INTERVIEW: Aboriginal name activists hopeful

By Loa Iok-sin  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sat, Jan 27, 2007 - Page 2

The question "what is your surname" may just be the most difficult one to answer for some Aborigines.

"What is your surname, sir?" a staff member at a small cafe in Tamsui asked.

"I don't have a surname," Mayaw Biho answered.

This situation occurs almost every day, Mayaw explained in an interview.

Mayaw, who is a member of the Pangcah (Amis) tribe in eastern Taiwan, is an advocate of a movement to restore tribal names.

He has also directed several documentary films on Aboriginal cultures.

"Surname" as found among the ethnic Han does not exist among some of the country's Aboriginal groups. Some tribes have other naming systems, Mayaw said.

For the Pangcah, a given name is proceeded by the name of an elder member of the family, Mayaw explained.

"For example, Mayaw is my name and Biho is the name of my great grandfather," he said.

For the Tao of Lanyu, a name changes several times during one's life.

A man named Mipanpan Si Mipanpan, and beomes Siaman Dzawal when his first son Dzawal is born, according to a booklet published by Mayaw's documentary team.

However, traditional Aboriginal naming systems were threatened when a law passed in 1946 required all Aborigines to adopt Chinese names.

The ban was finally lifted in 1995 after a long struggle led by civil rights activists.

However, in the last count at the end of last year, only 6,000 of the nation's 460,000 Aborigines had reverted back to their tribal names, Mayaw said.

"Most fear derision and discrimination from mainstream society," he explained.

The situation of an elementary school teacher illustrates the discrimination that is still prevalent in society.

After the teacher changed back to his tribal name, the school's principal began receiving requests from parents to transfer their children out of the teacher's class, "because the parents were worried abut the teaching quality of an Aboriginal teacher," Mayaw said.

Despite the fact that the use of tribal names is allowed, Mayaw says the government is not ready.

"The household registration forms only allow 15 characters," he said.

Many Aboriginal names require more than 15 characters if phonetically translated into Chinese.

Current law requires a phonetic translation in Chinese to accompany Romanized tribal names.

Another obstacle comes from within Aboriginal villages. The older generation tends to be less willing to challenge imposed social norms, Mayaw said.

Restoring tribal names also means rejecting the identity people have had their whole lives, he said.

However, the name restoration movement still sees hope.

About 100 Aboriginal children have not been given Chinese names at all, Mayaw said.

"The Council of Indigenous Peoples seems to be doing something now," Mayaw said, referring to the fact that the council is now holding more meetings with Aboriginal leaders.

"I hope that, maybe in 10 years, Aboriginal names can be written on official documents without Chinese characters," Mayaw said.

Also see Editorial:
Editorial: What's in an Aboriginal name?