Recently, four tribal warrior skulls of the indigenous Paiwan people were finally returned, having been in exile thousands of miles away for 150 years. This is yet another case of repatriation: the return of cultural property or indigenous remains to their original country that had been looted or obtained in wars through illicit means.
The return of the Paiwan warrior skulls from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland is an important page in the history of the indigenous people of Taiwan.
In May, before the coronation of King Charles III, indigenous leaders representing 12 Commonwealth nations demanded that the new king should apologize for the violence and brutality perpetrated by the British crown. They also called for the return of stolen cultural property and ancestral bones.
Repatriating indigenous remains to the country of origin is not unprecedented. In 1989, indigenous Australians successfully claimed a significant amount of indigenous bones from the US. Demands had also been made on the UK to repatriate remains stolen during the colonial era, back to Australia.
These cases demonstrate that the repatriation of indigenous bones is one way to redress historical wrongdoing and to restore international justice.
From the early 19th to the mid-20th century, Western hegemonic empires had done a number of outrageous things. They imprisoned peoples of different races, including Native Americans, Africans and indigenous Australians, who were then exhibited in the so-called “human museum.” Their brutality toward different races was despicable and disgraceful.
Today, a great number of Westerners do not want to talk about their dark past. The above is not exactly the same as the case of indigenous remains in exile. Yet we should remember that on the pretext of research, it was not unusual for Western powers to obtain indigenous skulls through means of waging wars.
The return of the Paiwan warrior skulls reminds us of the Japanese invasion of Taiwan in the 19th century. In 1874, Japan’s punitive expedition led to the attack of indigenous Taiwanese in southern Taiwan. Known as the Mudan Incident, the attack happened only 20 years before the First Sino-Japanese War. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan looked to militarily expand, and Taiwan — with its natural resources and strategic location — became a prime target.
Japan’s 1874 invasion of Taiwan was the first undertaken by Japan after the Meiji Restoration. In 1895, Japan and the Qing signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, in which Taiwan was ceded to Japan.
In the past few years, the Council of Indigenous Peoples has facilitated the establishment of an indigenous knowledge system, based on which the subjectivity of the indigenous peoples can be affirmed. History is integral to such work, and with this project, the indigenous resistance against Japanese invasion can be explored more deeply.
The display of cultural property and historical objects should highlight the subjectivity of the indigenous peoples. For instance, a flag of surrender given by the Japanese army to some villages is preserved at the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan. The surrender flag is a powerful contrast to the sacrifice of the indigenous tribes. It must be emphasized that it is not the surrender flag that we should commemorate, but the warriors who defended their people and sacrificed their lives, including the four Paiwan warriors whose skulls just arrived home. The past must be revisited without bias and explored with care. Only in doing so can the truth be uncovered.
Chang Lien is a retired professor of the department of history at National Dong Hwa University.
Translated by Emma Liu
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