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Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 00:44 GMT
Taiwan's aborigines fight for survival
A group of aborigines performing for tourists, Taiwan
Taiwan's aborigines are best known for their music

Shaman-maninggat crouches on the floor, chewing betel nut while casting an expert eye over a piece of wood before chopping it up with a small axe.

Behind him, through the open doorway of his small house that faces the Pacific Ocean, can be seen the almost-completed canoe he is putting the finishing touches to.

It takes the fisherman and carpenter three months to make each boat, probably the most distinctive symbol of Taiwan's aborigine Dao people.


Young people do not really want to follow the elderly in cultural things

Si-mivilang
Dao tribe
When the 21-piece canoe is finished, it will be decorated with intricate white, black and red shapes, especially spirals.

But each time 57-year-old Shaman-maninggat gets to work with his axe - this is his seventh boat - he wonders if his expertise will die with him.

That is because many young people on Lanyu, a small island off Taiwan's south-eastern coast, pay little attention to his work.

"I am concerned because lots of young people here are moving away," he said. "A lot of them do not know how to make boats.

"Maybe in the near future, boat-making will disappear from the island."

Culture clash

The Dao tribe on Lanyu, numbering about 4,000 people, is the smallest of Taiwan's 10 recognised aborigine tribes.

An aborigine man on Taiwan's Lanyu island wearing the Dao tribe's
Older people fear traditions are being eroded
Their members are among the many aborigines concerned about the possible death of the indigenous ways of life.

Thousands of years ago, aborigines were Taiwan's only inhabitants. But for the last 300 years or so, since the arrival of the Han Chinese from mainland China, their lifestyles have come under intense pressure.

Around 400,000 aborigines now live in Taiwan - about 2% of the overall population of 23 million.

Over the years, many tribes people have turned their backs on traditional lifestyles for the lure of the big city, while the government in the past actively tried to assimilate them into mainstream Chinese culture.

Today, Taiwan's aborigines seem most noted for their music and dancing, often carried out in brightly coloured costumes at tourist hotspots.

But the authorities have now changed tactics, working to try to ensure other aspects of aborigine cultures are also preserved.

Language drive

They want to not only protect their way of life, but also help other Taiwanese people understand more about them.

Aboriginal wooden artefact
Many aborigines are not familiar with their cultural heritage
"We are educating more teachers and making dictionaries and building more classrooms to teach the next generation," says Pasuya Poitsonu from the government's Council of Indigenous Peoples.

"We have also set up a college in Hualien, in eastern Taiwan, to teach people about aboriginal cultures.

"It's the first time these cultures have been integrated into the higher education system."

There are also plans for a new television channel which would promote aborigine cultures.

Although this is all welcome news for Taiwan's aborigines, there is worry the positive action may have come too late for some.

Si-mivilang recently worked in Taipei as a government official representing the Dao people, and has just returned to Lanyu to live.

Although he is newly-married and wants to raise a family on the island, he is pessimistic about the future.

"Young people do not really want to follow the elderly in cultural things," he says. "There are no more people in their families to help the elderly in their daily lives, doing their fishing and farming.

"I am worried the culture will die out, maybe 20 or 30 years from now."

Today's high-tech world, with the promise of new opportunities, certainly means aborigine cultures are still under threat. Preventing them from dying out will be no easy task.

See also:

27 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
09 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
04 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
04 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
21 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
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