Sat, Aug 10, 2019 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE:Aborigines reconnect with their roots to heal

By Beh Lih Yi and Chen Shan-shan  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, HUALIEN

The Truku elders of Taiwan still dream about their mountain home four decades after bulldozers tore it down — a classic symptom of trauma as community members struggle to accept their loss.

At one evening gathering, Miya Yudaw, 65, described his recurring dream, where the mountain was still whole, dotted with quiet farms of millet and sweet potatoes, and the air clean, only to wake each time to the misery of reality.

“The mountain is our home and the land is our blood,” said the farmer, who leads a group that has been fighting for more than 20 years for a mining firm to return their ancestral land in Hualien.

“When it is being taken away, it is like a part of us being taken away too,” he told the other Truku elders as they drank kaoliang at his dimly lit home.

The historical trauma of Taiwan’s 17 officially recognized Aboriginal groups, who were evicted from their land and banned from speaking their own languages, using their native names or practising traditions such as hunting — has only recently been acknowledged.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 2016 apologized for “centuries of pain and mistreatment” dating back to the Japanese colonial era in the 19th century and Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) assimilation policy in the 1960s.

Such trauma has led to depression, anxiety, alcohol dependence and high rates of liver disease and fatal accidents among the 24,000-strong Truku community, National Taiwan University researcher Ciwang Teyra said.

However, the younger generation are breaking the cycle by reconnecting with the culture that their parents were uprooted from, through language, music and nature, as they push for the government to recognize and protect their rights.

Aborigines make up 2 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people, with most of the rest tracing their ancestry back to China.

Buya Ici’s memories are equally painful. His childhood was filled with the deafening sound of neighbors’ roofs and kitchens exploding as the mining company blew them up, forcing his family to abandon their farm and trek down the mountain.

“They used some giant machines to tear down the house. There was simply nothing left,” said the 50-year-old train technician, who is also a Truku. “This kind of psychological trauma has remained with me until now.”

Globally, many indigenous peoples have higher suicide rates than the general population due to colonization, dispossession, discrimination and culture loss.

An analysis last year of 30 countries and territories by Canada’s Memorial University found the highest disparities in Canada and Brazil, where suicide rates were 20 times the national averages.

In Taiwan, suicide rates among some indigenous groups were six times higher than the rest of the population, it found.

“Today, our people face the issue of abusing certain materials, abusing alcohol and drugs,” said Ciwang Teyra, who is also a Truku. “It is because we have been deprived of our own power to cure our own hearts. When alcohol is easily accessible to you, it naturally becomes a tool to alleviate your stress.”

Ciwang Teyra’s research found that alcohol abuse reduced among Truku who were able to hunt, weave and perform traditional rituals in their ancestral mountains.

“Our culture can help us cure the historical trauma and bring comfort in the face of discrimination. To have close ties with our land is a way to restore our own health,” she said.

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