Pingtung County, Taiwan – On a warm weekend in late August, two women slowly lay shaved pork bone and mulberry leaves on a living room table in preparation for a seasonal blessing for the residents of the house.
The harvest festival has come to an end and the couple – from the Paiwan native – have had a busy weekend visiting homes near the last stop on Taiwan’s western railway.
Although the mountains and plains of central Pingtung Province are now inhabited by a mix of ethnic groups, they were once controlled by the Paiwan, one of Taiwan’s 16 recognized indigenous groups.
Many managed to stay in the mountains until they were relocated by the government in the 1960s, but although their new villages now have Chinese names, everyone knows how they correspond to their original mountain hamlets and which neighbors come from once competing tribes or bulo .
It is here in the far south of Taiwan that the two women, Paping Tjamalja and Kereker Recevungan, serve the communities as pulingaw, a position similar to a shaman or spirit medium that allows them to communicate with the spirits of nature and their Paiwan -ancestors, their vuvu.
While reciting spells and songs for individual blessings, pulingaw are important figures in the traditional Paiwan hierarchy and are present at major events such as festivals, births, deaths, naming ceremonies and weddings.
The handful of pulingaw that remain in this part of southern Taiwan are mostly elderly people, but Kereker is only 33.
She has taken the unusual path of training as the area’s youngest pulingaw after spending more than a decade in Taipei. In addition, she teaches at the local school and now spends most of her free time learning from other pulingaw.
“I have to remember the lyrics of songs, I have to remember rituals and their meaning. Some words in the songs are very difficult and I have to ask my mother and father, but even they (sometimes) don’t know the meaning, so I have to ask my aunt,” another pulingaw, said Kereker.
“I think it’s harder for me to know the meaning of the rituals because I’ve lived in the city for so many years, so I don’t know the culture,” she admits.
Kereker’s career changed after a car accident in 2018, when she began to consult with her aunt and participate in a number of traditional ceremonies to treat her ongoing health problems.
It was around this time that she said she was visited by zagu, the ancestral spirits that appear as little black balls around potential pulingaw. When she lost her job a year later, she knew it was time to go home.
It has not always been easy to pass on the Paiwan culture and even be proud of it.
Assimilation into Chinese culture was part of the authorities’ policy towards indigenous peoples from the Japanese colonial era through the period of martial law in the Republic of China.
Christianity, which arrived in Taiwan 400 years ago and penetrated deeply into the native culture, has sometimes portrayed traditional religion as close to devil worship.
At a meeting of three pulingaw the day before at the home of Selep Curimudjuq, a local head of the Tjuvecekadan village community in Qijia, an elderly pulingaw recalled being forced to wear a placard around her neck when speaking to Paiwan at school.
The nearby Laiyi Indigenous Museum has exhibits on hand tattoos, a practice banned by the Japanese and later the government of the Republic of China, which mandated cultural assimilation.
However, since Taiwan’s democratic transition in the 1990s, the government has contributed to a national revival of Taiwan’s indigenous culture, from rewriting textbooks to funding museums and heritage sites.
Indigenous studies are now a major academic discipline, and five years ago, following the election of President Tsai Ing-wen, the government established the Presidential Office Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee.
In modern-day Taiwan, however, the problem is largely demographic.
Many of the younger generations of indigenous peoples now live in the cities where it is easier for them to lose touch with their cultural roots.
“If young urban indigenous people are actually interested in cultural issues, their identity will be (based) around their village, but when they go back to their village, it’s hard for them to get along with their childhood friends because they don’t really get along with them. have spoken. each other for many years. So when they go back, they’ll have their own group,” said Dremedreman Curimudjuq, a PhD student at National Cheng Kung University who is also lining up to become a hereditary chef like her mother, Selep Curimudjuq.
Time to connect
Kereker, the pulingaw-in-training, says she had a similar experience of alienation during her time in Taipei.
“Paiwan people say that all things have a spirit, that is, everything has a soul. Then we have to keep a very respectful heart and be kind to the mountains, the river and the land,” she said.
“But I’ve lived in Taipei for too long and in such a high-pressure environment without a connection to nature, it’s easy for us to forget who we are.”
Understanding that not every urban Paiwan wants to live in the countryside, holidays such as harvest festivals and family events have become prime times to return home and reconnect.
Hunt is also one of the most popular ways for male Indigenous people in all of Taiwan to maintain rituals, while some schools may offer Indigenous language classes to young students.
Separately, the central Paiwan people have received international attention for their award-winning choir at Taiwu Elementary School. Founded by Paiwan actor and musician Camake Valaule, who appeared in the Netflix streaming miniseries Seqalu: Formosa 1867 before his death in August, the group has recorded and performed Paiwan-language songs abroad.
As the second largest indigenous group in Taiwan, Paiwan is only part of the puzzle of cultural preservation.
Some indigenous ethnic groups are in danger of extinction and in others the number has dwindled to just a few hundred surviving descendants.
The government of Taiwan has made a serious effort to intervene as the Tsai government is keen to differentiate its history and culture from China, but in practice this varies from community to community and culture to culture, said Daniel Davies, a PhD candidate at National Sun Yat-sen University studying Paiwan culture.
“Localism is a great asset. The way each community has managed to preserve parts of the traditional culture depends on the strength of the institutions within that community. In Qijia you could say that the religious aspect of rituals and families and pulingaw have been strong and for some that’s part of the culture where people can gather,” he said.