Cultural Tourism Along the East Coast

Hualien and Taitung Offer a Plethora of Indigenous-Culture Experiences

Text/ Cheryl Robbins
Photos/ Tourism Bureau, Maolin National Scenic Area, Vision Int'l
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Members of seven of Taiwan's 14 officially recognized tribes can be found in Hualien and Taitung counties. These are the Amis (Ami), Bunun , Puyuma , Kavalan (Kamalan), Truku (Taroko), Paiwan , and Rukai . The Yami also inhabit Taitung County, but are concentrated offshore on Orchid Island (Lanyu).

The Amis is the largest of Taiwan's indigenous tribes with a population of about 140,000. This matriarchal society is spread across the coastal plains and mountains of Hualien and Taitung. The Bunun have a population of about 40,000, mostly in the high-mountain areas of central, southern, and eastern Taiwan. This tribe is known for its musical talents, including the development of a multi-part harmony to pray for blessings for an abundant harvest. The Puyuma tribe, similar to its Amis neighbors, has a matriarchal society. With a population of about 10,000, it is concentrated in Beinan Township of Taitung County.

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The Kavalan is the only recognized Pingpu (plains Aborigines) tribe. It once inhabited the plains of Yilan , but due to the large influx of Han Chinese into the region was forced to move into what are now Hualien and Taitung counties, the heaviest concentration in Taitung's Sinshe Township . Today, this tribe has a population of about 2,000. The Truku tribe, numbering about 28,000, once inhabited the spectacular Taroko Gorge , but was forced from its tribal lands by the Japanese during their occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945). The Truku are well known for the complexity of their weaving and in the past practiced facial tattooing as a sign of adulthood. The Paiwan and Rukai tribes have populations of about 60,000 and 10,000, respectively, and mostly inhabit the mountains of southern Taiwan, with a concentration of Paiwan villages in Taitung, while the Rukai are concentrated in the village of Dongsing in Taitung's Beinan Township.

Indigenous Art - Beautiful and Meaningful

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Many of the tribes make clothing from ramie cloth woven on a crude wooden loom. Motifs have been developed based on natural phenomena, such as the tracks of animals and insects. Dyes are created from a variety of local plants. The coloring and pattern of the hundred-pace pit viper is commonly used by the Paiwan, Rukai, and Bunun tribes, as they consider this snake sacred.

Examples of skilled woodcarving can be found among all of the tribes. East Coast indigenous woodcarvers can today still be seen scouring the coastline after a storm looking for driftwood, their primary source of raw material.

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Pottery is one of the sacred treasures of the Paiwan tribe, as according to tribal legend its original ancestors were born from a ceramic vessel. The Amis also produce pottery that is used only during important ceremonies.

Glazed beads are another treasure of the Paiwan. In the past, each bead had a special motif and concomitant meaning, such as the eye, the tears of the sun, the feather of a peacock (which symbolized love) or the lily (which symbolized virtue). Paiwan artists today are making use of these motifs to create beads with more contemporary looks, and are passing on their techniques to artists from other tribes.

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Leather engraving is a relatively new form of art, although in the past some tribes used leather for caps, clothing, or other practical purposes. Today, indigenous leather crafters are utilizing themes from their traditional cultures to apply to cell phone covers, notebook covers, business-card holders, wallets, pendants, bracelets, and handbags.

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Filling Up on "Cultural Cuisine" Just as with traditional art, traditional indigenous cuisine makes use of local materials. The men traditionally hunt, sometimes spending long periods in the mountains - preserving the meat they obtain to bring back to the people of their village. Game includes wild boar, Formosan muntjac, and flying squirrels. From the surrounding area also comes a variety of wild greens, used as food, flavoring, and medicine. But not everything is gathered; it is normally the women's duty to tend fields and paddies of millet and taro. In villages along the coast or rivers, fish and shrimp are also part of the diet. Although indigenous peoples suffer negative stereotyping, and are seen to be heavy drinkers, liquor made from fermented millet was traditionally only produced on special occasions. In fact, indigenous peoples do not think of millet wine as liquor; for example, in the Rukai language it is called "water that makes you feel less shy."

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There are numerous restaurants in Hualien and Taitung counties serving up dishes made with traditional ingredients. Many owners grow their own greens; some gather wild greens. Boar can be found on some menus, but the meat is most likely from domesticated animals rather than hunted. The more adventurous can try wild-boar tartar, basically raw wild-boar meat pickled in salt. Or sample a dish of crispy cooked wild-boar skin. From about April through the end of summer, flying fish appears on menus.

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Other dishes include a nourishing green papaya and chicken soup and betel-flower salad, a cold dish made from the blossoms of the tree that produces betel nuts. Pigeon peas are a common addition to cooked dishes and soups, and add a caper-like flavor. Some restaurants offer sticky-rice and meat dishes cooked inside bamboo tubes or wrapped in leaves. Mochi is a sticky-rice dessert. If it's not on the menu, there are numerous shops that sell it filled with sesame paste, red-bean paste, ground peanuts, or sweet green beans.

Ceremonies Highlight Traditional Customs

Among indigenous celebrations staged in Hualien and Taitung, the Amis Harvest Festival is the best known. Each Amis village holds its own festival, on average spanning three days, in the middle of July for Taitung villages and in August for Hualien villages. Villages also come together for collective harvest festivals. Participants dressed in traditional costume form a circle and dance to the chants of an elder. Some villages are very welcoming to tourists and may invite them into the dance circle. The Paiwan, Puyuma, and Rukai harvest festivals are also held during the summer.

Late in the year, usually in December, each Puyuma village holds a Monkey Festival in which males of the tribe - in the past - slaughtered a monkey as part of young braves' initiation into manhood. Today, grass replicas are used instead of monkeys.

At the end of April, the Bunun conduct their Ear Shooting Ceremony . This is a post-hunting season celebration. Its name comes from the practice of cutting off the ears of prey for the boys of the tribe to use as target practice in developing marksmanship.

There are also other ceremonies carried out throughout the year. For example, in Dongchang Village in Hualien's Jian Township there is a rich Amis shaman culture. Through a healing ceremony in which they communicate with the ancestral spirits, shamans identify and remove the causes of illness, usually negative forces that are creating an imbalance in the natural and supernatural worlds.

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Places to Start your Indigenous-Culture Adventure

The best way to experience indigenous culture is to go straight to the source, the indigenous villages. The two largest Amis villages, Mataian and Taibalang , are located in Hualien's Guangfu Township. Mataian is unique in that it possesses a traditional Amis house that is more than 70 years old, which has been converted into a small museum. In the Mataian wetlands on the southwestern side of the village, traditional and ecologically friendly fishing methods are carried out. A restaurant next to the wetlands serves up fresh catch.

One of Taibalang's attractions is a small museum funded and run by the village's chieftain. The exhibits include models of traditional buildings as well as cultural artifacts such as traditional costumes and agricultural tools. In both villages there are artist workshops where it is possible to buy woodcarvings, pottery items, beaded jewelry, and woven items, and to watch the artists at work.

To learn about Taitung's Bunun culture, head to Bunun Village (Bunun Buluo) in Yanping Township. This is a resort offering accommodation, a restaurant serving indigenous cuisine, a stage for traditional music performances, and an exhibition center.

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In Taitung's Beinan Township are located the Beinan Culture Park and National Museum of Prehistory . Designed as a complementary package, the culture park was opened first, an outdoor museum created around an active excavation site dating from the mid-to-late Neolithic Age. A few minutes' drive away, the National Museum of Prehistory displays the findings from this site, and its exhibitions introduce Taiwan's history from the time of the first human inhabitants more than 10,000 years ago to today's indigenous peoples

Every summer the Festival of Austronesian and Formosa Indigenous Cultures is held in Taitung, including events at the culture park and the museum. It has been theorized that Taiwan is the origin of the Austronesian language family, which spread out to many other lands via boat. During the festival, performers and artists from Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, New Zealand, Fiji, Palau, and other lands touched by the Austronesian diaspora show off their talents.

Getting More Info

Hualien

Official county tourism website: http://tour-hualien.hl.gov.tw

Hualien County Culture Bureau Tel: (038) 227-121

Hualien County Tourism Bureau Tel: (038) 353-730 or 230-751

Taitung

Official county tourism website: http://tour.taitung.gov.tw(English pages under construction as of press time)

Taitung Visitor Center Tel: (089) 357-131(in old Taitung train station)

National Museum of Prehistory Tel: (089) 381-166

website:www.nmp.gov.tw

Beinan Culture Park Tel: (089) 233-466