Truku, Hualien County, Taiwan
The Truku people are one of 16 officially recognised aboriginal groups of the island nation of Taiwan. Although initially classified as a sub branch of the Atayal tribe, they were recognised as a separate people in 2004. Although their culture has many similarities with the Atayal, they have a completely distinct language.
The traditional culture of Taiwan’s aboriginal groups, as with indigenous cultures world wide, was driven almost to extinction by colonial powers. First the Japanese Imperial Government, and then the successive Chinese government, forced the tribal groups to live in mixed groups in the hope of conforming them to a single identity. Use of tribal languages and practicing of traditional culture became illegal.
This systematic deconstruction of the identities of the peoples of Taiwan had its desired effect for the time that these powers ruled, but elements of the cultures were maintained, and are now being revived. Specifically, the Truku people have some advocates who maintain their language, songs, traditions, and traditional stories.
The Truku people’s traditional culture is rooted around the concept of Gaya – customs, law, taboos, and social hierarchy all wrapped into one. This system was laid down by their ancestors, and by following it closely, they would live a good life and join their ancestors after death. The Utux, or ancestral spirits, are called upon to bring fortune, a bountiful harvest, and success.
Traditional roles for women include weaving in cultivation. As for men, hunting heavy labour. Once a women becomes a master weaver or a man succeeds in hunts (especially a head-hunt), they are given the tribe’s traditional facial tattoo (the forehead and chin for men, and forehead and cheeks for women) and are able to marry. Both headhunting, and the tattoo practice were made illegal under the Japanese colonial rule.
The tattoo itself is an integral part of the Truku culture. Not only does it symbolise a coming of age in that the bearer is able to perform the tasks required of them as an adult, but it allows them to pass the rainbow bridge into the spirit world where their ancestors live. One must have this tattoo in order to be allowed over the bridge, else be doomed to wander for eternity.
The Truku are also tied to their land in a very deep way, believing that the land allows them to live there if they are respectful of it. Traditionally, there is no land ownership. The land simply provides for the people, and they are custodians of it for the future generations.
Although much of the Truku culture is no longer practiced, efforts recently to educate young people in the language and the ways of their people have been made. As practicing language, song, dance, and music are no longer illegal, many are beginning to get in touch with their heritage.