiwan’s various tribes, a guide to their ceremonies, recommendations for guest houses and restaurants run by indigenous people, as well as a good selection of photos taken by Robbins in her own extensive travels around Taiwan’s indigenous communities. Robbins said she hoped to cover both well-known destinations such as Dulan (都蘭) in Taitung County, which already attracts a large crowd of domestic and foreign tourists, as well as lesser-known destinations where visitors will be able to appreciate Aboriginal culture and hospitality in idyllic rural surroundings.
Robbins’ interest in Taiwan’s indigenous culture dates back to 1997 when she worked for the National Museum of Natural Science (國立自然科學博物館) as an English-language tour guide and translator.
“There was a permanent exhibition there on Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, so to be able to take foreign guests and dignitaries through this, I had to learn about it. I realized I did not really known anything about it, and also found that there was really not very much information available in English,” Robbins said. Subsequent visits to Aboriginal communities at the invitation of coworkers involved in the anthropology and ethnography of Taiwan’s Aborigines cemented a passion that has lasted 15 years.
“Growing up in America, there are Native Americans, but their way of life is not really accessible. In Taiwan, one of the most amazing things is just the accessibility, and when you go into indigenous villages, it is a chance to be in a place where people are very friendly, and they have similar values. A lot of my indigenous friends have remarked to me that they like talking to Westerners because we have a lot in common in terms of our personalities... Just a bit more laid-back, and not so serious [compared to Han Chinese]… There is a broader definition of success among people living in indigenous areas. And it is a chance to be in nature, as many of these communities are in areas of natural beauty,” Robbins said about the appeal that Taiwan’s Aboriginal communities have for her.
Robbins believes that increasing the avenues for different types of tourism to access Taiwan’s Aboriginal areas might help mediate the effects of mass market tourism on how indigenous communities present themselves to outsiders. “Many local tourists go in there [Aboriginal communities] with a stereotype of what indigenous culture should be, which is the dancing and singing and so on, and I don’t see the people in indigenous villages doing very much to break that stereotype,” Robbins said.
Robbins, who is a licensed English-language tour guide in Taiwan, has created a number of itineraries in cooperation with Edison Tours (宏祥旅行社), a travel company specializing in inbound tourism. “Tourism is a chance to educate people and so I think indigenous people in the villages where tourists visit should make more of an effort to educate tourists.”
In addition to the tours she herself provides, there are “a number of Aboriginal tour guides with English-language licenses, but they are not yet able to use English to effectively explain their culture and introduce where they live,” she said. “This [the training Aboriginal tour guides to introduce their own culture] is something I really want to be involved in,” she said.
Robbins pointed out that in many cases Taiwan’s Aboriginal culture is still relatively hidden even in locations that are already popular with tourists. “I’ve tried to incorporate places that tourists like to visit, but which they may not know as being indigenous areas, such as Hsiulin Township (秀林) where Taroko Gorge is located,” Robbins said. “Many tourists know about Taroko Gorge, but they might not know it as the home to the Truku Aboriginal people, and in addition to the gorge, I tell them about the many indigenous communities they can visit nearby… The same with Ruisui (瑞穗鄉), where many people go for rafting and canoeing, but they may not know that communities of Amis and Bunun are located all around and there are lots of things you can do to learn about Aboriginal culture while staying there.”
Robbins is very much aware of the danger faced by indigenous communities as they try to respond to a new tide of Chinese and domestic tourism, in which the adulteration and commodification of their culture has become a real risk. “When tourism was first opened to Chinese tourists, many of my indigenous friends were very excited. But these tour groups go into these areas, destroy them, don’t spend any money there and leave. This is not the kind of tourism that indigenous villages need. It’s not sustainable,” Robbins said. “I advocate that indigenous villages try to encourage small groups, whether they be local or foreign, where people can get a more in-depth experience and learn about the culture, the environment, the ecology. They stay in the guesthouses, they eat in the restaurants, they buy local handicrafts and perhaps hire a local guide. By spending money in the village, real economic activity is generated to benefit the village.”
A Foreigner’s Travel Guide to Taiwan’s Indigenous Areas provides an avenue for Western tourists to do just this, and these efforts may help to preserve the identity and culture of Taiwan’s Aborigines.
“Indigenous culture is a unique and important part of Taiwan culture and history. It would be a tragedy to lose it because Taiwan would lose an important part of itself,” Robbins said.
More information about Cheryl Robbins is available at www.tribe-asia.com.