Taiwan: Social Media Makes Indigenous Voices Loud and Clear

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

Taiwan's indigenous population are often flattered by politicians as being the country's “real masters” or “original inhabitants”; they have been used to promote Taiwan tourism in television commercials around the world.

But stories about their struggle for identity, sustainability and dignity are missing from the Taiwanese public sphere, as a result of relative social and political domination by the country's Han Chinese population. Now, thanks to social media, indigenous youth are making their voices heard and reconnecting with their traditions.

Indigenous Taiwanese. Photo by Senayan, used with permission.

Indigenous Taiwanese. Photo by Senayan, used with permission.

“Tribal Grid”

A group of ambitious indigenous Taiwanese writers and bloggers first started a group online blog called Blogger Check-in (部落客報到) [zh] in October, 2010. In Taiwanese the word “blog” in fact translates literally to mean “tribal grid” (部落格) and the word “blogger” into “tribal people” (部落客).

Besides the blog, the group have multiple outlets to effectively spread their news, including social media such as networking site Facebook and micro-blogging site Twitter, as well as independent online media sites such as Lihpao [zh] and PNN [zh].

In the past, in order to enter mainstream society, many indigenous people preferred to register their name in Han Chinese when processing official documents, such as identity cards. However, practices such as this have only served to further marginaliz ethnic minorities in Taiwan.

Snaiyan (思乃泱) talks on Blogger Check-in about the benefits of using ethnic names on Facebook [zh]:


The indigenous population is very small in Taiwan, and because of that, indigenous people's livelihoods and concerns are often neglected by society. If they give up their ethnic names, other people in the mainstream society would not be aware of their existence and the indigenous people would turn into social hermits. I can understand, especially for elders, the difficulty of changing names in real life: not just changing ID cards, driving licenses, bank accounts, passports, household registerations, etc.; their established popularity under their Han name may also be jeopardized. To start rebuilding one's identity all over again is really hard, but adopting ethnic names in the online/social media world can be a good start.


Ever since I started using Facebook, I have noticed an intriguing name-changing phenomenon going on. For example, one indigenous youth used to use his Han name on his profile, but later he has started to add his romanized ethnic name in brackets after, to make clear his indigenous ethnic background. Some [other indigenous youths] are even choosing to replace their Han names with their romanized ethnic names on Facebook, and add their Han names in brackets after. The change he [the aforementioned youth] made caught some of his indigenous friends’ attention, they asked him how to change the account setting and followed his example. It is highly possible that in real lide, the names printed on their ID cards are still written in Han, but they have begun to change their names on Facebook to remind their friends of their indigenous identity and background. This is a way of “coming out” in public as indigenous.


What's more interesting is that I have a number of Han friends who like to hang out with an indigenous circle of friends, who have registered themselves with their own “ethnic name” (given to them by indigenous friends) on Facebook. Some have added their given ethnic name in brackets after their Han name, to demonstrate their connection with their indigenous friends. All these are good tactics to make the existence of indigenous groups more much visible.

Protecting Indigenous Rights

Snaiyan also reflects upon the condition of Taiwan's indigenous people after watching “Ryomaden“, a Japanese television drama about Sakamoto Ryoma (坂本龍馬), a visionary hero:


Regardless of the whole Taiwanese political scene, we don't have a person like Ryoma who dedicated his life, not for his own personal interest, but for the future of his ethnic group, to communicate across split and controversial opinions and reach a consensus for the whole group. What we often see here are indigenous associations, organizations, and other “mountain heads” [community leaders], making decisions based on the interests of certain clans or divisions of the church. The younger generation do not believe in the decisions made by the elders, and the elders belittle young people's efforts. They are unwilling to communicate and do not trust each other because of pre-existing prejudices… people from the outside look at us as “one” tribe, but inside the tribe is another story full of undercurrents and upsets. It is hence very difficult for the indigenous Taiwanese to make a collective decision and express it to the outside world when needed. As a result, their fate is decided by circumstance rather than by consensus choice.

Senayan (斯乃泱) from the Likavung Tribe is more optimistic about her own group because of the active participation [zh] of enthusiastic community members in the public affairs of the tribe:


In the tribe, people who participate in public affairs and join the (Lunar New Year) annual cleaning work are all fundamentalists. Their familiar figures are seen in in almost all activities, and a “tribe” indeed needs such a group of people to make things work. The operation of ethnic organizations is never perfect, but having a group of people who dedicate themselves to the group, we should all be grateful and satisfied, encourage them with beautiful smiles or work with them together.

It is very important for indigenous groups in Taiwan to reach build solidarity among themselves as many of the policies, manipulated by legislators and politicians in central government, are threatening their joint future survival, such as the new Eastern Taiwan Development Act, which justifies the de facto seizure of indigenous people's land under the pretext of “development”.

Shih Shen-wen (施聖文) criticizes the new Act [zh]:


The “Eastern Taiwan Development Act” has simplified the process of land transferral. Rather than connecting people with their land, the Act has commodified people's land into power, information and resources to be contested for in the open market. We can imagine that the so-called “Eastern Taiwan Sustainability Group” or other head organizations will decide the “important development and construction” in Hualien county and Taitung county according to the developmental proposal written in political language that fit into the grandiose presentation of the Act.
Stone hotpot of Chih Mei Tribe. Painting by Shauwen Tsai.

Stone hotpot of Chih Mei Tribe. Painting by Shauwen Tsai, used under permission

Many Taiwan Han Chinese enjoy “helping” the indigenous people by introducing modern development plans or teaching the children modern culture. Ligelale Awu (利格拉樂.阿烏), who was a college professor, criticizes the College Students’ Mountain Services, a student society which mobilizes students to do voluntary work in indigenous areas.

Awu points out that, instead of appreciating the indigenous culture, the Han college students keep teaching the kids “how to play” with city toys and how to speak Taiwanese.

Falahan (法拉汗) from the Chih-Mei Tribe invites his readers to visit his tribe and explore the origin of Amis people through their natural cuisine, as a way to develop the understanding of indigenous cultures.

As the indigenous blogoshere in Taiwan grows, the communication barricade between Han people and indigenous peoples is gradually being lifted. Yet more mutual understanding is absolutely necessary.

With the help of bloggers from Blogger Check-in and other indigenous friends on social networking sites, I will help by bringing Taiwanese indigenous voices to the readers of Global Voices from time to time.

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.


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