Inside Story

Being human

An anthropologist sees a radically distinctive humanity among Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples

Martha Macintyre Books 4 November 2023 1621 words

Young women of the Atayal people, which included the Sediq and Truku before they were recognised as separate groups. From Peoples of All Nations, edited by J.A. Hammerton (1922). Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy

What does it mean to be “truly human”? Anthropology’s arguments about differences in social organisation and cultural characteristics generally assume that the essential characteristics of humanity are universal. Scott Simon, a Canadian anthropologist, asks readers of his new ethnography of Indigenous Taiwanese people, Truly Human, to consider a radically different alternative. He sees the Indigenous concept of Gaya as the key to being “truly human.” His detailed account of the lifeworld of Indigenous Taiwanese is also an impassioned critique of the Western belief that “nature” and the “natural world” are distinct from sociocultural knowledge.

In our times Indigenous people live in nation-states in which sovereignty, territory and laws are defined and maintained by the descendants of the settlers who invaded and conquered the original inhabitants. Although the terminology used to describe them has shifted from “Natives” to “Aborigines” to “Aboriginals” to “Indigenous” and “First Nations People,” the colonisers have consistently disregarded their primal relationship to land. In many countries, indigeneity is increasingly defined in terms that constrain membership of specific social groups and limit the territory Indigenous people can claim.

Taiwan has experienced successive waves of colonisation over several centuries. The original inhabitants were Austronesians, who were themselves the original colonisers of the Pacific region. They now constitute about 3 per cent of Taiwan’s total population. Like their counterparts in Canada and Australia, they feel the dispossession of their land deeply.

As in other nations where settlers imposed state control over land, indigeneity is highly politicised. Indigenous Taiwanese are entitled to six representatives in parliament but remain disadvantaged socially and economically. They have higher unemployment, they are poorer and their life expectancy is lower. They are culturally marginalised by the dominant Han Taiwanese population and experience discrimination in education and employment.

Using standard human development statistics, Simon notes that the Taiwanese Indigenous population is much better off than Canadian First Nations people. (Had he used Australian statistics, the gap would be much greater.) Simon documents the current resurgence of indigeneity as a political and cultural issue in the context of the Taiwanese government developing policies of recognition.

Simon’s ethnography focuses on two of Taiwan’s Indigenous groups, the Sediq and the Truku, mountain people who were once subsistence farmers and hunters. They grew millet and reared pigs, the latter to be used mainly in marriage, propitiation, the celebration of significant events and other rituals. Simons outlines the history in some detail and discusses the effects of successive colonists (Chinese and Japanese) on Indigenous lives.

The Sediq and Truku cosmologies and ways of life drew no basic distinction between “culture” and “nature.” Gaya, the concept that dominates their lives, encompasses ideas of the sacred, ancestral law, moral relations between people and their environment, and cultural values. It can also simply mean a “mode of life.”

Simon explores Gaya in five “ethnographic reflections,” each one devoted to a specific cultural concept or practice. He begins with Samat, the forest animals hunted by Sediq and Truku men, exploring the relationships between humans and their prey as well as the accumulated effects of colonial exploitation of forest resources. Hunting is a masculine activity and accomplishment, making it a contentious issue for contemporary Sediq and Truku men who resent and resist government restrictions on this activity. But for centuries hunting prowess also involved headhunting and, as Simon explains, this too was inspired by Gaya.

Although headhunting was outlawed by the Japanese in the late nineteenth century, the practice continued for decades, rendered easier by the introduction of guns. Simon depends on early Japanese sources for his descriptions, noting similarities to other Austronesian cultures. As in Borneo and some parts of the Solomon Islands, the taking of heads was a means of attaining masculine adulthood and increasing the strength or power of one’s group. Heads were trophies taken in vengeance, but once displayed they were incorporated as ancestors, welcomed into the village and offered food and drink. Women danced before them and sang songs to them.

In the chapter on “Heart,” Simon explores the moral and political domains of Indigenous life. As in many cultures, the heart is the metaphorical locus of interpersonal relationships and emotional states. Personal trust is a major factor in political allegiance. Prior to colonial governments’ insistence on appointing leaders for bureaucratic purposes, Truku and Sediq were egalitarian, with leadership status earned rather than inherited. Men became leaders because of their generosity, courage and capacity to influence people.

These “Big Man”–based forms of political organisation have been described for other Pacific Austronesian societies. Given the prevalence of local feuding and the taking of heads, it is unlikely that these societies are, or were ever, more democratic or peaceful than other political systems where conflicts often escalated into violence.

As evidence of the persistence of Gaya, Simon stresses the ethical and moral principles that people appeal to in contemporary life. In many respects, though, these virtues — generosity, goodness and loyalty­ — are consonant with those in most cultures. Given that Truku and Sediq people are now almost all practising Presbyterians or Roman Catholics, and have been for decades, they themselves appear to have recognised similarities between Gaya and Christianity. But they have abandoned almost all the rituals associated with their old religion: while they still kill pigs on special occasions, now the religious dimensions of the practice “vary greatly according to community, household, and even individual preferences,” says Simon, adding: “Some families invite the Presbyterian pastor to pray before the pigs are slaughtered.”

Simon doesn’t explore such a radical transformation of practices once linked to ancestor worship, instead glossing it as part of the “flow and ebb of religious practices.” Sometimes he dismisses an Indigenous explanation, presumably because it is in some way at odds with his own understanding. Analysing the meaning of headhunting, for instance, he reports that “people told [him] that their ancestors believed that the heads held energy,” but premises that observation by saying “Perhaps because they have read it in ethnographies.”

This is a complicated book. In many respects it is a conventional ethnography, documenting and describing the lifeworld of Indigenous Taiwanese mountain people. Simon has lived and studied the people of whom he writes for almost two decades and has a clear command of the languages they speak.

It is also an exercise in anthropological reflexivity, with Simon describing his relationships with Sediq and Truku individuals, his data collection methods, his experiences as part of their communities and the knowledge he has gained during more than a decade of fieldwork. As a Canadian, he compares and contrasts Indigenous knowledge and politics in Taiwan with those of his home country.

Simon is also concerned to “decolonise the way in which we do ethnography, putting local, Indigenous ontologies at the heart of the reflection and writing.” This entails embracing Sediq and Truku ways of experiencing and understanding the world by eschewing distinctions between nature and culture. It means accepting other, alien forms of knowledge as true — or at least as true as Western, scientific understanding of the material world. Ideas and concepts that appear “irrational,” or simply fanciful to a Western observer must be accepted as ontological truths: thus, ghosts, spirits and omens are manifestly real because Indigenous people experience them as such.

This analytical move — “the ontological turn” — has been a subject of debate within anthropology for decades. In many respects it is simply an extreme form of relativism; but it is also an attempt at intellectual restitution, refusing to relegate indigenous knowledge to “belief systems.” It also demands a rather different interpretation of the meaning of the word “ontology” from that used in philosophy, where it refers to the philosophical discourse about “being” and “existence.”

Within anthropology it has taken on the meanings Simon gives it when he refers to “a mode of living” or “the concepts that people use to understand their existence.” Although he distances himself from the term “culture,” he uses the term “ontology” in ways that make it synonymous with “culture” or “cosmology,” at least as these terms are commonly understood. His insistence on Gaya’s continuing grip on Indigenous ontology invokes a sort of ethnic essentialism at odds with the evidence of historical, social and cultural changes that challenge or repudiate the concepts or practices that inform it. As in the majority of societies where they have been subjected to colonial appropriation and mass settlement, the lives of Indigenous people have been transformed and so has the world they inhabit.

Truku and Sediq people, like other Indigenous people, are engaged in a politicised cultural resurgence that aims to reclaim their identity and culture. As Simon’s ethnography reveals, this resurgence is constrained and articulated in terms of an indigeneity defined by the state.

Swathes of land have become the Taroko National Park, where hunting is banned. People work in the local Asia Cement factory and as day labourers. They perform aspects of their cultural identity for a thriving tourist trade. Much of their social life revolves around their churches. They attend schools and learn Chinese. Some go to universities and even become anthropologists. The majority vote for the conservative Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party, rejecting the Democratic Progressive Party — which would appear to have policies more protective of Indigenous rights — on the grounds that the KMT manages the economy more effectively.

Given the abundant evidence of dramatic social change over centuries of successive colonisation, Simon’s insistence on continuity and the persistence of radical ontological difference is ultimately distracting and unconvincing. Certainly Sediq and Truku people emerge from this study as “truly human,” but not quite in the way its author proclaims. •

Truly Human: Indigeneity and Indigenous Resurgence on Formosa
By Scott E. Simon | University of Toronto Press | C$38.95 | 388 pages