On November 26, 2021, a group of about four dozen Indigenous Siraya activists and leaders assembled in front of the Judicial Yuan, singing songs and unfurling banners, with one reading, “Return our history, return our justice, return our identity.” The group was accompanied by Tainan’s deputy mayor, who argued that the Siraya should be nationally recognized as an Indigenous group as soon as possible.

The legal case, spanning over 10 years, will decide if the constitution requires that the Siraya, and by extension other Plain Indigenous, or Pingpu, peoples receive official recognition from the state, as the 16 other Indigenous peoples mostly living in Taiwan’s East Coast. The Siraya, the largest of the Pingpu peoples, are recognized in Tainan, where most of them live, but securing the protection of the central government’s Indigenous policies will be key to their project of cultural revival.

The Siraya, one of the ten Pingpu groups who speak an Austronesian language like Taiwan’s other Indigenous groups, are not recognized by the government, excluding them from access to social benefits including scholarship and subsidy for healthcare.

At the forefront of colonization and sinicization

“The Siraya were the first people to encounter colonization, first in the Dutch era, and then as migrants started coming from places in Fujian,” said Jolan Hsieh, a professor at National Dong Hwa University. The Dutch, arriving in 1624 in what is today Tainan, settled part of their lands with Han farmers mostly from Fujian province, established tax farms that monopolized trade in and out of villages, and sent missionaries to convert their people to Christianity.

In 1662, the Ming dynasty admiral Koxinga expelled the Dutch, but the Han colonization project on the Siraya homeland intensified over time. Many Siraya tribes had to move closer to the mountains as a result of expulsions and economic pressures that forced them to sell their lands to Han migrants. As Han settlers encroached on traditional hunting grounds, a key source of food and income for the Siraya, many had to sell their lands to pay exorbitant rates charged by tax farmers for goods. The construction of a Han settlement project on their lands forced the Siraya to change their system of social reproduction, causing certain cultural practices to slowly disappear and beginning their sinification.

But the Siraya people were not fully assimilated into Han society, professor Hsieh said. They continued to host ceremonies, sing songs in their language, and worship deities like Alid (the supreme god in the Sirayan spiritual practice). In the censuses conducted during the Japanese colonial era, the Siraya and other Pingpu peoples were counted separately from the Han majority and other Indigenous groups.

In 1956, the Kuomintang (KMT) government began allowing Indigenous people to register their identity, but Pingpu peoples were left mostly unregistered. Local governments made little effort to advertise the registration process in areas where Pingpu live. Many Pingpu people were unaware of what was occurring because of their lack of literacy in Mandarin, while others failed to see why it was important to register.

Professor Hsieh said that underlying this moment was the authoritarian KMT government’s assimilationist policies. The government, which believed that Han culture was more civilized, sought to further nudge the relatively more sinicized Pingpu peoples into mainstream Han society.

The lack of recognition continued after the end of martial law in 1986. The Siraya peoples were considered fully sinicized and undeserving of Indigenous status. One reason behind this is their fluency in Taiwanese, the professor said. “But the very fact that we [Indigenous peoples, including those recognized] all speak Mandarin is a testament to how we have all been sinicized to an extent.”

Revitalization and struggle

The Siraya peoples began their project of cultural revitalization in the 1980s, when the movement calling for equality for Indigenous peoples started. In 1999, the Tainan County Pingpu Siraya Cultural Association was founded to develop and spread popular cultural practices and revive the Siraya language. A major breakthrough came in 2004, when professor of Austronesian languages Karl A. Adelaar used a colonial-era Gospel of Matthew written in Dutch and Siraya to retrieve a coherent grammar, syntax, and over 3000 vocabulary words for the Siraya language.


Campbell, William

The Gospel of Matthew in the Siraya language.

Alak Akatuang, secretary of the Pingpu Indigenous Peoples Cultural Association, said this was the first time in roughly 150 years that Siraya could be used as a living language, which is today taught at over 20 schools in Tainan. A newfound consciousness as a separate Indigenous group among the Siraya peoples precipitated a response from political institutions, Akatuang said.

In 2005, Tainan County recognized the Siraya peoples’ Indigenous status, and four years later allowed them to register as Indigenous peoples within the household registration system. But on the day before the registration period ended, the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP), a ministerial-level institution, sent the county government a letter arguing that the registration of the Siraya contradicted existing law — they are not Indigenous, and that the household registration system would be closed to them.

It was then that the current legal case for the Siraya’s recognition began. Uma Talavan, then leader of the Tainan County Indigenous Council, sued the Executive Yuan for the CIP’s “improper” decision. After a number of losses and appeals in court, the Taipei High Administrative Court ruled in April 2020 that the CIP decision was potentially unconstitutional. The ruling sent the case to the Supreme Court for a constitutional review, and a decision is expected in the coming months.

The Siraya and other Pingpu peoples shouldn’t have had to sue the government to gain recognition. In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen apologized to Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples, including the Pingpu peoples, for historical injustices. She pledged to amend the laws to officially recognize the Pingpu peoples.

In the same year, the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee (ITJC) was founded under the Office of the President. The committee includes three Pingpu representatives. In 2017, the Executive Yuan sent a draft of the amendment of the Status Act for Indigenous Peoples that would allow the Pingpu peoples to receive Indigenous identification to the Legislative Yuan to be reviewed.

“No previous administration or president had ever made a promise like President Tsai, or sent a bill to the Legislative Yuan. This represented the farthest advance yet in the development of the movement for Pingpu recognition,” said Uma Talavan, a member of the ITJC.

But Indigenous legislators opposed the amendment to the Status Act. Professor Hsieh said, “The biggest impediment to the Pingpu movement now are other officially recognized Indigenous peoples. Officially recognized Indigenous people are fearful that if the Siraya and other Pingpu peoples receive recognition, the resources available to them will be affected. Indigenous elites also fear losing their electoral power.”

Akatuang said that if the over 1 million Pingpu peoples are officially recognized, “the government will either have to spend more on Indigenous programs, a tough prospect for a state weary of high levels of spending, or less resources will be distributed to the already recognized Indigenous groups, an untenable result for the Indigenous political establishment. As a result, neither the Tsai Administration or Indigenous leaders have an incentive to give the Pingpu Indigenous designation.”

Six seats in Taiwan’s legislature are reserved for Indigenous candidates elected by Indigenous voters. If the Siraya and other Pingpu people gain recognition, they will become eligible to vote for those seats, changing the electoral environment for Indigenous legislators. “The Indigenous members of the Legislative Yuan see these 1,070,000 Pingpu and are scared. They fear having to compete for three times as many votes,” said Akatuang.

Talavan, who sits on the ITJC, was disappointed in the government’s failure to remedy the Pingpu’s situation. “The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) didn’t have enough determination to push through this amendment,” she said. “President Tsai made a promise to use the power of the state to solve this issue. The administration should therefore be using its power to pass the needed reforms. The current situation is the result of sinification policies, not the Siraya’s choices. If you don’t acknowledge this, and continue to force us to face the pressure of mainstream Han society, we will become an invisible man in history.”

A tool for nation building

The Siraya and other Pingpu peoples have been useful for political purposes in Taiwan. Akatuang said the pan-green camp, which supports Taiwan’s autonomy, used Indigenous peoples, especially the Pingpu, to create a national identity.

In a 2007 paper, Marie Lin, a doctor at Mackay Memorial Hospital, claimed that 85% of Taiwan’s population had indigenous genes. Lin’s findings were used to promote the narrative that many Taiwanese are the offspring of Han male immigrants during the Qing dynasty and Indigenous female residents.

Her studies became so popular that she was given the title “Mother of Taiwanese Blood.” Peng Ming-min, a Taiwanese independence activist and the DPP’s 1996 presidential candidate, had Lin do a study of his genes. She found that he had Indigenous ancestry, causing Peng to exclaim, “Thank God, I’m not Chinese!”

Akatuang disagreed with Lin’s studies and what is known as the “blood line theory” of Taiwanese nationalism. He argued that Lin’s conclusions were false, and that the idea that Taiwanese people are biologically related to the Pingpu peoples, and not overwhelmingly descended from Han settlers, is deeply damaging to the Pingpu struggle and the construction of a pluralistic Taiwan.

“Taiwan’s independence shouldn’t be established over the idea of blood relations. [These people] ignore scientific evidence because they want to believe they are different from China. This is wrong,” he said.

“The Pingpu were the first of Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples to face colonization. After the Han people came, they stole our land. They murdered our ancestors. Then after a few hundred years, they said we were the same people. Do you think a Pingpu person can accept this?”

Akatuang said the “blood theory” undermined the legitimacy of the Pingpu movement. He believes that if the public believes that many Han Taiwanese people have Pingpu ancestry, it weakens the urgency of addressing their concerns and need for vital state support in restoring their identity, rebuilding their culture, and eventually even regaining their land.

Talavan, the member of the ITJC, doubted that the Pingpu gaining recognition could encourage the further development of the “blood theory.” Instead, she saw it connecting all the people living in Taiwan, both Han and Indigenous peoples, and the land. “I recognize this island, this piece of land. I recognize our political system. I recognize my place within the society under this framework. I don’t recognize China’s system [or its claim to this place],” she said.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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