The Custodians of Taiwan

Updated: Mar 17

The indigenous dimension at the intersection between environmental politics and the question of sovereignty in Taiwan

Up in the humid, verdant mountains of Hualien County, infectious repetitions of “hu hu ho” roll chantingly over the undulating hillside town of Zhuoxi, a recognised ancestral area of the Bunun, the third most populous Taiwanese indigenous tribe. Village members, lowered in an attentive circle, perform malastapang, a ritual in which elders, children and guests (such as myself) are spurred on to inhale milky millet wine in a dynamic yet almost meditative sequence of salutations; introducing oneself, family, and more or less anything else one can think of to the gregarious crowd.

This tradition contributes to the wider occasion of Ear Shooting Festival, an annual celebration of maturation and manhood that emphasises marksmanship as integral to male Bunun identity. After rounds of more wine passed served in a bamboo ladle and pieces of freshly hunted Sambar Deer venison, a local author named Salizan Takisvalainan turns to me and says: “Traditionally we would all be barefoot here, but now only some of the elder men are.” “Why?” I ask. Salizan replies: “I tell people it’s because of the increased dog poop, more landmines than in Ukraine! But really, it’s not the poop that’s increased, but the Han guests.”
Despite waves of colonisation over a period of 400 years, it’s somewhat miraculous that the cultural life of Taiwan’s ethnically Austronesian first peoples is as well-preserved as it is, but nonetheless the ever-evolving pressures to homogenise and assimilate are still obvious at the Ear Shooting Festival. For the sake of everyone’s comprehension, the event is mostly conducted in Mandarin and not in the Bunun’s mother tongue. Salizan even points out to me multiple elders with fingers missing from hunting rifle accidents, because despite provisional hunting rights to indigenous peoples, the use of modern hunting weapons is forbidden. As a result, all firearms are handmade and often lead to injury.

Hunting is almost synonymous with the Bunun and as a custom represents the permeation between tradition and territory that make identity production and maintenance possible. However, the problem of hunting in Taiwan sits at the intersection between environmentalism and indigenous rights, leading to compromises in cultural and ecological conservation. After being sanctioned by the US in 1994 for doing too little regarding conservation, the post-martial law government amended its Wildlife Conservation Act in line with the regulations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, essentially equating non-commercial indigenous hunting of many animals, such as the Reeve’s muntjac, Formosan serow and Formosan rock macaque, with the universally recognised sin of poaching and thus ignoring any longstanding ritualistic significance of the practice.

Such bans, however, do not prevent the hunts, and on the campus of Taiwan’s center of indigenous studies in Hualien’s National Donghwa University rock macaque can regularly be seen furtively barbequed in the indigenous studies department building. To this date, there have been over 200 cases of indigenous people criminalised for hunting offenses – leading to regular protests and calls for the furtherment of indigenous rights on indigenous land. Anyone who has been to a traditional indigenous area in Taiwan, whether it be among the Tao of Orchid Island, the Truku of Taroko, or the Bunun of Yushan National Park, will be aware of the unwritten local laws around human conduct in nature, emphasising that the question of ecological custodianship should be broached inclusively between indigenous systems of knowledge and the ethnically Chinese-dominant administration. If indigenous voices are not represented properly in matters that concern them, environmentalism could easily become a channel through which their voices are lost altogether.

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