Ethnoecology workshop at Smangus

Smangus community classroom

On Sunday and Monday I attended a conference in Smangus. The conference, organized by National Chiao Tung University (國立交通大學), brought together a small group of anthropologists to discuss the topic of “Rethinking environment, localisation and indigenisation.” While it poured rain on the Sunday afternoon the cafe at provided a great refuge for the presenters gave their papers.

The presentations started with Dr Lin Yih-ren (林益仁) talking about the politics of the plan for the Maqaw National Park. The proposed national park covers a mountain area that is the traditional territory of the Atayal people. The social movement to promote the park developed through several stages. Initially indigenous people were not involved but an alliance between indigenous people and conservationists later developed. However, there was also another indigenous group that opposed the park. The plan for the park is now suspended but it has had an important influence on the development of ecotourism and laws related to indigenous peoples. Continue reading

Books and films a window into Atayal culture

I saw the short film Msgamil: Once Upon a Time (泰雅千年) while visiting Smangus in August last year. I then saw Through Thousands Years* (走過千年) at the Ethnographic Film Festival. Msgamil is a short film produced by Chen Wen-bin (陳文彬) about the historical migration of the Atayal. Through Thousands Years, by the Atayal director Pilin Yabu, documents the process of the making of Msgamil.

Illustration from Words from Yaba

I recently visited Taichung to talk with Dr Lin Yih-ren (林益仁) at Providence University (靜宜大學). Dr Lin very kindly gave me DVDs of both films and also two books about the production of the films. The books, titled Words from Yaba (Chinese: Yaba的訪; Atayal: Kay na yaba), are both bi-lingual with one edition in Chinese and Atayal and the other in English and Atayal. The text is beautifully illustrated by Wang Yong-cheng (王永成) and also includes photos from the making of the films. Continue reading

Ethnographic films from Taiwan

The 2009 Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival (台灣國際民族誌影展) took place from 2-6 October. I attended several sessions and saw an interesting selection of ethnographic films from Taiwan.

The first film I saw was Sing It! (唱歌吧!) directed by Shine Yang (楊智麟). It tells the story of how the principal of Dongpu Elementary School in Chiayi County forms a school choir. He trains the students to a high standard competing in national competitions and then they go to record a CD over the summer vacation. Most of the students in the school are Bunun and most of the songs they record are traditional Bunun songs. Continue reading

Smangus and the Atayal spirit

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I visited Smangus this week to continue the research for my thesis. There were some significant changes in the village since my visit last year. The major one was the new classroom building near the main entrance to the village. Construction began in July last year and was completed in April. There are currently 12 students studying in the experimental branch of the Xinguang Primary School. The curriculum includes classes in Atayal language and traditional knowledge.

The building has a slate roof, rough sawn timber walls and a concrete foundation. Its combination of traditional materials and modern building techniques is in many ways a metaphor for the Smangus community which combines traditional Atayal culture with ideas from the modern world. Continue reading

Austronesian Taiwan 2.0

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Austronesian Taiwan: Linguistics, History, Ethnology, Prehistory was first published in 2000 and has been out of print for past few years. A new edition of the book was published to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Shung Ye Museum and the exhibition of artifacts from Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology.

The new edition was edited by Dr David Blundell, my thesis advisor at NCCU, with assistance from Chris Anderson and the people at SMC Books. I also played a small role in the editing process.

Austronesian Taiwan is a wonderful collection of papers on the Austronesian speaking peoples of Formosa. It is a great reference for anyone who would like to learn more about the rich culture and history of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. The book gives many insights into the value of Austronesian languages and their associated cultures as  living heritage and as a cultural resource for Taiwan and the world. Continue reading

End of the last semester at NCCU

The end of this semester marked my completion of the coursework requirements in the Master’s of Taiwan Studies program at NCCU (國立政治大學). The classes I took this semester were Political Development of Taiwan and International Relations of Taiwan. They were both great classes — Taiwan presents a vast amount of rich subject matter on these topics.

In International Relations I gave a presentation on “Taiwan and the Pacific Island Nations”. This topic is very worthy of further research, particularly looking at Taiwan’s relations with the Solomon Islands and the effects of China’s growing influence in the region.

On Monday I presented my thesis proposal to my thesis committee. The thesis looks at the current situation of indigenous rights in Taiwan based on a case study of the Smangus Beech Tree Incident. The proposal was passed and now I need to work hard on writing my thesis over the summer.

Although the semester is over next week there is a conference of the Society for East Asian Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association at Academia Sinica. A group of students from the Taiwan Studies program are presenting posters with the theme of “Latitude 121° East: Locality in Our Time”. My poster is titled “Indigenous Rights in Taiwan and the Smangus Case”.

Shung Ye Museum marks 15th anniversary

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The Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines (順益台灣原住民博物館) celebrated its 15th anniversary yesterday. The day was marked by the opening of a special exhibition from Japan.  The exhibition contains artifacts from the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan. This marks the first time artifacts from the museum have ever been returned to their country of origin for an exhibition.

In the afternoon speeches were given by Eric Yu (游浩乙), Director of the Shung Ye Museum, Lin Chiang-I (林江義), Deputy Minister of the Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Director of the Japanese Museum of Ethnology. Indigenous students from Xizhi Primary School also performed a short play. Continue reading

Out of Formosa

Two articles recently published in Science help confirm the “Out of Taiwan” theory on the origins of human migration across the Pacific. Wired Science reports:

By tracking the evolution of language and gut bacteria, scientists may have settled a debate over the spread of humans across the Pacific.

The evolutionary trajectory implied by words and bugs begins with an initial migration from Taiwan 5,000 years ago, with a first wave of people spreading to the Philippines and a second to western Polynesia.

The idea that the Austronesian speaking peoples originated from Taiwan is not new. There are several competing theories, however the out of Taiwan theory is the one that has the most support. Linguist Robert Blust and archaeologist Peter Bellwood are the two academics who have gathered much of the evidence to support the theory.

There are no written records of the Austronesian speaking peoples so understanding their history depends on putting together linguistic, archaeological, anthropological and DNA evidence. Jared Diamond wrote in an article in Nature in 2000:

This linguistic evidence for the Austronesian expansion correlates well with archaeological evidence. Studies of pots, tools and bones have shown that all farming in the Pacific outside New Guinea stems from the colonization of Taiwan by south Chinese farmers by around 4300 BC, followed by their expansion through the Philippines and Indonesia to Polynesia, the Malay peninsula and Madagascar. Of course, pots do not talk, and it can be impossible to guess the languages spoken by the pot-makers. But in the Pacific, identifying the potmakers is easy, because all Polynesian islands were uninhabited until the arrival of people making so-called Lapita pots began at around 1200 BC, and there is no archaeological evidence for arrivals of other peoples after them. Because all traditional languages throughout Polynesia are Austronesian, those first potters must have spoken Austronesian languages.