Tony Coolidge, A Taiwanese Aboriginal Activist from the US

Tony Coolidge, A Taiwanese Aboriginal Activist from the US
Tony Coolidge (fifth from right) after a guest lecture at National Dong Hwa University. Photo Credit: Tony Coolidge

The News Lens international edition is sponsored by Tutor A B C

By Steven Crook

The Atayal are an Austronesian tribe indigenous to the mountains of north Taiwan, so it’s surprising to find one of the tribe’s most high-profile members in Tainan City’s Xigang District, a small lowlands town in the south. Even more unusual is that this man speaks to his wife and three children not in Atayal, or Taiwanese or Mandarin, but English.

It wasn’t until 2009 that Tony Coolidge, as he’s known to most of the world, gained his Atayal name, Shilan Sabi. Spurred largely by the lack of pride many Taiwanese aborigines show in their ancestry and culture, Coolidge has devoted much of the past two decades to projects which aim to build tribal dignity and bolster links between Taiwan’s Austronesian minority and indigenous people in other parts of the world.

Coolidge was born in Taipei in 1967. He moved to the US with his mother, Chen Yu-chu, and adoptive father, American soldier David Coolidge, in 1972, after a year spent at a US base in Japan. But he didn’t discover his aboriginal heritage until 1995, a year after his mother – who grew up in what’s now New Taipei City’s Wulai District – had passed away from cancer.

Neither Coolidge nor his mother ever returned to Taiwan between 1971 and her death. He didn’t apply for a Taiwanese passport until 2009, when he decided to move back to Taiwan with his wife, Hsu Shu-min, who he met in Florida. Like most Taiwanese, Shu-min traces her ancestry to Fujian province in China.

“My mother missed her family very much, and it was her fondest wish to return for a visit. But there was little opportunity to do so,” he says. “She kept in touch with her family in Taiwan via letters, as it was too expensive to call them. She had six sisters and five brothers. Four sisters also moved to the USA after marrying Americans, so she was able to keep in touch with them.”

“I left Taiwan when I was four years old, and I have a few memories of living in Wulai with my grandparents. My most vivid memories are of needing to go to the outhouse, which was the only bathroom available. I dreaded going inside, because there were always lots of spiders, and some were larger than my hand,” Coolidge recalls. “I only remember a few other things. Eating rice soup with dry, shredded pork. And my stepfather taking me to see the Disney film Aristocats on his military base – my first movie!”

Coolidge seldom thought about Taiwan during his childhood, one reason being that his mother said very little about the island as he grew up. “She only talked about her family, and then only a little. I prioritized fitting into American society. I only became interested in my Taiwanese roots after I graduated from college in 1992. It was a mysterious place to me, and I only knew of the Han Chinese culture that was pervasive on the island.”

The year after his mother’s death, Coolidge visited Taiwan to reconnect with relatives he hadn’t seen for more than two decades. Chatting to one of his aunts, he mentioned what he assumed to be Native American art on Wulai’s streets – and was astonished when she explained the motifs were expressions of Atayal culture, and that the entire family was Atayal aborigines.

It took a while for Coolidge to fully grasp why his mother and his other Atayal relatives had played down their indigenous background, almost to the point of denial. “Only after I’d returned to Taiwan in 2005, to film “Voices in the Clouds,” did I figure out why my mother hadn’t shared her culture with me,” he says.

Aaron Hose, the writer and director of “Voices in the Clouds,” was inspired to make the 77-minute film after reading a magazine article Coolidge had written about his 1995 visit to Wulai. The documentary, which premiered in 2010, was shown at film festivals as far afield as Canada and the UK, and won awards in Nepal and New Zealand.

Photo Credit: Voices In The Clouds Facebook Page

Photo Credit: Voices In The Clouds Facebook Page

In “Voices in the Clouds,” Coolidge suggests one reason why many aboriginal women of his mother’s generation married American men was a desire to escape the difficulties of being indigenous in Taiwan in that era.

“I realized Taiwan had been a tough society for her to fit in. She had to hide her Atayal identity. All her family members did the same. As leaders in Wulai, they had to show strong support for the KMT if they wanted to keep their positions of influence,” says Coolidge. He explains this meant doing nothing that ran counter to the government’s promotion of Han culture and the Mandarin language at the expense of indigenous traditions.

“The family didn’t teach Atayal culture to their children. In fact, my mother wasn’t really exposed to her Atayal culture growing up,” says Coolidge, adding that his mother never used an Atayal name, even informally.

It is only since 1995 that Taiwan’s indigenous people have been allowed to use Austronesian names on official documents, as opposed to the Han Chinese names foisted on them after 1945. However, less than one in 100 aborigines has gone to the trouble of registering a tribal name instead of a Han one.

The principle of “name rectification” (zhengming, 正名) has also been applied at a community level. Since 2001, the number of aboriginal tribes recognized by Taiwan’s government has risen from nine to 16. In most cases – such as the Kanakanavu, who live in a mountainous part of Kaohsiung, and were previously lumped together with the Tsou in neighboring Alishan – the clans involved weren’t trying to change their status from non-indigenous to indigenous, but were rather seeking accurate tribal identities.

In a few places, Chinese toponyms have been replaced with names that reflect the inhabitants’ Austronesian heritage. At the beginning of 2008, the name of the home of the Kanakanavu and around 3,000 members of other indigenous tribes was changed from Sanmin Township to Namasia. The new toponym is the name of the valley’s main river in the Tsou tribe’s language, and means “better and better” in Bunun.

In the past 12 months, indigenous activists have demonstrated in Taipei, demanding the government change other place names, such as Guangfu in Hualien. Most residents belong to the Amis tribe, but the township’s name alludes to the ROC taking control of Taiwan in 1945. These protests show two things: that Taiwan’s aborigines are willing and able to use the democratic freedoms now enjoyed by all ROC citizens; and that issues of dignity are taken as seriously as those which impact their material well-being.

Very few would dispute that public attitudes to Taiwan’s aboriginal minority have changed for the better. Indigenous people are less likely to feel despised by their compatriots, and many Taiwanese of Han descent now cherish the festivals and cuisine of the island’s Austronesian minority.

Nevertheless, indigenous people still, on average, earn significantly less than other Taiwanese. And in terms of life expectancy, aborigines lag far behind their Han compatriots. The average lifespan of indigenous males is, according to some studies, more than a decade shorter than that of non-indigenous men.

At school, aboriginal students score lower, and are more likely to drop out. The proportion of college students from an indigenous background rose from 0.64% in 1998 to 1.64% in 2011 – a significant leap, but still short of the 2.3% aboriginal share of Taiwan’s population. Impressively, between 1998 and 2005 the number of indigenous students in graduate schools in Taiwan grew from 18 to 395.

Coolidge and Shu-min’s three sons are now aged 13, 9 and 7. Coolidge’s fervent wish to share his Atayal ancestry with them is another reason why he works to preserve and promote indigenous culture. “If people aren’t proud of their culture, it will quickly disappear, and I don’t want that to happen, at least not before my kids have had a chance to experience it,” he says.

In 2001, Coolidge founded ATAYAL, a non-profit organization that honors his mother and her heritage by sharing the cultures of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples with Americans. In 2004, ATAYAL hosted the Indigenous Heritage Festival at the University of Central Florida.

At the end of 2013, ATAYAL brought a group of Maori film students from New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology to Taiwan for a 14-day tour. This was the inaugural Tap Root Cultural Exchange Program, which Coolidge says is intended to, “plant the seeds for more Taiwan-Austronesia cooperation, as well as bring Taiwan’s Austronesian diaspora back to the island that many believe to be their ancient homeland.”

Coolidge and his supporters are considering helping organize a tour of indigenous Ainu cultural performers from Hokkaido, Japan in 2016, and then perhaps inviting an Austronesian group from Hawaii.

Coolidge is sometimes asked why he lives in a small agricultural community in South Taiwan, rather than Wulai or Taipei. “I think this place offers a high quality of life,” he responds. “I know where the food we eat comes from. My children can harvest 30-plus varieties of organic fruits and vegetables from my mother-in-law’s garden.”

“We also benefit from being close to my wife’s side of the family, and the low cost of living gives me the freedom to pursue the projects that are important to me,” he goes on.

Tony and Shu-min Coolidge and their sons. Photo Credit: Tony Coolidge

Tony and Shu-min Coolidge and their sons. Photo Credit: Tony Coolidge

The tendency of young aborigines to work or study away from their home villages, and the ubiquity of Chinese-language electronic media, makes the preservation of Austronesian culture extremely difficult. Now, at least, the government gives aboriginal languages and cultures some support.

At their elementary school, Coolidge’s sons attend a weekly Atayal class, taught by a volunteer provided by Tainan City Government. They in turn teach their father, and he encourages each to be a raban skutaw tayan, an “Atayal of undying spirit” who will keep the culture alive, and one day pick up the torch for his people.

(Steven Crook grew up in England and first arrived in Taiwan in 1991. Since 1996, he has been writing about Taiwan’s natural and cultural attractions for newspapers and magazines, including CNN Traveler Asia-Pacific, Christian Science Monitor, and various inflight magazines. Many of his articles can be read at

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Joey Chung