Aborigines across Taiwan are striving to preserve and pass on their cultural heritage, although perhaps with greater anonymity than award-winning singer Abao.
“Through this album, I hope you can understand the life of a minority,” Abao said as she accepted the Album of the Year award at this year’s Golden Melody Awards for her Paiwan-language album Kinakaian, or “Mother Tongue.”
Preserving the history and culture of his community through books, Salizan Takisvilainan said he hopes to foster a better understanding of his people as he lives by the adage of Bunun writer Topas Tamapima: “Use a pen instead of a hunting rifle, and tell your own story.”
Born in Hualien County, Salizan was the youngest of eight children and an avid reader. He began writing in junior-high school and majored in Chinese at university before getting a graduate degree in Indigenous Affairs and Development.
That sparked his interest in his own language and history, he said, leading him to return to his hometown six years ago to record the stories of people in the Bunun community.
His first book was an oral history of the Kasibanan Incident in 1915, when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule and a group of Bunun attacked some Japanese police officers for confiscating their rifles and torturing tribal leaders.
Salizan said that he spent months compiling and writing the book, and eventually published 500 copies, 100 of which he gave to others in the community, he said.
Since then, he has written a collection of poetry, written in Chinese and Bunun, and a collection of stories about Aborigines working as mountain guides.
Salizan admits to having doubts about the value of his work, but said that second-guessing has not been as much of a temptation since young people in his community began showing curiosity about his books.
He said that he reminds himself to take some time for himself and to reflect.
“I don’t want to burden myself with a huge amount of responsibility,” he said. “I just want to record the stories of my community.”
Yen Yu-ying (嚴玉英), who at the age of 62 took up weaving banana fibers into traditional handicrafts, said that as an 82-year-old, she is living proof that it is never too late to become an artisan.
A member of the Kavalan community in Hualien, Yen said that she remembers when she was young her mother weaving bags out of banana tree fibers.
The bags were durable, but their surfaces felt prickly, Yen said, adding that her mother told her: “Banana fiber weaving is exhausting and no one wants to use the products, so don’t learn it.”
Only after seeing a photograph decades later of a piece of clothing made from banana fiber did Yen finally decide to learn the skill, which is unique to the Kavalan community in Taiwan.
“Every stage of the process is difficult,” Yen said.
Making the fiber is exhausting and time consuming, and the weaving itself is a test of skill, because the fiber breaks easily, she added.
Yen is the only certified expert of banana fiber weaving who still practices the craft — the other experts have passed away or fallen ill.
However, the traditional Kavalan craft is not in immediate danger, as 11 new weavers in Yen’s community are working toward becoming certified.
Yen also aims to transmit her skills to an even younger generation by teaching classes at elementary schools in Hualien and in Yilan County.
“As long as someone is willing to learn, even if there is only one person, I will teach them,” she said.
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