TAIPEI (Reuters) - A decade ago, Taiwan's aboriginals seldom dared to wear native costumes in public or admitted to their indigenous roots on an island dominated by an ethnic Chinese majority.
But these days indigenous people such as Kolas Yotaka wear their heritage as a badge of honor. In Yotaka's case, she dons native attire to read the news on government-run Taiwan Indigenous TV, which was launched in 2005.
"Viewers around the age of 70 will still say 'don't put that costume on'," said Yotaka, 36. "(But) Taiwan is coming around bit by bit."
Taiwan's government has raised the status of the island's aboriginal minority in recent years as it seeks to forge a non-Chinese identity to bolster its claims to be a nation independent from China, which claims the self-ruled island of Taiwan as its own province.
Taiwan is home to some 470,000 aboriginals who have linguistic and genetic ties to Austronesian ethnic groups such as peoples of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Madagascar. Until recently, they were a marginalized minority who lost out in terms of government funding for health and education. In the 1960s, former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered an assimilation of the aboriginals, destroying homes in some areas and requiring them to speak Mandarin instead of native languages.
But in a shift from that assimilation policy, Taiwan's government has over the past decade raised its budget for the 13 recognized aboriginal groups to improve their standard of living, health care and education and to help maintain their culture.
It's part of a policy by President Chen Shui-bian to raise the status of Taiwan's indigenous population to distance the self-ruled island from China.
Chen's pro-independence ruling party needs aboriginal votes for the March 22 presidential election. The party lags in opinion polls, and aboriginals traditionally vote for the opposition.
Analysts argue that government's efforts to raise the status of the indigenous population has less connection to newfound cultural sensitivity than to a politicized campaign aimed at cementing Taiwan's claims to be an independent country rather than part of China as claimed by Beijing.
"The promotion of aboriginal culture is very much a part of the de-sinification effort," said Shelley Rigger, an East Asian politics expert at Davidson College in the United States. "Aboriginal peoples are the foundation for the argument that Taiwan is a 'creole' nation, not a predominantly Chinese society."
About 98 percent of Taiwan's 23 million people trace their ancestry back to China, which has claimed Taiwan since it broke away during the Chinese civil war in 1949 and pledged to take it back by force if necessary.
Chinese language and culture has dominated life in Taiwan to such an extent that until recently many locals knew little about the cultural heritage of Taiwan's indigenous population.
These days, they learn about it in schools and see exhibitions in galleries.
The government has ratcheted up its spending on aboriginals. It spent T$6.1 billion ($195 million) last year compared to T$80 million in 1997.
Unemployment among native peoples has decreased from 8.15 percent in 1997 to 4.16 percent today and university graduation rates for aboriginals rose from 4 percent to 6.3 percent over the same period, government statistics show.
The number of aboriginals in parliament went from four to 10 in the past decade.
Measures to help aboriginals include awarding extra points on college admission tests and cultural history exhibitions on Taiwan's native peoples. A bill to give indigenous groups limited autonomy in their native areas is pending in the legislature.
Officials are also offering aboriginal envoys to South Pacific nations that share an ethnic lineage, and they seek to open a Taiwan-Pacific aboriginal dialogue mechanism.
"We aren't a stray race," said Atung Yupas, spokesman for the Taiwan government's Council of Indigenous Peoples. "We are a mainstream group of people."
China, which actively seeks to discredit Taiwan's efforts to define itself as non-Chinese, is not sitting idly by, academics and officials say.
Since the mid-1980s, Beijing has quietly sent private citizens to Taiwan and invited aboriginal visitors over to suggest they declare themselves an ethnic minority rooted in China, they say.
But aboriginals usually side with Taiwan in its conflict with China as they see it as their best hope to carve out an identity.
"To get rid of sinification is consistent with the cause of aboriginals," said Maraos, an aboriginal who works as a marketing director in Taipei. "We are the real natives of Taiwan. It's a very clear concept."
Editing by Megan Goldin