July 20, 2009 / 4:42 AM / 10 years ago

Taiwan aboriginals lament losing identity to modernity

TAITUNG, Taiwan (Reuters Life!) - At a harvest festival harking back to ancient times, aboriginals from Taiwan’s largest indigenous tribe wear traditional ornaments over polo shirts and sing songs to their ancestors through a microphone.

The annual festival may appear odd in an island where agriculture is no longer the economic mainstay, but it is the only time a year the Amis tribe, which has an estimated 130,000 members, celebrates a language, heritage and culture that is dying out due to modernity.

“At our joint harvest festival, we feel very regretful about how fast our language is fading away,” Raranges Hoki na Tungaw, spokesman for the MaKaPaHay Festival, told Reuters.

“At this event, we have to express ourselves in Mandarin Chinese for young people to understand. Although we want the young people to learn the aboriginal language, but the overall environment does not allow us to retain our language.”

More than a thousand people participated in the festival, which ended on Sunday, remembering their ancestors’ spirits and calling for unity among the different settlements.

Ethnic Chinese make up 98 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million population. Like other indigenous tribes, the Amis, the people most integrated into the dominant Han Chinese culture, struggle to retain their identity.

“I want my children to know that we are Amis, know the culture of their elders. I want my children to not forget their roots. But with there is very little chance for that,” said Feng Chin-tsai, 45, who works in the construction industry.

Feng said Amis culture values bravery, independence and respect for nature, but added that modern social and economic conditions made it difficult for children to pick up some of these values.

In the 1960s, former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered an assimilation of aboriginals, requiring them to speak Mandarin instead of their native languages.

In a shift from that assimilation policy, Taiwan’s government has raised its budget for helping the 14 recognized aboriginal groups to maintain their culture, but many tribesmen complain that little is being done.

There are about half a million aboriginals in Taiwan, or about 2 percent of the population. Indigenous activists are also trying to get Taiwan’s tribes to work together so they can lobby for their rights as a single tribe.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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