HUALIEN, TAIWAN – The Truku elders of Taiwan still dream about their mountain home four decades after bulldozers tore it down — a classic symptom of trauma as community members struggle to accept their loss.
At one evening gathering, Miya Yudaw described his recurring dream, where the mountain was still whole, dotted with quiet farms of millet and sweet potatoes, and the air clean, only to wake each time to the misery of reality.
“The mountain is our home and the land is our blood,” said Miya, 65, who leads a group that has been fighting for more than 20 years for a mining firm to return their ancestral land in Hualien on Taiwan’s rugged east coast.
“When it is being taken away, it’s like a part of us being taken away too,” the farmer told the other Truku elders as they drank Kaoliang, a strong sorghum-based Taiwanese liquor, at his dimly lit home.
The historical trauma of Taiwan’s 16 indigenous groups — who were evicted from their land and banned from speaking their own languages, using their native names or practising traditions like hunting — has only recently been acknowledged.
President Tsai Ing-wen apologized in 2016 for “centuries of pain and mistreatment,” dating back to colonization by Japan in the 19th century and former leader Chiang Kai-shek’s assimilation policy in the 1960s.
Such trauma has led to depression, anxiety, alcohol dependence and high rates of liver disease and fatal accidents among the 24,000-strong Truku community, said National Taiwan University researcher Ciwang Teyra.
But the younger generation are breaking the cycle by reconnecting with the culture that their parents were uprooted from, through language, music and nature, as they push for the government to recognize and protect their rights.
Indigenous people make up 2 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people, the majority of whom trace their ancestry back to China, which regards the self-ruled island as a wayward province.
Buya Ici’s memories are equally painful. His childhood was filled with the deafening sound of neighbors’ roofs and kitchens exploding as the mining company blew them up, forcing his family to abandon their farm and trek down the mountain.
“They used some giant machines to tear down the house. There was simply nothing left,” said the 50-year-old train technician, who is also a Truku.
“This kind of psychological trauma is with me until now.”
Indigenous peoples’ suffering
Globally, many indigenous peoples suffer from higher suicide rates than the general population due to colonization, dispossession, discrimination and culture loss.
A 2018 analysis of 30 countries and territories by Canada’s Memorial University found the highest disparities in Canada and Brazil, where suicide rates were 20 times the national averages.
In Taiwan, suicide rates among some indigenous groups were six times higher than the rest of the population, it found.
“Today, our people face the issue of abusing certain materials, abusing alcohol and drugs,” said Ciwang, who is also a Truku.
“It’s because we have been deprived of our own power to cure our own hearts. When alcohol is easily accessible to you, it naturally becomes a tool to alleviate your stress.”
Ciwang’s research found that alcohol abuse fell among Truku who were able to hunt, weave and perform traditional rituals in their ancestral mountains.
“Our culture can help us cure the historical trauma and bring comfort in the face of discrimination. To have close ties with our land is a way to restore our own health,” she said.
Deputy Minister Iwan Nawi, who oversees indigenous people’s affairs, said the government has made numerous reforms.
Hunting is now allowed in certain areas while the government has also set up an indigenous TV channel and improved education to promote native culture, since a 2005 law adopted to recognize indigenous rights.
“We have loosened some of the policies. … This is a long dialogue,” said Iwan, an indigenous academic-turned-politician from Taiwan’s Sediq tribe, which has 10,000 people.
Singer at Taiwan Film Festival
Wearing a crown of flowers and a long, flowing dress, Panai Kusui sang at London’s first Taiwan Film Festival of her indigenous community’s loss of land, language and identity.
“When the mountains collapse, the beaches are sold, the wind from ancient times is polluted, human hearts are also contaminated,” she sang, on a break from a sit-in over land rights that she began in 2017 in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital.
Panai’s songs, partly sung in her native Puyuma language, have become a symbol of protest and a source of inspiration for the younger generation to re-engage with their culture and take up the land struggle.
Despite better recognition, indigenous people are still fighting for greater control of their land. Official data shows about two-thirds of Taiwan’s 174 mining sites are located on their ancestral lands.
Back in Hualien, the protests have awoken the consciousness of Buya’s 25-year-old son, Yudaw Buya, who took part in his first land protest in 2017 — the same year he officially replaced his Chinese name with his indigenous one.
“When I was in primary school, I didn’t have a strong sense of my ethnic identity,” said the teacher, who identified meeting other indigenous students at college as a turning point for him.
He joined the Truku Student and Youth Association, which he now leads, and has become passionate about the Taroko National Park, named after the Truku people who used to live there, organizing hiking trips to former tribal villages in the area.
“We do this to make up for what we, the young people, missed out on in the past,” he said. “It’s like a healing process. … I feel like a real Truku now.”
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