In the battle over identity, a centuries-old issue looms in Taiwan: hunting
TAIWAN — Ciwang Teyra grew up in Hualien County, on the eastern edge of the island of Taiwan, where winding roads snake around the edge of mountains and the Pacific Ocean glistens down below.
She was raised in the Indigenous Truku tribe and can recall leaving Hualien County for the first time and encountering Han Chinese people who had never met an Indigenous person before. They would ask her ignorant questions like, "Did you ride a wild boar to get to school?" or refer to her by a derogatory term in Mandarin that roughly translates to "barbarian."
When Ciwang looks back at those memories now, she can laugh. But it was this kind of discrimination that led to her work: She is a professor of social work at National Taiwan University, where she focuses on the historical trauma Indigenous people face in Taiwan.
Her research has found that because of centuries of colonial oppression, Truku people suffer immense mental health consequences. Her people, she says, did not historically have substance abuse problems, increasing suicide rates or increasing incidents of domestic violence. Now, they do.
Taiwan is an island that has passed through many colonial hands over the last 400 years ago, from the Dutch to the Qing dynasty, the Japanese and, in the 1940s, the Nationalists who fled from mainland China to Taiwan.
These days, the Indigenous people of Taiwan are continuing their fight for inclusion and acceptance, in part through their struggle to regain hunting rights.
The question of identity hangs over Taiwan
Waves of colonization have inflicted centuries of violence upon Taiwan's Indigenous people, forcing them out of their homes from near the tops of the mountains to the foothills below, and diluting their languages.
Taiwan has 16 official tribes, and while the current government has invested in protecting Indigenous languages — in contrast to language suppression and assimilation policies in place during Taiwan's martial law era — long-standing perceptions prevail on the island.
Ciwang's father, Teyra Yudaw, is a prominent activist among the Truku tribe. He says, "A lot of average Taiwanese people would say to me, 'You're Indigenous — you're not Taiwanese.' I say, 'Because I'm Indigenous, I am a real Taiwanese person.'"
Identity is on the minds of most people on this island, which is located within sight of mainland China's eastern border. The Chinese government has been intensifying its military presence in the Taiwan Strait in recent years, threatening an invasion if it is provoked.
How a presidential candidate would handle cross-strait tensions was a top issue for many voters before the recent presidential election. Taiwanese voters made history on Jan. 13 by electing the incumbent party for a third term — a party that considers Taiwan separate from China.
Today, the political leaders of this island and much of the populace seek to carve out an identity separate from mainland China. A growing majority of Taiwan's population identifies as solely "Taiwanese'' today rather than "Chinese," according to research by the Pew Research Center.
So the questions of whom Taiwan belongs to and what it means to be Taiwanese confront the people of this island frequently — particularly the Indigenous people, who make up about 2% of the island's population.
Teyra, who wears a near-permanent smile on his face, makes his living running a bed-and-breakfast in Hualien County these days, but his life's work is centered on advocating for Indigenous rights and broadening education about their culture and history.
He meets regularly with Taiwan's outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, as part of an Indigenous advisory council, and while he acknowledges that she is the first president to haveformally apologized to the Indigenous people for centuries of "pain and mistreatment," he thinks gestures can go only so far.
"We have become second-class citizens," he says. "Even though our feet are planted on this land, we are not allowed to manage our own affairs. We are wanderers on our own land."
Among the affairs Teyra would like for Truku people to manage on their own: hunting. The practice is central to the traditional Truku way of life. Yet, like so many other rights the Truku hold dear, hunting has been restricted by the Taiwanese government in recent years.
How hunting rights became a flashpoint
When Teyra was a child, he went into the depths of the mountains for 42 days with Truku elders. They taught him to maintain the trails and tend to the wild bees, and they told him stories of their ancestors.
Young Teyra learned how he could help maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem. And at the end of the journey, his elders taught him to hunt a goat. Teyra, now 70 years old, looks back on that experience and explains that for the Truku, "Hunting is not just about killing animals — it's about protecting the land, about protecting the mountains."
For thousands of years, the Indigenous people of Taiwan hunted without interference. Then, when colonization began in the 1600s, the rights of Indigenous people to live and hunt on their ancestral land began to be stripped away, bit by bit.
Today, Teyra considers the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) yet another colonizer taking away their rights to hunt and, ultimately, to function as an autonomous, self-governing community.
"Every colonizer is the same to us. They all came to subjugate us," he says.
Indigenous hunters are barred from killing protected species, are required to use certain kinds of traps and guns and, until recently, were required to ask the authorities for special permission that involved reporting which kinds of animals a hunter planned to target and how many.
Truku people can now apply to undergo training that grants them licenses to hunt in certain areas, but their ancestral territory is still restricted to them because it is now a national park. Truku hunters like elder Low Shi consider such restrictions offensive.
"We don't need the government to regulate the way we hunt because we already regulate ourselves," he says. "For example, we don't hunt during mating season. We hunt in a way that preserves the balance of nature."
Environmental activists have argued against loosening hunting restrictions, saying wildlife must be protected, but people like Low Shi point out that Indigenous people have been caretakers of Taiwan's land for thousands of years and that their ancestral knowledge must be trusted and respected.
The road to healing
Ciwang Teyra has applied academic research to uphold what her father has been fighting for, saying that restoring hunting rights is one step toward healing.
"If we are able to practice hunting, we are allowed to follow our elders, we can see intergenerational relationship building," she says. "If we are able to practice hunting culture without any worry about legal impact, then we can heal."
The road to healing from centuries of abuse is likely to be complex and long. Ciwang and her father, Teyra, are both glad to see Indigenous languages and culture being taught in some schools across Taiwan now. And they see hope in future administrations continuing to work with Indigenous people to give them back their land and the autonomy they seek.
Ciwang says her dream has always been for the island to be more inclusive. It is a great irony to her father that the people who were in Taiwan first even have to seek inclusion. But he adds: "This land belongs to people who understand its history begins with Indigenous people. As long as you love this land and you recognize that history, then you are a friend of the Indigenous people of Taiwan."
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