While the dominant culture on the island of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, many Indigenous peoples have contributed to the island’s character. The Chinese only settled en masse in the 17th century, by which time its original Austronesian-descended inhabitants had been there for over 4,000 years. As such, a vast proportion of Taiwanese today have some Indigenous heritage.
In total, Taiwan has sixteen recognised ethnic groups, totalling over 550,000 people. This amounts to just 2.4% of the population, yet their influence on the island is far more than that suggests, not least through crafts, food and music – Abao being the most famous Indigenous singer.
For years, these peoples were marginalised, referred to as shanbao (mountain people); they were only named in the constitution as yuanzhumin (original inhabitants) in 1994. However, since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power, positive steps have been made. On 1 August (Indigenous People’s Day) in 2016, she made a formal apology: “For 400 years, every regime that has come to Taiwan has brutally violated the rights of Indigenous peoples through armed invasion and land seizure. For this, I apologise to the Indigenous peoples on behalf of the government.”
President Tsai also has a Paiwan grandmother and is the first Taiwanese leader to proclaim her ethnic heritage. In addition, 16 recognised Indigenous languages have now been adopted as national languages within Taiwan.
Visits to the coastal strip east of the central mountain ridge take you to the area populated by the largest Indigenous group on the island, the Amis. They are famed for their harvest festivals in the summer, with celebrations spanning around 40 communities during the months of July and August. Not all welcome uninvited guests (or women), but those that do claim a seat will witness age-old dances and rituals being passed down between generations.
In the mountains to the south of the island live the second-largest Indigenous group, the Paiwan. Traditional costumes and pottery typically feature their sacred totem: the so-called hundred-pace snake, a pit viper with a zig-zag design – its name comes from how far you will manage to walk after being bitten. A visit to Tjuvecekadan in Pingtung County reveals a wealth of traditional slate houses, whose preservation, alongside the 400-year-old village’s customs and traditions, offer a living glimpse of Paiwanese history.
Other memorable encounters include the Bunun, who are known for their polyphonic singing in up to eight parts. They inhabit the central mountains and their music is the most remarkable of all the Indigenous groups. Elsewhere, on Lanyu (Orchid Island), you’ll encounter the Yami (or Tao) people, who are the only Indigenous Taiwanese to use traditional canoes; they have preserved their traditions incredibly well despite a long period under Japanese occupation. These are just some of many unique encounters.