How Taiwan is learning from Māori and the Treaty of Waitangi

taiwan maori treaty of waitangi
(Maiki Sherman / Newshub.)

Maiki Sherman is a political reporter for Newshub and was recently named Māori Journalist of The Year. She travelled to Taiwan to investigate the cultural revival taking place amongst the indigenous people with a major push in aboriginal tourism ventures.

She reports on the history, current challenges and future aspirations of the indigenous people, while discovering the many ties they share with New Zealand Māori.

taiwan taipei 101 getty
Taipei, Taiwan (Getty)

Away from the bright lights and the din of Taiwan's biggest cities, there's a struggle for recognition from the government for the indigenous people - now they're looking to Māori for a road map.

A brief history of Taiwan reveals the indigenous people have suffered greatly at the hands of colonisation. The country came under the rule of China and then Japan, before being reclaimed by the Chinese government in 1945.

taiwan indigenous maori

Through hundreds of years of colonisation the Taiwan indigenous people not only suffered physically and mentally, but their culture and traditional knowledge also faced extinction.

It is just one of the many shared similarities between Māori and their indigenous Taiwan relations.

The Treaty: A blueprint for cross-cultural relations

We hit the highway heading south and as Taipei fades into the rear view I realised the landscape was quickly changing.

Gone are the bright lights and sky-high buildings. We are now driving along the east coast, eerily similar to driving down the east coast of New Zealand's North Island.

To my left is the Pacific Ocean, waves crashing against the coastal rocks. To my right are the mountains, dark green with thick bush, though somewhat taller and more volcanic looking than in New Zealand.

taiwan maori treatyof waitangi maiki sherman
(Maiki Sherman / Newshub.)

Our interpreter, Sayun Tosu, works for the Taiwan government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples. Sayun mentions New Zealand's Treaty of Waitangi between indigenous Māori and the British Crown.

While the Taiwanese government is aware of the Treaty, and the redress process in New Zealand, a lack of such a declaration with their own aboriginal people means the process is more complex, she says.

"New Zealand Māori, you have Waitangi Treaty. So Māori people and the New Zealand Government you are in an equal position to communicate with each other. But in Taiwan we don't have that kind of position to talk to the government," she says. 

Currently the focus is on creating a single indigenous representative body to begin discussions with the government. However, the sheer size of Taiwan means it's a big task.

"They know that New Zealand has its own process, the settlement process, so they are eager to learn the process from New Zealand."

'We are losing our culture'

Driving along the east coast of Taiwan we pull up to a small cafe known as the Millet Workshop. It is recognised as the doorstep to the Lalaulan Village, home to the Paiwan people - one of the 16 Taiwan aboriginal tribes.

taiwan maori treaty of waitangi
(Maiki Sherman / Newshub.)

We're here to meet Sakinu Tepiq who has been integral in the work to revitalise the Paiwan culture. Sakinu has led a number of indigenous rights movements over the years and marched the streets in protest for the recognition of Taiwan's aboriginal people.

Sayun Tosu acts as a translator in my interview with Sakinu.  

"Some people will say he is a little bit anti-government but no because lots of people don't know our real history.

"He needs to convince and persuade people, including elder people and the young people, to persuade them that we are losing our culture and tradition and we need to get it back. So this is the most challenging for him."

The politics of indigenous culture

To understand the history of the Taiwan people it is important to know the makeup of their political system.

There are two main political parties in Taiwan. The KMT, known as the Nationalist Party of China, is one of them. The other is the DPP, known as the Democratic Progressive Party.

For many years, the KMT government held the balance of power. Sayun says the influence of the KMT government is one of the reasons those such as Sakinu have found it challenging to inspire major change among indigenous people.

"During the past 50 years the KMT government continuously educate their generation, including his parents, that we belong to China, we are part of mainland China, we are people of China. But the fact is that Taiwan indigenous peoples is not belong to any other country because we are the original inhabitants of this island, so we should have our rights in lots of respects.

"In the past time, his parents, they devote their loyalty to the government because at that time the KMT government will take care of the local people. They will create some service centre in the community to serve the people so that the older people think that the government is doing good for them."

It's instances such as those which led to confusion among some indigenous people when an official apology was made by the government last year.

In 2016, for the first time ever, the DPP won a majority vote at the general election. The newly elected President Tsai Ing-wen then took an historic step by apologising to the indigenous people of Taiwan for the suffering and injustice inflicted over the past 400 years.

Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen (Getty)
Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen (Getty)

Sakinu welcomed the move but says many indigenous people were left confused.

"Lots of the tribal people, he says maybe even 80 percent of the tribal people, they don't know why the president apologised to the indigenous people. Because they think that the past government they had something good for them, so they don't understand why the president apologised to the indigenous people."

Cultural challenges not different to Māori 

The challenge of revitalising cultural knowledge among indigenous Taiwanese is not only faced by the Paiwan people, but all aboriginal peoples across the country.

Further south in the village of Torik, we meet with a young man named Asan of the Amis people - the largest tribe in Taiwan.

Asan says one of the greatest challenges for all indigenous communities is people leaving their villages for urban areas where there is greater employment and opportunities. The result of this is the loss of traditional languages.

"With the loss of language obviously comes the loss of culture. In essence, if you cannot speak your own language you lose a lot because in your language, in our native tongue, there's a lot of knowledge that's locked into the language.

"A lot of our knowledge from before has been lost," he says.

This hits home as Māori have also faced this same challenge, particularly through urbanisation in the 1950s.

Much of the traditional knowledge disappeared during the occupation of Taiwan by the Japanese and Chinese.

"In your own home you cannot be above four people sitting together, they think you're conspiring and stuff. So there were a lot of things like that which made us lose a lot of our history."

Despite the loss of traditional knowledge, the Torik village has managed to keep one vital record of its history through a tier ranking system dating back at least 200 years.

Every four years an age group is clustered together in the village representing a new group. These groups date back to the 1830s.

"They're named after basically what in those four years happened. My group is Laciynsi. Basically my group is when the year 2000 came. That's when we became teens and we became that group.

"If you go back even further you have La dipong which is when the Japanese came. So these names are like a way of recording history," Asan says.

Bringing Taiwanese and Māori together

Efforts are now being made to bring Taiwan's indigenous people and Māori closer together through everything from business partnerships, tourism, publishing and government relationships.

In 2015, a strong lineup of Māori writers and publishers were guests of honour at the Taipei International Book Exhibition. In 2016 a group of Taiwan tribal tourism operators visited New Zealand to promote their ventures and were welcomed by former Māori Affairs Minister Sir Pita Sharples.

Cultural revitalisation through tourism is another shared interest between Māori and indigenous Taiwanese. There are now hundreds of Māori tourism operators around New Zealand.

My own first job was as a Māori cultural performer for tourists at the age of 14, it was part of a Māori tourism business starting from the ground up.

All the while we were learning traditional Māori song and dance from one of New Zealand's leading Māori haka experts, Wetini Mitai-Ngatai.

As the tourist numbers grew, so did the business, and we were making good money as young high school students.

In doing so, we learned about the histories and traditions of our Māori art forms and the job eventually took us on tour around the world.

So the experience of Taiwan's indigenous villages were embarking on the same journey was gratifying.    

This report was made possible through the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, the Taiwan Council of Indigenous Peoples, and Te Puni Kōkiri.