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Realising Taiwan’s indigenous potential

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Indigenous Taiwanese perform during the National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan, 10 October 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

In Brief

In 2019, members of Taiwan’s Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee published a strongly-worded response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Year message espousing unification. The historic declaration provided a message of ownership and a vision for indigenous values in Taiwan’s future, but Taiwan has much work to do before it can truly harness what its indigenous peoples have to offer.


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The declaration — the first of its kind — was written and signed by 20 representatives across the indigenous nations and opened with a direct message to Xi that since he does not know them, he does not know Taiwan. They wrote:

‘We are the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, and we’ve lived in Taiwan, our motherland, for more than 6000 years … Taiwan is the sacred land where generations of our ancestors lived and protected with their lives. It doesn’t belong to China … we are now recognised as the original owners of Taiwan. We have pushed this nation forward towards respect for human rights, democracy, and freedom. After thousands of years, we are still here. We have never given up our rightful claim to the sovereignty of Taiwan’.

The declaration is clearly one of ownership. The use of the pronoun ‘we’ is important. At the start, it means the indigenous peoples. But as the text continues, it seems to include all ethnic groups on the islands: ‘Taiwan is also a nation that we are striving to build together with other peoples who recognise the distinct identity of this land’.

The historic apology to indigenous peoples made by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in August 2016, and her quarter-Paiwan heritage, to a certain extent played a role in this declaration. Yet the hopes of many indigenous leaders and protestors on a variety of issues — such as the allocation of indigenous names, hunting rights, land rights and autonomy — have not been fully realised. How perceptions of a ‘coloniser’ majority filter into discussions of leaders and activists is especially important in identifying how contemporary indigenous issues are breaking into mainstream political discourse.

Notably, on 7 May 2021 the Taiwan Constitutional Court found that the use of ‘self-made’ guns is constitutional, and that regulations governing such guns must be amended within two years to protects indigenous peoples’ right to hunt as part of their cultural heritage. But other aspects of the ruling dismayed indigenous peoples. There is still much to be done if we are to see the sorts of significant shifts towards indigenous equity that is perhaps more visible in other colonial countries.

Traditional knowledge can play an important role here. This includes subsistence knowledge — techniques that are used in agricultural practice and hunting — ecological knowledge, and health and wellbeing knowledge incorporating traditional medicinal practice with social health and spiritual wellbeing. This knowledge is a vital asset belonging to all Taiwanese indigenous peoples since it reflects their identity, history and values — but it is not being included in recent constitutional rulings.

For Taiwan to successfully bring equity to its indigenous peoples — and give them a real voice on national issues — it must structure traditional knowledge into its policymaking efforts. To achieve this, the Taiwanese government must incorporate six values into all policy that pertains to indigenous communities: integrity, continuity, equity, mutuality, respect and responsibility.

Integrity is a core value concerning a credibility of intent in the process of negotiating policy implementation with indigenous communities. Continuity is the maintenance of the relationships between indigenous peoples and between peoples and their environment. It must also include a respect of indigenous spiritual domains.

Equity is reflected by a commitment to show fairness and justice that enables indigenous culture, history, and values to be respected and appreciated. Mutuality is an equitable engagement with and inclusion of indigenous peoples, their values and cultures within the development stages of writing policy.

Respect and responsibility require upholding welfare, beliefs, perceptions, knowledge and cultural heritage both on an individual and collective level. The rights of indigenous people to hold and express differing values and aspirations is also coupled with a responsibility to demonstrate this in practice by negotiating with indigenous peoples and communities during policymaking — and to share its outcomes and any intellectual property rights.

It is also imperative that any policy has risk management strategies in place, and that a full evaluation of ethical research is undertaken to minimise the likelihood of unintended consequences.

In recent years Taiwan has seen a considerable increase in the level of understanding and awareness of indigenous issues, though some have gained more traction than others. It is thus important for Taiwanese authorities to develop policy that clearly incorporates indigenous traditional knowledge. Inclusive policymaking will ensure that the government is earnest in dealing with past grievances, inspirited in retaining and promoting indigenous language and culture, and animated in reducing gaps in equity and equality.

The incorporation of traditional knowledge can benefit Taiwan as whole. Tao/Yami knowledge on traditional house building, for example, could aid typhoon management on Lanyu/Orchard Island; these semi-below-ground houses could also be built in typhoon-prone locations on the Taiwanese mainland. As climate change increases the intensity of tropical storms, traditional knowledge has plenty to offer.

Niki Alsford is Professor in Asia Pacific Studies and Head of Asia Pacific Institutes at the University of Central Lancashire.

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