Three Aboriginal Seediq siblings earlier this month won honors in a mother tongue competition, demonstrating the difference hard work can make in the preservation of language and culture.
The three — Yu Hsuan (余瑄), Yu Han (余菡) and Yu Hung-shuo (余宏碩) — finished in top place in the Mayor Cup language contest in Greater Tainan and were dubbed the “Pride of Seediq People” by their relatives and friends.
The siblings drew a lot of attention from the audience, because it is rare for members of one family to receive awards together.
Yu Hsuan, the elder sister, who attends Greater Tainan’s Beimen Senior High School, won the top prize in the high-school student category.
Yu Han, who attends Chiali Junior High School, took second place in the junior-high student group.
Their brother, Yu Hung-shuo, a student at Ouwang Elementary School, took first place in the grade-school student group.
Yu Hsuan said their mother, Yu Ling-an (余玲安), was born and raised in a Seediq community in Nantou County’s Renai Township (仁愛).
“Though our family now lives in Tainan, our mother has insisted on transmitting the Seediq culture and language to us. Since we were young, she taught us the Seediq language, and our people’s traditional culture,” Yu Hsuan said.
“However, we speak Mandarin Chinese with our peers most of the time. It was difficult for us to learn the Seediq language, because it has no written characters, and it is also hard to grasp the accent of the spoken words,” she said. “Even though now we use Romanization, we still often get the pronunciation wrong. It’s lucky that we have a language teacher, Pai Chang-hui (白昌輝), who is from the same tribe as us, to patiently teach us. So we are able to make progress.”
“Teacher Pai belongs to the same Truku language community within the Seediq tribe as our family. We are in the same clan as Mona Rudao, the Aboriginal hero who fought against Japanese rule [in the Wushe Incident uprising],” Yu Hsuan said.
“Mother told us that when she was young, she used to listen to stories her grandparents told about the exploits of her great-grandfather, who fought alongside Mona Rudao in the uprising, and the sad ending of their courageous sacrifice,” she said.
“So when we watched the movie Seediq Bale, we felt our grandparents were that group of children who stood under the trees witnessing the Seediq committing suicide by hanging themselves on the trees. It was a very emotional scene for us,” she said.
Like all Aborigines in Taiwan, the Seediq came under colonial administration and assimilation policies during the Japanese era.
For many decades, Seediq and other Aborigines were not allowed to pass on their culture and language to the younger generation, so some of their traditional ceremonies and cultural heritage were lost.
Later, when the Nationalist Chinese Party (KMT) regime came to Taiwan, they also practiced assimilation policies and did not protect Aboriginal culture, accelerating the erosion and decline of Aboriginal culture and languages.
The Seediq are now receiving more public attention after the communities started efforts to save their traditional culture in 2011, reviving their traditional harvest festival and spring planting rituals, along with the retelling of the heroic tales of Mona Rudao.
Beimen Senior High School principal Chu Shui-jung (朱水永) said Pai was the same teacher who taught the siblings’ mother, Yu Ling-an, when she was in grade school in Nantou County.
“After his retirement, Pai still goes to many places to give language lessons, together with his elder sister, Pai Mei-hui (白美惠). Both of them have made great contributions to the preservation of Aboriginal culture and language,” Chu said.
“Even though he has retired, Pai still travels from Sinying (新營) to Jiali (佳里) every week to teach the three Yu siblings. He also acts as lead language teacher in several schools’ mother tongue learning clubs. We all greatly admire his spirit of public service,” Chu said.