Colours of Formosa: Aboriginal Tribes in Taiwan

The modern-day perception of Taiwan includes its beautiful landscapes, bustling Taipei city and unbeatable street food. What many people don’t see is the rich history and culture in its aboriginal communities. Taiwan is home to 14 recognised tribes, with strongholds stretching the entire country, each one uniquely different from the other, with separate rituals and ceremonies.

Amis Tribe

The Amis are the largest of the tribes (pop. 166,000), spread along Taiwan’s east coast in Taitung and Hualien counties. The Amis differ from other tribes by being a matriarchal society.

The largest Amis festival is the Harvest Festival, which each village conducts on its own between July and August. The festivities continue for up to a week, broken into three stages: welcoming, feasting and sending off the spirits. Other activities have been added to the festival over the years, such as archery and tug-of-war. Once exclusive for tribal members, the festivals are now open to the public.

Paiwan Tribe

The Paiwan (pop. 81,000) can be found in the southern regions of Taiwan, specifically in the Laiyi Township of Pingtung County. Known for their gender equality and decorated costumes, it is one of the only clans to have females chieftains.

Like the other tribes, the Paiwan have an annual Harvest Ritual (Masarut) involving the storing, seed-selecting, and tasting of millet crops. Their largest cultural festival – Maleveq – occurs only once in every 5 years and is a 15-day ceremony which thanks the deities for their blessings.

Atayal Tribe

The Atayal tribe (pop. 80,000) hails from the northern regions of the Central Mountains around Yilan and Hualien Counties. Historically, the Atayal were best-known for their facial tattoos, which did not only deter evil spirits but were also considered beautiful.

The Atayal holds an annual Ancestral Worship Ritual between August and October, right after the millet harvest. This festival requires the men of the village to make offerings of food to ritual sites and upon returning home they must cross over a line of fire, leaving evil spirits behind them.

Bunun Tribe

The Bunun tribe (pop. 47,000) can be found around the Central Mountains in Nantou County. Their distinctive trait is their eight-part chorus, a group of 8 vocal parts which come together to create a unique harmony.

The Ear-shooting Festival is the Bunun’s most important celebration, held between April and May – the biggest festival is held in Taitung County’s Yanping District. This 2-day event brings together the millet planting and hunting season, where both men and women show off their skills such as wood chopping or pig catching. The ear-shooting is an archery contest where tribesman shoots the ear of a pig or deer from 30m away. Nowadays, visitors use bows and arrows to shoot at large animal-shaped cardboard targets.

Rukai Tribe

The Rukai tribe (pop. 11,000) is mainly found in the southern region of Taiwan’s Central Mountains, especially in Pingtung County’s Wutai Township. Today they are well-known for their artisanal textiles and sophisticated dyeing techniques (popular motifs including deer, snakes and the sun), as well as their traditional stone carvings and slate houses.

The Tsatsapipianu (harvest festival) is the Rukai’s biggest event, held annually in August in Beinan Township – the highlight of which is the men-only baking of millet cakes, which are used to predict the harvest conditions for the following year. The women-only swing ceremony involves Ru- kai women being swung on giant swings as other tribe members dance and sing.

Puyuma Tribe

The Puyuma (pop. 10,000) are found throughout Taitung County along Taiwan’s remote southeast coast, with the majority residing in Beinan Township. They are traditionally the most warlike of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

The Puyuma’s main festival is the ‘Annual Festival’, held toward the end of December, which consists of 2 main trials as a unique rite of passage for young men: the Monkey Ceremony and the Hunting Ceremony. The former involves the piercing of a monkey (today, it’s made of straw) with a bamboo staff, while the latter is a hunting ceremony where a young man should hunt down a wild animal within 5 days; his success indicates his eligibility for marriage.

Tsou Tribe

The Tsou tribe are primarily in the Alishan Township (pop 6,400) in Chiayi County.

Their holiest ceremony is the Mayasvi, a war festival traditionally held before a hunt to show off the strength of the tribe, involving the rites of triumph, rites for the heads of the enemies, and welcoming rites for the gods. The ceremony is held in the tribal male gathering house in February in Dabang and Tefuye, Chiayi County.

Saisiyat Tribe

The Saisiyat tribe, with 5,000 members, are concentrated in Taiwan’s northwest in Hsinchu and Miaoli counties. Recognised by their red-white-black attire, their main festival is the bi-annual Pasta’ay (Dwarf Spirit Festival) held in mid-October every second year (the last one was in 2016), at Xiangtian Lake (Miaoli) and Wufong Township.

Commemorating the tribe’s ancient conflict with a “dwarf” tribe called the Taai (which anthropologists posit may have been negritos), the festival is held to placate the spirits of their formerly vanquished rivals to ensure a good harvest and prosperity. The multi-day festival involves hundreds of tribe members – and occasional visitors – dancing in large circles.

Yami (Tao) Tribe)

Residing on Orchid Island off the east coast of Taiwan is the Yami Tribe (pop. 5,000) who rely on fishing as a source of food. Their main festival is the Flying Fish Festival, which coincides with the mass arrival of flying fish that follow the Kuroshio current from January to June.

Running for about 4 months, the festival starts with the blessing of their beautifully hand-crafted boats. This is the biggest celebration, involving men – donned in loincloths – who strike and toss the boat into the air several times to drive away demons. The boat is then launched into the ocean.

Kavalan Tribe

The Kavalan tribe (pop 1,700) is situated in Hualien and Taitung Counties. The Palilin is their most important ceremony, where each family focuses on worshipping ancestors by serving them wine and food during the New Year.

Thao Tribe

Fewer than 800 Thao members live around Sun Moon Lake on Ita Thao island. Their most important celebration is the Harvest Festival which is characterised by a unique ‘pestle song’, created by knocking different-sized bamboo pestles onto rocks to create different notes.

Truku Tribe

The Truku tribe – once fierce headhunters – reside around Taroko Gorge in Hualien County. Their annual Mgay Bari is a celebration where myths are retold through traditional songs (played with the mouth harp), and aboriginal crafts are sold.

Sakizaya Tribe & Seediq Tribe

The Sakizaya and Seediq tribes are both newly recognised tribes, joining the list in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Both live in Hualien County and have ties to existing tribes; Sakizayas share a similar language to the Amis, while the Seediq has many similarities to the Atayal. Because of their recent recognition, their ceremonies have remained within the communities.

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