Taiwan Indigenous Peoples

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Taiwan Indigenous Peoples

ALTERNATE NAMES: Formosan Aborigines, Taiwan Austronesians
POPULATION: 460,000 (2008)
LANGUAGE: 13 Austronesian languages
RELIGION: Christianity, Traditional Religions


This article examines the place of the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan in contemporary society and political processes. For an ethnographic description of the traditional culture of one of these groups, please refer to the entry on Tao.

The 460,000 Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan (Taiwan Yuanzhuminzu) are several Austronesian Peoples who inhabited all of Taiwan before Chinese settlement began in the 1620s. Approximately 7000 years ago, horticulturalists making corded pottery and using polished stone tools began to cross the Taiwan straits from coastal areas of the Asian continent south of the Yangtze River. Their "proto-Austronesian" languages evolved in Taiwan along with cultural adaptations. Some 5000 years ago these cultures and languages began to spread through insular Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, becoming the large Austronesian linguistic and cultural family which extends from the Maori of New Zealand to Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Linguistic, archaeological, and genetic evidence now confirm that Taiwan is the original homeland of Austronesian languages and cultures. Some of the contemporary groups in Taiwan (Kavalan, Tao) appear to have been later migrants back to Taiwan from the Pacific or the Philippines.

What is beyond debate is that there were Austronesian peoples in Taiwan for centuries before they entered written history, and that they are very different from the Chinese, who now constitute 98% of Taiwan's population. These two traits make them "aboriginal" or "indigenous," and give them a collective identity beyond their varied languages, cultures, and forms of social organization. Although these differences are significant, it is their common historical experience and legal status in Taiwan today which allows us to discuss them together.

Through three centuries of Chinese immigration, the Austronesian peoples inhabiting the plains and hills of western Taiwan were gradually assimilated and intermarried with Chinese immigrants, so that today people whose ancestors were "Pingpu" (Plains Aborigine) are a major part of the "Taiwanese" population. The "savages" (hoan-a) who inhabited the mountains and east coast were feared as headhunters, and survived as distinct tribes who are today's Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan. Until 1875 Chinese sought to cordon off this area, but valuable camphor forests and the threat of Japanese designs led the Chinese to expand into the mountains, starting decades of "camphor wars" in which thousands of Aborigines and Chinese were killed.

In 1895 Japan took Taiwan from China. After 1908 they sent over 100 military campaigns into the mountains, ending with the conquest of the Truku in 1914. The Japanese excluded the Chinese from Indigenous areas. Villages in the high mountains were moved out to facilitate control, modernization, and for shaping them into Imperial subjects. Indigenous people were used as forced labor in lumbering. In 1930 a large Tayal uprising at Wushe in central Taiwan was crushed with the use of poison gas.

After taking Taiwan in 1945 the Republic of China pursued a policy of economic improvement and cultural assimilation of the Indigenous People. Thus, while Indigenous People are poor and marginalized, their economic and educational situation is better than most indigenous peoples in the world.


Traditional Indigenous territories are the rugged mountains and valleys which take up all of central and eastern Taiwan. Taiwan is a small island, 13,000 sq km (5,019 sq mi) (the size of Vancouver Island), and so even a "remote" village is never far from the densely populated western plain. Over one-third of Indigenous Peoples now live and work permanently in cities such as Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Taichung. But many retain homes in their villages, to which they return regularly.

The 460,000 Indigenous People make up only 2% of Taiwan's 23 million people. They are classified into 13 self-identified and officially recognized tribes, each with its own language and distinctive culture. They can be geographically and culturally grouped into six areas:

North: Tayal, 79,000; Truku, 22,000; Saisiat, 5,400

Central: Bunun, 47,000; Tsou, 6,200; Thao, 500

South: Rukai, 11,000; Paiwan, 82,000

East Coast: Pinuyumayan 10,500; Amis, 167,000,

Lanyu Island: Tao, 3,400

Plains Aboriginal: Kavalan 1000, Sakizaya 5000

(another 40,000 do not identify themselves with any one group, in part because of intertribal marriage)

Basic social structure roughly follows this geographic division.

The northern groups were simple band societies, based on hunting and semi-permanent hamlets. The central groups lived in larger villages organized into large extended households and clans that united people among many villages. The southern groups were unequal, chiefly societies divided into commoners and aristocrats who produced local hereditary chiefs. The Amis and Pinuyumayan were plains agricultural-ists and fishermen, who lived in large settled villages organized into age group systems under village elders. Because of their unique features and location on a small island in the Pacific, the Tao are discussed in a separate entry. Two Plains indigenous groups, which were assimilated into Taiwanese culture in the late 19th century, and considered to have "disappeared," have now been revived, and achieved state recognition in 2003 (Kavalan) and 2007 (Sakizaya).


There were at least 23 Indigenous languages in Taiwan in earlier times. Some 11 remain as living languages. The rest have died out or are limited to few speakers. These languages were highly diverse, but there are many cognate (shared) words such as mata (eye), ina (mother), ama/tama (father), babui/vavui (pig), tulu/toro (two), pat (four), lima/rima (five), etc., which are often found in languages of other Austronesian peoples.

As with all languages there are many borrowings, especially from Japanese. Names also reflect much diversity, such as Li'Bai (Amis F), Kui (Paiwan M), Walis Yugan (Tayal M) Yibu (Bunun F) Aroladen Pale (Rukai M). "Aroladen" means "river keeper," which shows that this family originally was responsible for collecting tribute for the chief from people fishing. Yohani (Bunun M) reflects Christian influence (John), while Sa'folo (Amis M) is from Japanese "Saburo" (third son).


One myth shared among most Taiwan Indigenous cultures is about two suns. There are many versions, but the basic myth is that in early times there were two suns, so that there was no night and the world was very hot, and people were never able to rest. Life was hard. An archer travels to a high mountain and shoots one of the suns as it rises. The sun is wounded and becomes our moon. People now have day to work and night to sleep.


The traditional religions included belief in various spirits. The northern group worshipped mainly ancestral spirits, the central and southern groups added many natural spirits, which involved many taboos. The eastern groups also believed in universal creator spirits, and the Pinuyumayan, influenced by Chinese folk religion, developed a hierarchy based on individual gods and spirit houses.

All groups had taboos and omens centered on hunting. A Bunun omen was that if you passed gas or sneezed while preparing to hunt, you should not go. Certain kinds of birds flying in front of you or singing were also good or bad omens for hunting among many tribes. All groups had women spirit mediums (shamans) and healers. In addition, there were ritual groups, usually based on extended kinship, for special ceremonies, including planting and harvesting of crops. The annual Amis harvest festivals (see below) are the best example of this. One of the most unusual rituals is the Saisiat "Dwarf Sacrifice" held every two years to honor the spirits of a race of small people whom Saisiat legend says their ancestors wiped out. It is suggested this is evidence that in prehistoric times there were Negrito peoples in Taiwan, as there still are today in the Philippines.

The Japanese forbade Christianity or Buddhism among Indigenous People, but in the early 1930s a Truku woman named Chi-oang became a Christian, and the new faith spread in secrecy. In 1945 Taiwan became part of the Republic of China, and with involvement of Taiwanese Christians and foreign missionaries, some 70% of the Indigenous People soon became Christian, mainly Presbyterian and Catholic. Christianity is now a significant marker of Indigenous identity in Taiwan, distinguishing them from the Chinese population, which is 90% folk religion, or Buddhist. Their churches, led by native clergy, and among the Presbyterians organized under self-governing tribal presbyteries, have played a key role in preserving Indigenous identity and promoting Indigenous rights. Clergy are often local political leaders.


Today Indigenous People share the same public holidays as the Taiwanese, but Christmas and the Harvest Festival are uniquely important for them. Christmas is a major celebration in Indigenous villages. Almost everyone who is able will return from the city, some remaining to harvest and plant until the Lunar New Year in February. Christmas is marked with special services in churches, parties, and often a village sports day.

The Amis Harvest Festivals, marking the summer millet and rice harvest, are annual festivals, for which everyone must return to the village for several days. People who do not return may be fined by the village elders. The many rituals are capped by nightly majestic circle dancing accompanied by chanting. For younger men the dancing is compulsory and lasts all afternoon and all night. It marks a graduation into a higher age group status. Older men supervise this training and whip the legs of youths who are not putting enough effort into it. The festival is also a time for much feasting, drinking traditional millet wine, and for young people to begin courting. Boys dance wearing a small embroidered "lovers bag." If a girl is interested in a boy she will put some betel nuts into his bag during the dancing.

Other groups have their own harvest festivals, but none are as highly developed as the Amis ones, which are now big tourist attractions in Taiwan and have become the iconic symbol of aboriginality.


In the past the birth of twins was considered very unlucky, and among the Bunun, twins were killed immediately at birth. Th is custom is no longer practiced, and births are generally occasions for many gifts.

Today Christian rituals mark the life passages of most Indigenous People in Taiwan. The disciplines of industrial work and school have replaced many traditional patterns. Older children take care of younger siblings, and young girls often carry infant brothers or sisters bound to their backs while parents work. Children are expected to take on responsibility from an early age. With many people in the village being kin, daily life is shared with cousins, and children may live with aunts and uncles as much as with parents.

In the past, relations between the sexes were closely controlled by many taboos, and premarital sex relations were completely forbidden. Ironically, the conversion to Christianity broke down these traditional taboos and many Indigenous youth follow Western-style patterns of dating and sex relations. Because the Taiwanese generally, and most Indigenous cultures, are strongly male-dominant, this often works to the disadvantage of Indigenous girls, who are seen as objects of male enjoyment and were even sold into prostitution.

Coming of age was marked in many ways. Tayal and Bunun would remove the front teeth of children, and the Tayal and Taroko tattooed the faces of both sexes. At a later age, taking a head was a sign of entry into adulthood for men in most tribes; this represented courage and skill in hunting. For women, it was ability to weave using a backstrap loom that marked adulthood. Both of these achievements were marked in the Tayal by additional facial tattoos which signaled readiness for marriage. Pinuyumayan had young men's houses where boys would live for their teens, receiving training and serving as the soldiers of the village. Coming of age was marked by a demanding series of tests of endurance. These customs have been revived in recent years, though the young men's house is now transformed into a summer camp. In 2008 a Tayal couple had their faces tattooed in the traditional way, so reviving this ethnic marker.

The typical day of a rural Indigenous high school student living in a village might involve getting up before 6:00 am to do chores and study and to put lunch into a metal tin which will be heated at noon. They put on their student uniform, and then take the bus from their village to the high school in the nearby town. High schools in Taiwan are often separate for boys and girls. Students care for the school grounds and clean their classrooms before the morning assembly for flag raising at 8:00 am. Classes usually last until 4:30. Arriving home after 5:30, they may have a bowl of noodles, and then go to the village basketball court to play basketball for a couple of hours. This is a time when boys and girls can socialize. There is much homework to do every night, and tests are frequent. Students may study until late at night or go to bed early and get up to study at 3:00 am.

Compulsory military service is the universal rite of passage into adulthood for men in Taiwan. This occasion is more highly honored in Indigenous cultures than among the Chinese, and is usually marked by a special banquet for the male kin of the departing youth. For young women there is a quiet entry into the labor force, going to work in the city. Marriage usually takes place after a man's return from military service.

Traditional marriage customs differ from tribe to tribe, but all marriages are outside the kin group and monogamous. The Amis are a matrilineal culture, and the man marries into his wife's family and moves to her village. Betel nuts are an important part of the wedding gifts from the groom's family to the bride's family. Among the Rukai, the wedding includes a ceremony in which the groom pushes the bride on a rope swing, the directions of which were omens of a bad or good marriage. Learning how to position herself on the rope so as to move in the right direction was an important skill that a bride needed to learn. In the Bunun the new couple would usually live and work as part of a large household of an extended patrilineal lineage. Even today many young Bunun working away from home will give their earnings to the father, who then allots them an allowance.

In old age grandparents live with their children and are important caregivers for the grandchildren. As they become older, their children and grandchildren will sometimes carry them on their backs, thus completing the circle of life. Death is still a natural fact of life and often occurs at home, so that most Indigenous children have a much more mature understanding of death than Americans.

Traditional burials were under the floor of the house, except for the Paiwan and Amis, who buried the dead outside but near the house. If a person died unnaturally in the house (rather than by natural causes), then the house would be abandoned, as it would become haunted by the ghost of the victim.

Today most Indigenous People follow Christian funeral customs, but often with the adhesion of traditional rituals integrated into or added onto the Christian ceremony. Non-Christians may follow Taiwanese funeral rituals with similar adhesions. Burial is now in a cemetery. Most Indigenous People now follow the Taiwanese custom of wearing a small patch of mourning cloth on their clothes after a parent's death. A memorial is usually held one year after the death.


Indigenous People are much more easygoing and openly friendly than their more formal Taiwanese neighbors. Even in the cities, they tend to associate most of the time with other Indigenous People, and will identify each other on the street by greeting a stranger who looks like a member of their tribe in their mother tongue. Generally Indigenous People make much use of body language, touching, and horseplay among friends. They are usually direct in speech, in contrast to the reserved Taiwanese, and visitors are often asked about things which Americans would never ask a stranger.

Dropping in unannounced for a visit is an important part of daily Indigenous social life. When visitors arrive, most homes immediately host them with beer, rice wine, and food. One problem with this is that many people become heavy drinkers, as the socializing may go on for hours. Unscrupulous merchants have often taken advantage of the openness and hospitality of the Indigenous People, tricking them into signing bad deals or even selling their land once enough bottles have been emptied.


Traditional housing varied greatly, from the bamboo or wooden huts of the Tayal to the large stone houses of the Bunun extended family, to the Amis bamboo longhouse, to the substantial single family slate homes of the Paiwan. Today, urban Indigenous People tend to live in small concrete apartments in industrial areas, but may have used their savings and labor to build a nice home on their own land in their native village. Most Indigenous homes are a mix of Chinese and Japanese styles, the inhabitants often sleeping on tatami platforms. But in Indigenous villages there is a great variety of housing, with very poor and drafty wooden housing with rough cement floors beside new, two-story modern tile homes. However, these are often linked to high debt or the sale of land or of daughters into prostitution.

Motorcycles usually serve as the family car, and most Indigenous children can ride motorcycles by the time they are 12. This, and winding mountain roads, means that the rate of death and injury due to accidents is very high among Indigenous people, a rate made higher by industrial and mining accidents. Because of heavy social drinking there is a high rate of alcohol-related health problems. In some villages tuberculosis is still active. Gout is a common problem.

Thus, while in many ways the Indigenous People of Taiwan have a high standard of living for Asia, the quality of their lives is still poor compared to Taiwan generally. In 2006 average Indigenous household income in Taiwan was reported to be 47% of non-indigenous income (approximately US$17,000 to $36,000). This is a significant improvement over previous decades.


Marriage in all Taiwan Indigenous groups is monogamous (one man and one woman) and exogamous (outside of the extended kin group). Marriage, past and present, is generally not arranged. All mountain-dwelling groups are patrilineal (kinship traced through the father), while the Pinuyumayan and Amis on the east coast are matrilineal (kinship traced through the mother), Tayal families are small and do not go beyond local lineages (kinship traced to a few generations), while Bunun families are organized into large patrilineal kinship groups extending across many generations and villages. Bunun nuclear families tend to be very large—seven children being quite common. Paiwan and Rukai families are clearly divided into the aristocrats, who traditionally married only other aristocrats, and commoners. In the Rukai the oldest son inherits the title of the father, while in the Paiwan the oldest child, male or female, inherits the position of chief.

Despite this, and the continuing strong matrilineal tradition of the Amis, the position and role of women in Indigenous society is still the homemaker, and, in many ways, under male domination. Indigenous women are generally more active in local political and church leadership than Taiwanese women, but in the home inequality. For example, often when guests come for dinner the husband and older sons will eat with them, while the wife and children wait until they are finished, and then eat the leftovers. Otherwise leftovers usually go to the dog. Tayal and Bunun households almost universally keep dogs used in hunting. Because monkeys are often caught in traps, many homes have pet monkeys.


Today Indigenous People wear the same clothes as everyone else in Taiwan. Because Taiwan is warm much of the year, traditional Indigenous clothes were quite simple, and 19th-century travelers reported that people often worked almost naked in their fields. Women in all groups wove ramie or hemp cloth on backstrap looms, the Tayal and Truku being famed for the quality of their weaving, which is still done today, but using commercial yarn. Bunun hunters wore leather caps and leather leggings. Amis men wore short kilts and vests, while Amis women are famous for their colorful red skirts and bodices with bells and fine needlework. The most exquisite clothes are black full-length dresses worn by Paiwan women, richly embroidered with beads in traditional patterns and small bells. Indigenous People are proud of their traditional clothes and almost everyone has a handmade set for special occasions.


For all tribes the principal traditional food staples were millet, taro, sweet potatoes, and rice. Meat was hunted, mainly wild pig and deer. The Amis especially eat a lot of fish. These are supplemented by wild greens, ginger, and wild fruits. Traditional utensils were wooden or bone spoons for soup. Meals were generally taken collectively from a large central pot. Many traditional Indigenous foods are still part of the daily diet. One of the most prized is Paiwan avai, meat in a soft cake of millet steamed in pandanus leaves. Tayal tmmyen is a delicacy of pickled raw meat.

A century of Japanese and Chinese rule have made their foods part of the daily diet of Indigenous People. Sashimi is a favorite food. Chicken and pork have replaced wild game, but when some is hunted it is an occasion for great celebration and everyone gets a share. In many homes a large Chinese dinner, often with wild greens and sweet potatoes, is the main meal. Breakfast is often a sweet potato and rice gruel eaten with leftovers from dinner. Rice and leftovers are packed in metal lunch tins for a noon meal, but people often eat at a noodle stand. In the last decade or so white bread and instant coffee have become very popular, and many now have coffee and toast for breakfast. Indigenous People tend to eat more meat and saltier food. This has led to widespread gout, high blood pressure, and heart problems as people eat heavy meat meals every day rather than only when game was available as in the past.


Before missionaries created scripts after 1946, there was no Indigenous writing system. Today, however, Indigenous People in Taiwan actually have a slightly higher literacy level than the Taiwanese, mainly because of the high rate of Christian converts who learn to read the Bible and hymns in their own romanized writing, and often read Japanese as well. Most Indigenous People are multilingual, speaking their own language, Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, and often Japanese. School is taught in Mandarin, but Indigenous language classes are now a required course in Indigenous elementary schools. This is a great change from only the 1980s, when students were forbidden to speak their own language in school. However the hours dedicated to teaching mother tongue and the quality of teaching is less than ideal. There is now indigenous language television programming through the Public Television System. There is an Indigenous Peoples College located at National Tunghua University in Hualien.

After junior high school there is a high drop-out rate among Indigenous students, who end up in factories and construction jobs. Those that continue must take highly competitive entrance exams, and Indigenous children do not usually have the advantage of well educated parents or expensive urban tutoring schools to gain an advantage in these exams. Many Indigenous young people go to commercial or industrial schools, and far fewer into academic high schools. Many Indigenous young women go to nursing school. Those who graduate from high school also must face university entrance exams. While the government does allow them a 20% handicap on these exams, and free tuition in public universities, the proportion of Indigenous People with university education in Taiwan is much lower than Taiwanese with university education. In 2005, 28% of Indigenous People had some postsecondary education, up from 20% in 2000.

For these reasons, many Indigenous parents do not encourage their children to take the risky and costly route of post-secondary education, but to learn a technical skill and find a job. In school many Indigenous youth excel in athletics. A few lucky ones get athletic scholarships to universities and become physical education teachers.


Group dancing and singing connected with Indigenous festivals are one of the great cultural contributions of the Indigenous People of Taiwan to the world. The circle dances and melodic songs are major cultural attractions in Taiwan and have been performed around the world. Amis and Paiwan dancing, Bunun eight-part harmonic singing, and Paiwan nose-flutes are some of the best known traditions. Many Indigenous singers have become top artists in Taiwan, often drawing from their traditional songs. The inclusion (without permission or compensation) of an Amis song in the music for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics became national news in Taiwan, and heightened awareness of the rich Indigenous musical tradition (and issues of intellectual property). In 2001 a Pinuyumayan pop singer, Amei, sang the national anthem at the inauguration of President Chen. Indigenous song and dance have become a standard part of Taiwan's international self-representation and all public cultural events. There is a growing body of published Indigenous literature.


Indigenous people are at the bottom of Taiwan's socioeconomic ladder. About 40% of Indigenous households are considered farmers, though they may work off the farm as well in forestry and construction. But with the exception of highland temperate fruit farmers, the income of Indigenous farmers is much lower than the Taiwan average. Over half of all Indigenous People work in urban areas. Most of them are factory labor, construction workers, or miners. In construction whole families often move from site to site, living in temporary sheds. The large importation of foreign labor during the 1990s led to increased unemployment among aboriginal people (though the rate remained low by even American standards). Legal measures now guarantee preferred hiring of Indigenous People in many areas.


Sports are a major obsession in Indigenous society. Basketball is the universal sport, played daily in every village. Every social institution—schools, governments, churches, etc.—have endless rounds of basketball competitions for men and women, as well as frequent village sports days or county competitions. After basketball, baseball is most popular. This is especially so among the Amis and Pinyumayan, who live on the east coast plain. A number of Amis players are stars in professional Japanese baseball teams. The first Little League world champions from Taiwan were from a poor Bunun village where they made gloves from newspapers and practiced batting rocks. Indigenous youth have also excelled in track and field and produced two of Taiwan's few Olympic medalists.


Sports are the most popular recreation, but television and especially Japanese wrestling videos are very popular. In the late 1980s, video games invaded Indigenous villages, and by the late 1990s satellite dishes receiving stations from Japan and China, and computers with Internet access were found in every village. Trapping, fishing with javelins and nets, and hunting with homemade muskets are now recreational activities, but ones which are an important affirmation of continuing Indigenous cultural identity in modern Taiwan.


In the decorative arts, the stone and wood carving of the Paiwan, created to decorate the homes and utensils of the aristocratic families, are the best known example of Taiwan Indigenous art and are purchased for high prices from Taiwanese and Japanese collectors. The dominant motifs in these carvings are ancestor figures, faces, and curled hundred-pacer snakes—symbols of aristocratic power. Weaving by Tayal and Taroko women is another highly prized art, but few women learn the use of the difficult and tiring backstrap loom today. However, weaving traditional textiles using modern looms is widely taught in some indigenous areas, becoming an income source for many women. Amis and Paiwan women's clothes have been developed by a few Indigenous women into elegant contemporary fashions. Many contemporary items made using traditional Indigenous crafts are widely marketed in Taiwan.


Loss of their land, destruction of their cultural systems, and dislocation arising from rapid, enforced social change at the hands of an invader culture—the Chinese—are the basic experiences of the Indigenous People of Taiwan. The symptoms of high suicide rates, alcoholism, family breakdown, and low self-esteem are widespread.

Politically, they were militarily conquered and kept in subservience to the successive regimes ruling Taiwan. There are no treaties, and traditional leaders were rendered powerless. The government classifies some Indigenous land as "Mountain Reserve Land," presumably held in trust for Indigenous People, but much has been lost to the Forestry Department and illegal speculation. There are 30 Indigenous townships in which the mayor must be Aboriginal, but they have no autonomous fiscal or legislative power. Indigenous seats are reserved at every level of government, with Indigenous People as a separate electorate, so that they do have a voice in lawmaking.

In the 1980s the end of martial law (1987) and rapid democratization in Taiwan made a renewal of Indigenous culture possible. Indigenous leaders began actively advocating the rights of their own people. The 1987-89 "Return our Land" movement marked the beginning of Taiwan's Indigenous rights movement and identified the issues which continue to be the focus of Indigenous politics today: language, education, constitutional rights, and self-government. In 1996 a cabinet level "Indigenous Peoples Council" was established with a representative from each tribal group and a Chair who is a cabinet minister. Though it does not have administrative control over Indigenous affairs, it relates to all government departments which do, and develops policies implemented through them. It also provides generous funding to education, culture, research, international indigenous exchange, and infrastructure in Aboriginal Townships. The Council website www.apc.gov.tw is a rich source of information.

In 1999 Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian signed a "New Partnership" agreement with Indigenous representatives during the election, promising to promote aboriginal self-government, recognize natural Indigenous rights, define Indigenous collective land rights etc. He was elected, and since 2001 a number of laws towards these goals were passed, including the Indigenous Education Law, Indigenous Job Protection law, and Indigenous Peoples Basic Law (2007), which mandates Indigenous self government and control of land and resources. An Indigenous self-government law was proposed in 2003 but opposition control of the legislature stalled its passage. Many of the principles established in these laws await actual implementation, with political struggles between the DPP administration and mostly Kuomintang (KMT) local governments being a major problem. With the election of a KMT president in 2008 it remains to be seen whether things will change. Nonetheless, even for the KMT, Indigenous policy has changed from assimilation to multiculturalism, and the affirmation of Indigenous culture and identity is an important part of Taiwan's future.


The appointment in 2008 of the first woman to be Chair of the Indigenous Peoples Council by KMT President Ma represents an important recognition of the role of Indigenous women as leaders and the continuing issues of gender equality in Indigenous cultures. As noted above, Indigenous cultures are male dominant, and even in the matrilineal Amis, decisions are made by male relatives. The status of women was helped by conversion to Christianity (women becoming leaders in churches and by extension in their communities) and state policies emphasizing formal gender equality and education for all. This is also reflected in the election of women to political office at all levels from town council to national legislature. Nonetheless, politics in Taiwan is a boys club, with much drinking and clubbing in which women are demeaned and marginalized. The sale of daughters into prostitution was a longstanding problem in indigenous villages until a major public campaign and enforcement of child protection laws in the late 1980s made it a national shame. On the other hand the incorporation of Indigenous People into the labor market and cash economy has made many women the financial managers in their households and so tended to equalize marriage partnerships. Especially with the development of local tourism in Taiwan, based on bed-and-breakfasts in indigenous villages, production and sale of aboriginal crafts, and Indigenous song and dance performance, while not without problems, have all highlighted and strengthened the role of women in traditional culture as well as contemporary society.


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—by M. Stainton