by on Thursday, 02 July 2009 Comments
An Ami tribe struggles for their right to home

In Taoyuan County, along the Dahan river (大漢溪 dahanxi), where the gentle flow is only somewhat interrupted by the distant rumble of the city, sits one of Taiwan’s smallest tribes: the Sa’owac (撒烏瓦知部落), of Taiwan’s Pangcah or Amis aboriginal people. This is the very border of urbanisation, where the so-desired modern life of mundane apartment flats, KTV and convenience stores meets the vast, beautiful mountain ranges which spread all the way to the eastern coast of Taiwan. The Sa’owac tribe came down from Hualien thirty years ago, when in maternal Pangcah tradition the ’Seven Ancestors’ or Pangcah women chose a scenic spot which they felt looked similar to their old home and the husbands dutifully followed on down. Since then, as the city encroaches further into nature, the Sa’owac tribe, as the river, has gradually become trapped between two evolving worlds. Yet here, I witnessed a mini-revolution of biblical proportions, a david versus goliath, a battle of underdogs against giants...

The completed rebuilding of their homes, on 20th June 2009, four months after their destruction, in defiance of the government and conventional wisdom on development, culminated in one huge party for the Sa’owac and one small step forward for the urban aborigine movement in Taiwan. The Sa’owac tribe were joined by a small amount of teachers, students, social activist groups, independent media journalists, botanists, and socially conscious civilians who had all been enthusiastically supporting the Sa’owac in different ways. Also present were fellow Pangcah tribes living along Dahan river: the Kanjin (坎津), who were facing the possibility of a similar occurrence and Sanying (三鶯), who had already suffered a similar plight and are in the process of rebuilding. The Sa’owac were given eviction notices in December, without consultation and then, on the morning of February 20th, before the distraught eyes of the villagers, the vehicles of destruction were sent in convoyed by police, laying waste to the Sa’owacs’ home. These actions would clearly break the UN charter on minority rights…if Taiwan were a member of the UN. In this particular case, the official reason given for the Taoyuan County Magistrate Zhu Lilun approving the destruction, was the Water Law (水利法). Other reasons suggested for the demolition were the renovation and extension of a riverside cycle route which would eventually pass through the village, dangerous terrain, tatty appearance and other political motives.

When the behemoth of economic development clashed with the indomitable spirit of the Sa’owac and their unwavering resolve for home, they exploded into a ceremony of traditional song, dance and comedy. The head priest stood rod-in-hand with shamanesque clothes, incanting, whilst below him, encircled by tribe veterans, a tribe elder chanted his pain and fury, as a dragon spews his fire. The wailing permeated into the audience leaving many in tears, or on the brink. - City, the friend who brought me and others who had been involved in the cause from the outset of the problems held back tears too. City, who’s normally calm and loathe to express emotion, said it had been a turbulent few months, an emotional seesaw; a melange of anger, laughter, melancholy and defiance. They had protested at local and central government offices, some had shaved their heads in protest and despite an average age of over sixty the villagers had lived in tents for four months! Now the tribe had begun to see City and the other helpers as children of the tribe. As their own! For my part, I felt an uncomfortable tingling sensation underneath my skin. It wasn’t inebriation, heat, or sleep deprivation...this was real emotion! Living in the student utopia for too long, I had long since lost sympathy for the narcissistic, self-pitying lamentations of those in the student bubble. The rhetoric was disillusioning; heralding causes I had no direct contact with left me feeling detached. Now, as nostalgia for the cause was awakening inside me, I realised the social value and the inspiration one can gain from direct involvement in other peoples’ struggles, visiting other peoples’ life stories.

The Sa’owac may not have Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to protect their tribe from the heavy-handed invaders, however they do have the ‘seven ancestors’, a hearty determination, and impassioned supporters of the tribe. As one section on the program of events read, “Our rebuilt homes are all that we have, but we also have a history of defending and cherishing the tribe. Our ancestors left us with the special quality of self-healing and your power makes our will as strong as boulders”. As I finished reading the passage and looked up the speaker called out:

“Kanjin, are you afraid?”
“Sanying, are you afraid?”
”Sa'owac, are you afraid?”

After some further rallying in defiance, comedy and traditional songs, they convened with a final dance of unity in which everyone gathered on stage, hand-in-hand, rotating and converging inwards, whilst my unlearned self clumbsily tried to get the correct steps. Although in my own tradition I ended minus a sandal, I also had a great feeling of belonging...I remember, this is called community. We were united!

One of the most moving tribesmen was a 64-year-old named Kulas. Clearly emotionally fatigued, he has been working overtime to help support the tribe and fund the rebuilding effort. He was everpresent throughout the ceremony, singing and dancing with the vigour of a bull released into a field of cows during mating season. When I complimented him on his energy he replied: “We are full of energy because God is here helping me, giving me strength in everything I do”.

At the end of this emotion-filled day, as the white rice liquor flowed on, the singing grew louder and the tribesmen began to divulge their thoughts. Although I struggled to understand Kulas’s linguistics, the essence was not lost in his broken Chinese. The freedom of the Sa’owac to choose their home was being attacked; the wider implications would be an erosion of their culture. This feeling of loss; this longing for a home; the pain, the sweat and the tears are universal. I thought about my own home – to me it was cliff-jumping, exploring the meadows and camping in the woods, making tree houses, our secret entrance to the zoo, looking across the sea from the end of the pier wondering what was out there to explore. It wasn’t paradise, but it was home. Everyone has a slightly different understanding of home. In the Amis language, there is no distinction between home, house and family ("Lumah"). They are a part of the land they live on and the tribe they are with. One Taiwanese botanist who was also involved in the struggle told me they like to eat bitter vegetables and bitter pork because their strength comes from the bitter struggles of their ancestors which are implanted in the ground.

Since Chiang Ching-kuo’s economic reforms, up through to the incumbents under President Ma, the neo-liberal development dream has been imposed on the urban aboriginal tribes. As things stand, the Sa’owac tribe’s new houses are still illegal. However, from the ruins comes real hope for change and there is now a real chance they will be able to keep their new houses, after all an incredibly high percentage of houses in Taiwan remain illegal. Furthermore, this struggle had been full of imagination, inspiration, compromise and action.

Civilising missions should be contextualised - an ‘Amis-isation’ of development, a reclaiming of the commons allowing for cultural differance and spiritual needs. Will the economic behemoth continue to roll on unhindered leaving a path of destruction in its wake? Will unneccessary extra houses continue to be built, whilst prices are kept artificially high, leaving more destitute and increasing the rich-poor gap? Will the Sa’owac be allowed to continue living in the new homes they’ve been through so much to build? Will the government continue to talk about protecting aborigine rights at the same time as demolishing their houses on flimsy grounds of safety? Or will there be real consultation? Were we witnessing the maturing of the movement for urban aboriginal rights?

This is the Sa’owac! Some people choose tall European-style apartment flats, cement, constructivism, reservoirs, 7-11s, Nintendo Wee, widescreen TVs, huge financial buildings, railways through forests and riverside cycle tracks with tidy grassy banks (heaven forbid the illusions of the well-to-do city folk be brutally shattered by the eye-pollution of the slums).

They chose not to choose this; they chose something else… Home!’
(Drawing by Li Jinyuan)
Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.


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