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Mon, Oct 25, 1999 - Page 2 News List

'Home at last!'

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

After decades of forced relocation in Tehua community, the Thao Aborigines make a formal return to Puzi, their ancestral home.

PHOTO GEORGE TSORNG, TAIPEI TIMES

Wearing traditional costumes and performing age-old rituals, nearly 200 Aboriginal people from the Thao tribe -- the smallest Abo-riginal group on the island -- returned to their ancestral land yesterday, celebrating what they described as a "rebirth" of their tribal culture.

Women sang loudly together with tears in their eyes. They sprinkled rice wine on the ground to inform the gods of their arrival.

"After 50 years of fighting, we are finally returning to our own land," said one Thao.

Since the Japanese occupa-tion, the Thao have lived in the Tehua community area on the shore of Sun Moon Lake, near the epicenter of the devastating 921 earthquake. The quake destroyed most of the hotels and tourist spots around the lake and also caused serious damage to the Thao community at Tehua. At least 180 houses in the village collapsed, 95 percent of which belonged to the Thaos. Most of the tribe's 283 members have also been left unemployed by the quake.

This, they said yesterday, was the main reason for the "land-return" ceremony. They said now that their homes were destroyed, they are now going back to where their roots are.

The ceremony took place in a religious as well as political atmosphere. Garlands were placed on the heads of the 200 villagers. Then, singing together, they took a raft across a small bay out onto a nearby peninsula -- called Puzi -- that is their traditional homeland. After the 10 minute ride from the Tehua community, shouts and cheers went up as they landed. "Piakalinkin!" they shouted, meaning peace and safety.

"We Thao people like to be close to nature. That's why we wear garlands on our heads," said Mani, a Thao woman in her 60s.

Fifty years ago, the tribe -- which numbered around 900 at that time -- lived in an area on the southern shore of Sun Moon Lake they call Puzi -- the Thao word for `white.' For two hundred years the Thao grew rice on the fertile flats, hunting and fishing locally and living quietly isolated from the rest of Taiwan.

But plans by Taiwan's Japanese occupiers to turn the natural lake into a reservoir to feed a hydro-electric plant meant much of the Thao's low-lying homeland would be flooded. The tribe were moved to new land to the south-east of the lake at what is now the Tehua community. They were not given any choice in the matter. Generations later, their traditional tribal culture has been diluted by Taiwanese and Chinese culture, and their population reduced to only 283.

When the KMT "liberated" Taiwan, they moved into the area, developing the lake into what is now the island's most popular tourist destination.

"They [the KMT government] let the Han [Taiwanese] move here and integrate with our people," said Panu Kapamumu, the director of the Association for the Cultural Development for Thao People.

Panu believes this was a major step toward the destruction of Thao culture.

"They did not take us seriously, they just wanted us to dance and sing," he said.

Thao is still not recognized as an official Aboriginal tribe by the government, because it was long thought to be a sub-division of the Tsou tribe by anthropologists.

But villagers said the government took advantage of their culture while politically ignoring their status and rights.

The vanishing of their language is a major indicator of this loss of culture, as few people under the age of 45 speak the tribal language anymore.

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