by Daniel Yo-Ling

Photo Credit: 當代原住民族青年政策藍圖論壇/Facebook

This article is the second in a series covering the work of the Mixed Indigenous Youth Forum Working Group. You can read the first article here. 

THIS PAST FRIDAY in Pingtung City, the Mixed Indigenous Youth Forum Working Group (MIYF) held its fifth and final regional forum on the life experiences of Indigenous youth from mixed backgrounds. Combined with the other regional forums held in Taichung, Taipei, Taitung, and Hualien, MIYF discussed and recorded over 50 participants’ life stories pertaining to their Indigenous identity journey and variable engagements with Indigenous legal status. From these life stories and further discussion, MIYF will draft together policy recommendations for amending the Status Act for Indigenous Peoples during their upcoming national forum on the weekend of November 19th and 20th. Nevertheless, several notable themes have already emerged from what was shared during the regional forums regarding the complexity of mixed background Indigenous people’s identity and how existing laws surrounding Indigenous legal status in Taiwan fail to accommodate them. 

Indigenous Identity amidst Inter-Generational Experiences of Racism and Shame

LOOMING LARGE across all of the regional forums was the persistent theme of anti-Indigenous discrimination and shaming. Almost all of the participants shared their own experiences of racism such as being bullied in school, having slurs used against them, or confronting stereotypes of Indigenous people as alcoholics. In addition to these more visible forms of racism, many participants shared about how anti-Indigenous racism reverberates across their family history in the form of inter-generational shame. In reclaiming their Indigenous identities, the most painful and conflicted opposition often came from their own family members. 

For instance, one participant shared extensively about her relationship with her father. This participant’s father has a Paiwan mother and a waishengren father, and so was raised with a strong waishengren identity. This participant shared that her father is exceptionally Han passing, meaning that he never brought up the fact of his Paiwan heritage and instead has lived his life as someone who is fluent, both linguistically and socially, in Minnanese, Hakka, and waishengren spaces. He went on to marry a Puyuma woman, the participant’s mother, and raised their children with the waishengren identity he was raised with. This participant explained that in her father’s generation, if he were to disclose his Indigenous heritage, he would have most likely faced workplace discrimination and social marginalization. As a coping mechanism, her father assumed a fully Han passing identity and even harbored anti-Indigenous sentiments towards his own Paiwan mother and Puyuma wife. This participant would later share: “The first person I felt discriminated against was my own father.” 

Poster for the regional forums. Photo credit: 當代原住民族青年政策藍圖論壇/Facebook

When this participant was in high school, her parents decided to have her change her surname to her mother’s surname and obtain Indigenous legal status to help ease family financial burdens through government subsidies. Her father viewed her Indigenous legal status as tolerable since it was primarily for economic reasons, a view that this participant had also taken at the time. However, later in life, this participant began to participate in Indigenous issues and develop her own Indigenous identity, which her father was strongly against. He consistently urged her to stop doing Indigenous related things, such as going to festivals with her Paiwan grandmother, because she will “forget who she is”–i.e., the waishengren who he raised her to be, like himself. Yet for her, these identities are not mutually exclusive. This participant shared how one time she was talking with one of her father’s Indigenous co-workers who berated her father for being so anti-Indigenous. She felt both vindicated in this person’s indictment, since her father had been one of the biggest barriers to embracing her own Indigenous identity, but also defensive and hurt since she simultaneously identifies with her waishengren heritage and father. While to this day her father still refuses to attend Paiwan festivals with her and her paternal grandmother, he has nevertheless grown to become more supportive of his daughter’s Indigenous identity, even proud after seeing her speak up on Indigenous issues in public forums. 

Another participant of Indigenous-Han descent shared about how their Atayal maternal grandmother would not admit that they were Indigenous and refused to teach any of the generations after her how to speak Atayal. When this participant reclaimed their Indigenous legal status by changing their surname, their grandmother was initially resistant and told her that “being Indigenous is not good, you don’t want to be a huan-a”–a slur used in Taiwan to refer to Indigenous people, something this participant’s grandmother most likely heard with considerable frequency throughout her life.

Life Situations Overlooked by Current Indigenous Legal Status Regulations

THIS SAME PARTICIPANT’S parents were also initially resistant to them reclaiming Indigenous status, which was complicated by the fact that their mother is also of Indigenous-Han descent with a patrilineal Han surname. In order for this participant to use the name basis to regain their Indigenous legal status, their mother would also have to change her surname to her Atayal mother’s surname. Currently, Indigenous legal status in Taiwan requires continuous conferral across each generation, meaning that any break in Indigenous legal status prevents future generations from obtaining or reclaiming said status. This legal stipulation fails to account for how inter-generational experiences of racism and shame may lead some Indigenous-Han families to disavow their Indigenous identity and forgo Indigenous legal status, making it impossible for future generations to reclaim said status. Luckily, the aforementioned participant’s mother agreed to change her surname as well, allowing this participant to obtain Indigenous legal status. 

This participant went on to obtain a traditional Atayal name and have a child with a Puyuma man. When this participant went to the Household Registration Office to register her child, she was told that since she had already restored her legal name to her traditional Atayal name, if her child were to be registered as Atayal, they, too, would need to be registered under a traditional Atayal name because the parent and child legal name type (i.e. traditional Indigenous name or Han name) must match. Taiwan currently requires that all newborn babies be registered within 60 days of birth. However, when she sought her grandmother out for naming her child, she was informed that Atayal naming customs confer traditional names to infants four months after birth. Because of this, she had to restore her legal name back to her mother’s Han surname so that her child could, via name basis, acquire legal Indigenous status as Atayal. Taiwan’s Name Act currently stipulates that a person may only undergo a single Han-to-Indigenous name restoration and a single Indigenous-to-Han name restoration. In other words, in order to confer Indigenous legal status to her child, this participant had to indefinitely forfeit her ability to use her traditional Atayal name as her legal name. 

This participant also attempted to register her child using her Han surname and the child’s Puyuma traditional name, which had already been given by the father’s side of the family. However, the Household Registration Office said that they could not accommodate this request due to existing regulations. Currently, Indigenous legal status is limited to a single Indigenous group. While this participant may be raising her mixed child as simultaneously having Han, Atayal, and Puyuma identities, their legal status will only reflect one of these identities. Another participant of Han and Truku descent who has a child with her Puyuma-Paiwan husband poignantly stated: “I don’t like the feeling of having to choose a side.” 

Who Are My Ancestors?

ANOTHER PERSISTENT theme throughout the regional forums was how people from various family situations struggle with finding and reconnecting with relatives. Two participant’s life stories stand out in particular. 

The first participant is the child of a Minannese mother and ostensibly waishengren father. When he was a teenager, his mother revealed to him that he has Indigenous legal status. His father is actually Amis and was adopted by a waishengren family at the age of 12. Growing up, his father abandoned his Amis identity and fully adopted a waishengren identity; however, his Indigenous legal status remained Amis. Since this participant’s surname follows patrilineal Han customs, he inherited his father’s Indigenous legal status despite his father’s firm rejection of his own Amis identity. Over the course of many years, this participant has been attending Amis festivals in search of his family’s roots. He eventually found his father’s old tribe and was largely welcomed; he even connected with a few distant relatives there. However, his father, still adamant regarding his waishengren identity, largely disapproves of this participant’s journey back to their tribe. 

The second participant did not realize their Indigenous heritage until checking their family’s Japanese era household registration records for a history class project during their first year of college. They found that one of their relatives had “Plains Indigenous” (熟) listed as their ethnicity. Based on other household registration information, they were able to narrow down their family history to a specific town where many Makatau people reside. They have continued their genealogical research in an attempt to find their ancestors but have so far not been successful. Throughout this process, they have felt insecure about sharing their Indigenous heritage and burgeoning identity with others since they are still unable to give clearer responses to inquiries regarding their tribe, traditional name, and family ancestry. They have even been accused of being a “fake Indigenous person” and hence shared that they only feel comfortable talking openly about their journey amongst other Indigenous people at their school. While this participant’s specific circumstances were not shared by the majority of forum participants, much of what participants shared echoed the theme of anxiety surrounding Indigenous identity and the arduous process of becoming more secure in identifying as Indigenous. 

Indigenous Identity and Pingpu Legal Status

THE MAKATAU are one of Taiwan’s Pingpu groups who are not recognized by the government as Indigenous simply on the basis that these groups did not register with the then KMT government as “Plains Indigenous” in 1956, 1957, 1959, or 1963. The ancestral homes of the Makatau are in the plains of Pingtung County, hence the Pingtung regional forum had numerous Makatau participants. Their life experiences highlight how Pingpu groups not only face broader socio-historical conditions of settler colonial erasure and racism in Han society, but also suspicion and exclusion from recognized Indigenous groups in Taiwan. 

One participant shared that he discovered that he was Makatau after conducting a history project on his church and finding that all of the church members had the same surname that was arbitrarily assigned to them and other Indigenous groups in 1946 when the KMT government implemented stringent re-Sinicization measures after Japanese colonization. Doing further research into his own family history, he found that his family’s ethnicity was recorded in Japanese era household registration records as “Plains Indigenous” (熟). Despite knowing this previously, this participant’s father never disclosed this information because he was bullied and had stones thrown at him when he was younger for being Indigenous. Furthermore, this participant’s paternal grandmother was adamant about saying that she and her family were not huan-a. Similar to many other stories shared during the regional forums, this participant’s family’s Indigenous identity was repressed through racism and shaming, which is likely to have played a major role in his group not registering as “Plains Indigenous” in the late 50s and early 60s and thus losing their Indigenous legal status. 

The Judicial Yuan, which house the Constitutional Court. Photo credit: Jiang/Public Domain

This participant later shared about one of his experiences working in another village with Siraya youth, another Pingpu group who is currently at the center of a Constitutional Court case on Pingpu recognition. This participant shared that, despite Siraya elders enthusiastically encouraging young people to wear traditional clothing and represent their people in public gatherings, Siraya youth refused to do so because they feared wider social ridicule and also the possibility of other Indigenous groups not recognizing them as “real Indigenous people.” These concerns were echoed by other Makatau forum participants, one of whom shared that they had experiences of writing down “Makatau” on Indigenous event check-in forms and seeing the Indigenous event organizers change their entry to “Han.” Nevertheless, this particular participant is firm in their Makatau identity and continues to proudly state their affiliation, regardless of whether recognized Indigenous peoples or broader Han society acknowledge their Indigeneity. 

The MIYF organizers expressed their continued support for Pingpu recognition. It is likely that more discussion on this issue will be had between now and the upcoming national forum on November 19th and 20th since the Siraya Constitutional Court decision is scheduled to be announced this Friday, October 28th. 

Indigenous Identity, Indigenous Legal Status, and Government Resources for Indigenous Peoples

FOR SOME REGIONAL forum participants, Indigenous legal status served as the impetus for their Indigenous identity development. Multiple participants shared that it was because of their family’s economic situations that their parents decided to change their surnames and receive Indigenous legal status, as the government provides a series of educational and occupational subsidies for Indigenous peoples, in addition to preferential admissions treatment and exam score boosts. Prior to gaining Indigenous legal status, these participants lived their lives primarily as Han people. Afterwards however, they embarked on the journey of further developing their Indigenous identity, with many becoming active in Indigenous issues. For other participants, Indigenous legal status is something that allows them to feel more secure in their preexisting Indigenous identity. Obtaining Indigenous legal status was, for these participants, a key turning point in confirming to themselves and others their Indigenous identity and lessening anxiety over this issue. Yet still, some participants noted that they felt fully secure in their Indigenous identity despite not having Indigenous legal status. 

Many of the arguments that have been made against amending the Status Act and against Siraya/Pingpu recognition have revolved around straining government resources for Indigenous peoples and damaging the collective interests of Indigenous groups by broadening access to things like government subsidies and Indigenous reserve land. While there were a few participants’ whose Indigenous identity development was prompted by gaining Indigenous legal status due to family economic circumstances, the majority of life stories shared throughout the regional forums centered on how young people of mixed backgrounds were navigating their Indigenous identity development amidst Taiwan’s existing laws surrounding Indigenous legal status and the inter-generational weight of settler colonial erasure and racism. 

These life stories suggest that the narrow focus on straining government resources for Indigenous peoples in public discourse surrounding Indigenous legal status reform and Pingpu recognition are focusing on the wrong thing. The content of what was shared across the regional forums suggests that Indigenous identity and resurgence should be the key concern. As to how Indigenous identity, legal status, and government resources can be balanced in a more harmonious way through legal reform, MIYF organizers will draft their policy recommendations during their national forum later next month. 

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