Taiwan's indigenous rights: enough?
Dwindling aboriginal groups enjoy many legal protections, but assimilation remains a looming threat.
Ita Thao Village, Taiwan
As performers sing traditional songs at a nearby lakeside stage, Rungquan Lhkatafatu describes his tribe's fight to survive.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Only some 600-strong, the Thao are Taiwan's smallest recognized aboriginal group. Half of the tribe clings to its homeland on the shores of Sun Moon Lake, a popular tourist destination. The others are scattered throughout the island.
Thao leaders want to preserve traditional ways. But the group's identity is fading. Only about 20 people speak the Thao language, for example, and most of them are elderly.
The Thaos' story is one of globalization: one tribe's attempt to maintain its distinct cultural identity against the powerful tides of modernization, encroaching development, and homogenization. Their situation also illustrates some government efforts to protect indigenous rights.
Like many of their indigenous counterparts worldwide, Taiwan's Aborigines – 2 percent of the island's 23 million population – are being absorbed by the majority. Meanwhile, Taiwan is itself more open than ever to the flattening forces of global culture.
For centuries the Thao lived on the southern shore of Sun Moon Lake. Successive periods of settlement sent shock waves through their culture: increased Han Chinese immigration during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Japanese colonization (1895-1945), and the Kuomintang's (KMT) arrival from China in the late 1940s.
Chinese settlers brought diseases that wiped out some of the Thao. The Japanese flooded the Thao homeland when they dammed up Sun Moon Lake to power a hydroelectric plant. They relocated the tribe to what is now Ita Thao village and brought more ethnic Chinese to the lake as laborers. Later, the KMT brought another Chinese influx as they developed the lake into a tourist spot.
The Thao's numbers dwindled from as many as 2,000 during the Qing era, to 900 in the 1940s, to today's 600.
Now, the lake area is set to see even more tourists, an influx that could further relegate the Thao to a cultural sideshow. Taiwan's new, more China-friendly government has promised a deal by early July to allow more visits by mainland tourists, for whom Sun Moon Lake is high on the "must-see" list. Like indigenous groups in many countries, Taiwan's aboriginal culture has been packaged and sold to tourists in theme parks and colorful song-and-dance shows.
One observer says he doubts whether the Thao could survive in any meaningful sense for much more than a decade. "In remote areas, you can preserve your tribe and homeland and keep some distance from the Han people. But they [the Thao] don't have an isolated residential area," says Shih Cheng-feng, dean of the College of Indigenous Studies at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien. "I think the Thao are going to disappear soon."