Getting to Know Taiwan's Indigenous Cultures
Many first-time travelers to Taiwan are surprised by its cultural diversity, especially by the rich history and traditions of its indigenous peoples. Currently, there are 13 officially recognized indigenous tribes: the Amis , Atayal , Bunun , Kavalan ( Kamalan), Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Thao , Truku (Taroko), Tsou, and Yami ( Tao), with a total population of around 450,000.
But, before heading to the villages, it is a good idea to acquire some basic information about the culture. A good place to do that is at the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines ( www.museum.org.tw), located a stone's throw from the National Palace Museum in Taipei. This museum opened in 1994, and was for a time Taiwan's only museum dedicated to its native peoples. There are four floors of exhibition areas featuring arts and handicrafts, weapons, tools, clothing, musical instruments, and dwellings, as well as a large theater that shows short films on Taiwan's indigenous legends.
IN THE SMALL CITY OF TAITUNG , on Taiwan's east coast, a large cultural festival, the Festival of Austronesian and Formosa Indigenous Cultures , is held each summer. This festival invites native groups from Austronesian countries to display their handicrafts, customs, songs, and dances. Taiwan's indigenous peoples are believed to be part of the Austronesian-language family, which boasts the largest distribution of any language family in the world, and includes not only the indigenous peoples of Taiwan but also the Maori of New Zealand and the peoples of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. It is interesting to note, however, that although there are some similarities in their languages, Taiwan's indigenous tribes each has a unique language not understood by people of other tribes.
This festival takes place in a park not far from the National Museum of Prehistory ( www.nmp.gov.tw), which is also a good place for learning about Taiwan's indigenous culture. Its gift shop sells a good selection of books on this subject, as well as CDs of traditional and contemporary indigenous music.
Summertime is also the time when the Amis tribe, concentrated in the coastal mountains and plains of Hualien and Taitung counties, holds its harvest festival. This usually lasts for several days, during which the members of the tribe (in various combinations, such as young warriors, females only, etc.) dance in a circle to the chants of a tribal elder. The dates for the festival differ among the villages, but are usually around the middle of July for Taitung and around the middle of August for Hualien. Most of the villages welcome visitors to join in on the celebrations, including the dancing.
Other options for mixing cultural and ecotourism exist in Hualien, where many of the whale-watching tours that depart from Shihtiping and white-water rafting tours that depart from Rueisuei are operated by local aborigines, and sometimes include packages with dinner and other activities in nearby villages.
In central Taiwan, near Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County , is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village ( www.nine.com.tw). This is an outdoor museum with life-size models of traditional dwellings. Next to these models, indigenous people dressed in traditional costume demonstrate art forms such as weaving and woodcarving. There is also an outdoor stage area for indigenous song-and-dance performances.
The Indigenous Peoples Cultural Park in Majia Township, Pingtung County , is also an outdoor museum offering similar attractions. The park is managed by the Council of Indigenous Peoples, the main government agency tasked with handling indigenous affairs. Information about Taiwan's indigenous tribes and the culture park is available on the council's website (www.tapc.gov.tw). There is also a section on travel to indigenous villages. Suggested itineraries for those villages can also be found on the Tourism Bureau's website (www.taiwan.net.tw).
Near the opposite end of the island is Sandimen in Pingtung County, just a few minutes' drive from National Freeway No. 3 along Provincial Highway No. 24. Here is a collection of Paiwan artist workshops where you can purchase glazed-bead jewelry, embroidered cloth, woodcarvings, pottery, and leather items. If you have the time, continue along Provincial Highway No. 24 to the Rukai village of Wutai . In this village, attractions include a cultural-artifacts hall and a path along which there are stone carvings that depict Rukai ceremonies and traditions, as well as a stone church and a traditional slate dwelling. There are more than a dozen homestay options in this village, so finding a place to stay where you can in more intimate fashion learn about the way of life of the Rukai is not difficult. You will need a mountain permit to enter this village, which can be applied for at any foreign-affairs police station.
Alishan National Scenic Area in Chiayi County is famous for its narrow-gauge alpine railway, mountain forests, and gorgeous sunrises. But it is also home to eight Tsou villages. Each has developed tourism facilities such as restaurants, homestays, cultural museums, and artist workshops. For more information, visit the dedicated website ( www.ali.org.tw).
Maolin National Scenic Area in Kaohsiung County possesses Bunun, Paiwan, and Rukai villages within its boundaries. The Rukai village of Duona contains a collection of traditional slate houses, a rare sight in modern Taiwan. Near Duona are natural hot springs located next to a crystal-clear river. This village also boasts a handful of homestays and restaurants. More information is available online ( www.maulin-nsa.gov.tw).
INDIGENOUS HANDICRAFTS AND ARTWORKS make great and unique souvenirs of your travel to Taiwan. They can be purchased directly from artists in their village workshops, from the gift shops in the above-mentioned museums, or online from Tribe-Asia ( www.tribe-asia.com). Tribe-Asia is also working to develop itineraries for foreign travelers to visit indigenous villages. Its first is a two-day tour to Wangsiang Village in Nantou County in conjunction with Green Island Adventures ( www.greenislandadventures.com). This is a Bunun village with excellent views of Yushan , northeast Asia's tallest peak, and a number of its residents are eco-tour guides certified to lead hikers to the numerous summits of this massive, majestic rock. This village also boasts a hiking trail, once the exclusive domain of hunters, and is situated only a few minutes' drive from Dongpu Hot Springs .
From this small sampling, it should be clear that there are many exciting ways to experience Taiwan's indigenous culture and to meet its indigenous peoples. So get ready for an unforgettable travel experience.