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Indigenous Taiwan

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

The stories our ancestors tell of the mountains of Jade, Alishan, Dabajian, Kavulungan, Beinan and Dulan, forests, grasslands, valleys, rivers, islands, and oceans of Taiwan testify that Taiwan is — and has always been — the traditional territory of the indigenous peoples on this land. Indigenous Historical and Transitional Justice Committee

As a descendant of Hakka settlers in Taiwan, I feel a profound obligation to learn, acknowledge, and support as much of this island’s Indigenous story and community as possible. It’s still a struggle to find English-language materials about Taiwan history, much less anything that centers the most marginalized. But I’m getting there, bit by bit.

When I was growing up, visiting my grandparents in Taipei every year, I don’t recall much mention of Indigenous Taiwanese. I remember whispers of distant Aboriginal heritage in our family line and a couple of trips to the Wūlái 烏來 Atayal Aboriginal Village when I was older. But I didn’t consciously recognize there were Indigenous people in Taiwan and that my family were settlers until I was well into my thirties. What I didn't know was enormous and I have so much more to learn.

Yuánzhùmín 原住民 ("original residence people") have been living in Taiwan for over 6,000 years, since the Neolithic Age, before writing was invented and recorded history began. Native Taiwanese are Austronesian, not Chinese. They are closely related to Polynesians, Indigenous peoples of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and others. In fact, research and story-gathering increasingly suggest Polynesian culture may have even originated in Taiwan.

But over the last four hundred years, Indigenous Taiwanese have suffered at the hands of Taiwan’s many colonizers and settlers: Japanese and Chinese pirates (1500s), the Dutch and Spanish (mid-1600s), Koxinga’s Ming-loyalist Kingdom (1661-1683), Qing Dynasty rule (1683-1895), Japanese Imperial rule (1895-1945), and the Kuomintang regime’s one-party authoritarian rule (1947/49-1987). Like Indigenous people all over the world, Native Taiwanese have suffered disease and death, displacement, theft of their ancestral lands, suppression and erasure of their culture, forced acculturation, and systemic oppression.

One of my father’s most prominent childhood memories is visiting his A-kong’s (my A-zo’s) medical clinic in Pǔlǐ 埔l里 and seeing Indigenous people, their faces tattooed, staring at him as they sat on the floor of the waiting room. Puli, nestled in the mountains at the exact geographic center of Taiwan, was stewarded by Indigenous mountain people for thousands of years and still has strong Native presence. My A-zo used to treat Indigenous Taiwanese free of charge, so his waiting room was often packed. This generational story has greatly shaped my attempts to construct Taiwan in my diasporic imagination, but I've always known there were problems in letting it do so.

I deeply respect how hard my migrant ancestors worked to improve their life circumstances and there are elements to this family story that have to be unpacked. For one, my father was a child in this generational memory, he didn't understand Indigenous people or their tattoos, and my guess is he was probably scared of them more than anything else. Nothing authentic or empowering for Aboriginal Taiwanese is conveyed. For two, it warrants serious examination that my A-zo, the child of a poor Hakka farmer, was able to ascend to a position of such privilege and power on Indigenous land in his lifetime, especially when the land's first peoples could not, and today, often still have not.

Today, Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples number around 550,000 or 2 percent of the island’s total population. There are 16 officially recognized Indigenous tribes: Ami, Atayal, Bunun, Hla’alua, Kanakanavu, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Tao, Thao, Tsou, Truk, Sakizaya, and Sediq. But there are at least as many other tribes who have yet to be recognized by government. This includes the Ketagalan upon whose ancestral lands Taiwan’s sprawling capital, Taipei City, is built. Other unrecognized groups include: Makatao, Siraya, Taivoan, Babuza, Basay, Hoanya, Luilang, Pazeh/Kaxabu, Papora, Qauqaut, Taokas, Trobiawan.

Taiwan’s Indigenous movement began in the 1980s and has made great strides since then. But after centuries of discrimination, Aboriginal communities are still some of the most disenfranchised in Taiwan as they continue to struggle against educational barriers, high unemployment, poverty, assimilation, health disparities, among other inequities. The National Insurance Program (NHI) covers 99 percent of the total population, yet Indigenous Taiwanese still have a lower life expectancy, living ten years less than the general population. Indigenous income is consistently lower than the majority and the college entrance rate of Aboriginal students is 31 percent lower than of non-Aboriginal students.

To me, showing up for Indigenous people as a descendant of settlers means so many things. Learning about accurate Indigenous history and current legislation; supporting Native folks in their fight for sovereignty and land rights; always acknowledging whose ancestral lands I’m on as well as the settler advantages I hold and ways I can divest from that privilege; using whatever access I have to help uplift Indigenous voices and causes; refusing to participate in Native appropriation and tokenization, and much more. It also means taking a hard look at the stories our family is passing down about Indigenous Taiwanese and, when needed, doing some re-writing.

Full circle. This is an image of my son on a recent trip to Puli–his first–looking at a portrait of Lawa Piheg, the last Atayal woman with traditional facial tattoos. The painting is on display at the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Center (a complicated place and post for another day). I took this photo specifically because the moment reminded me so much of my father's childhood story about Aboriginal people waiting to be seen at his A-kong's medical clinic. Now, however, my son and I are trying to take the story further by thinking seriously about our relationship with the first peoples of Taiwan.

In the 19th century, when my A-zo was born, the Atayal had a name for the settlement that would one day become Puli. In their native language they called it Sabaha Bakalas, "house of stars." Facial tattoos, no longer practiced, were once a critical rite of passage for most Indigenous Taiwanese that signified place in their tribe. Lawa Liheg died September 2019 in Miaoli County, at the age of 97, after being featured in the 2018 documentary 榮耀的印記─泰雅文面 (The Marks of Honor - Atayal Facial Tattoos). In her interview, she said she wanted people to remember facial tattoos as part of Atayal culture and for young Atayal people to carry on their traditions and language.


Feature image: Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, shot on a 2020 visit

© 2021 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫

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