Lungah and four other Atayal Aboriginal children were in the forest, gathering dried wood and learning some basic survival tips from her father.
“Make use of everything available,” said Baunay Wantan as he showed them how to snap a bamboo stem without using a knife.
“Sometimes your foot can be a useful tool,” Baunay said as he demonstrated how to break a thicker bamboo stem by stepping on it, a move the youths, aged between 19 months and five years tried.
They could do little more than get the bamboo to bounce off the ground.
Baunay is one of eight teachers responsible for the education of the five Atayal children at a groundbreaking preschool he and his wife, Yuma Taru, founded last year on their own land in a remote Atayal village in Taian Township (泰安), Miaoli County.
Still being run on a trial basis, the preschool is at the heart of 49-year-old Yuma’s vision to save and preserve the culture of the Atayals, the second-largest of Taiwan’s 14 officially recognized indigenous groups, with a population of 80,000.
“We want our children to learn and grow up in an environment similar to the traditional homes of our tribe in the early days,” Yuma said. “We believe that only by doing that can we add the depth of our culture to our children’s lives.”
The immersion into Atayal culture begins with the school itself — a traditional Atayal bamboo house built by Baunay and his tribesmen 12 years ago for a book about the tribe’s architecture he was working on at the time.
In the tree-surrounded house that adjoins a vegetable garden, Lona and her classmates learn about traditional weaving, cooking and other tribal customs and practices, using Mandarin and Atayal, or more vivid demonstrations.
“There are things you cannot teach with words,” Baunay said.
The best way to tell tribal children how their ancestors lived is to show them the plants that were harvested for foods and clothing, or used as tools, he said.
Yuma hopes the three-year program she has orchestrated will serve as a springboard for her more ambitious plan to establish Taiwan’s first “indigenous school,” dedicated to ethnic education that will also include subjects taught in other schools around Taiwan.
“Why should our children, who have lived in tribal villages since they were born, be put on a conveyor belt in schools built with concrete and steel at the age of two?” Yuma asked.
She herself was sent from her village to attend a regular school starting in the second grade and went on to study Chinese language and culture at university before getting a job as a teacher, only to “wake up” at the age of 29 “not knowing who or where I was.”
It was then that Yuma began her cultural journey into an increasingly hazy past, returning to her tribal village in Miaoli to learn her mother tongue as well as weaving.
She discovered that knowledge of Atayal weaving techniques had died out during her mother’s generation, lost to the Japanization movement during the colonial period (1895 to 1945), and then to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government’s efforts to assimilate indigenous people into Han Chinese culture.
Yuma had to learn the craft from her grandmother, starting with the most basic skill — how to plant ramie, a vegetable fiber used in textiles for thousands of years.
She spent the next 10 years developing a computerized databank of Atayal weaving know-how and patterns, and then another 10 years building a workshop where other tribal women could pick up the skills and then design and weave exquisite fabrics.
Her Melihang Workshop produced more than 100 costumes for the epic film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale and also held a successful fashion show at the Shei Pa National Park in Miaoli during September last year that attracted more than 2,000 spectators.
During the show many Atayal elders shed tears while watching their tribal culture revived on the young models who wore clothes with Atayal totems.
“I saw our young people regain their confidence and pride in the ancestors’ culture [during the show],” Yuma said.
However, the fame and generous income resulting from those successes have not tempered Yuma’s anxiety over the future of Atayal culture.
“Our culture is disappearing. No, it’s already gone!” she said. “People have been talking about Atayal culture, but where is it now? In museums, in books and in videos, but not in real life.”
“In 100 years, there won’t be any cultural phenomenon for Atayals to see at all,” she said. “It’s time for us to integrate our collective knowledge for a greater cause: promoting ethnic education to continue the culture.”
For that, “we must have our own schools,” in which teachers know how to balance ethnic and modern education.
Yuma has vowed to spend the rest of her life setting up indigenous schools at all levels, even including a university one day, where all subjects, including math and English, will be taught with some Atayal hues.
To achieve that goal, she will head to the US to study ethnic education once the three-year preschool project ends.
“In Taiwan, no degree means no right to speak,” she said, explaining that in Taiwan, taking charge of a school requires a doctoral degree.
Asked whether the plan was too ambitious, Yuma simply smiled.
“I’ve never thought that way. Even if I don’t see such a school built in my lifetime, I believe there will be someone else to take over the job,” she said.
Back at the bamboo house school, an Atayal teacher shows children how to weave a rainbow-colored belt on a small wooden loom. Of course, they speak Atayal.
When the children reach elementary-school age, they will be sent to a nearby school whose principal, according to Yuma, is one of the core figures who shares her ideas. The school will become part of Yuma’s large indigenous school network.
“We will first try our ethnic education program in one class. Then we will expand the scale if the results are convincing,” Yuma said.
“We must do whatever we can now,” she declares with passion. “Otherwise it will be too late because what we have now will be gone.”