The 33-year-old woman who left Taipei to become a shaman | Indigenous rights news

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Pingtung County, Taiwan – On a hot weekend in late August, two women slowly spread pork bones and shaved mulberry leaves on a living room table in preparation for a seasonal blessing for the occupants of the house.

The harvest festival has come to an end and the couple – originally from the Paiwan native – spent a busy weekend visiting homes near the last stop of the Western Taiwan Railway line.

Although now inhabited by a mixture of ethnicities, the mountains and plains of central Pingtung County were once controlled by the Paiwan, one of Taiwan’s 16 recognized indigenous groups.

Many managed to stay in the mountains until they were relocated by the government in the 1960s, but while their new villages now bear Chinese names, everyone knows how they correspond to their mountain hamlets in the 1960s. ‘origin and which neighbors come from formerly competing tribes or buluo.

It is here, in the far south of Taiwan, that the two women, Paping Tjamalja and Kereker Recevungan, serve communities as pulingaw, a position similar to that of a shaman or spiritual medium that allows them to communicate with the spirits of nature and their Paiwan ancestors, their vuvu.

While reciting spells and songs for individual blessings, the pulingaw are important figures in the traditional Paiwan hierarchy and are present at major events such as festivals, births, deaths, baptismal ceremonies. and weddings.

Kereker Recevungan, a 33-year-old Paiwan, decided to return home to become a shaman after a car accident [Supplied]

The handful of pulingaw who remain in this part of southern Taiwan are mostly old people, but Kereker is only 33 years old.

She took the unusual path of training as the region’s youngest pulingaw after spending more than a decade in Taipei. A teacher at the local school next door, she now spends most of her free time learning from other Pulingaw.

“I have to remember the lyrics of the songs, I have to remember the rituals and their meaning. Some words in the songs are very difficult and I have to ask my mom and dad, but even they don’t know the meaning (sometimes), so I have to ask my aunt “, who is another pulingaw, a Kereker said.

“I think it’s harder for me to know the meaning of the rituals because I’ve lived in the city for so many years that I don’t know the culture,” she admits.

Kereker’s career path took a major turn following a car accident in 2018, when she began seeing her aunt and participated in some traditional ceremonies to deal with her lingering health issues.

It was at this time that she said she received a visit from the zagu, the spirits of ancestors who appear in the form of small black balls around a potential pulingaw. When she lost her job a year later, she knew it was time to go home.

Abandoned assimilation

Passing on Paiwan culture and even being proud of it has not always been easy.

Assimilation into Chinese culture has been part of the authorities’ policy towards indigenous peoples from the Japanese colonial era until the period of martial law of the Republic of China.

Christianity, which arrived in Taiwan 400 years ago and infiltrated indigenous culture deeply, has at times presented traditional religion as close to devil worship.

During a gathering of three pulingaw a day earlier at Selep Curimudjuq, a local community leader in Tjuvecekadan village in Qijia, a pulingaw elder recalled that she was forced to carry a sign around her neck when she Paiwan spoke at school.

Kereker prepares for a blessing [Joshua Wang/Al Jazeera]

The nearby Laiyi Indigenous Museum has exhibits on hand tattoos, a custom banned by the Japanese government and later by the government of the Republic of China, which made cultural assimilation mandatory.

Since Taiwan’s democratic transition in the 1990s, however, the government has helped lead a national resurgence of native Taiwanese culture, from rewriting textbooks to funding museums and heritage sites.

Indigenous studies is now a major academic discipline and five years ago, following the election of President Tsai Ing-wen, the government established the Presidential Committee for Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice.

In contemporary Taiwan, however, much of the problem is demographic.

Many of the younger generations of Aboriginal people now live in cities where it is easier for them to lose touch with their cultural roots.

“If urban Aboriginal youth are really interested in cultural issues, their identity will be (based) around their village, but when they return to their village, it is difficult for them to get along with their childhood friends because ‘they haven’t really spoken to each other for many years. So when they come back, they will have their own group, ”said Dremedreman Curimudjuq, a doctoral student at National Cheng Kung University who is also on the way to becoming a hereditary chief like his mother, Selep Curimudjuq.

It’s time to connect

Kereker, the pulingaw-in-training, says she had a similar experience of alienation throughout her time in Taipei.

“The Paiwanese say that all things have a spirit, that is, everything has a soul. Then we have to maintain a very respectful heart and be kind to the mountains, the river and the land, ”she said.

“But I have lived in Taipei for too long, and in a high pressure environment unrelated to nature for a long time, it is easy for us to forget who we are.”

Like Kereker, many young indigenous people have left for the cities [Supplied]

Realizing that not all urban Paiwan may wish to live in rural areas, vacations like the harvest festival and family events have become important times to return home and reconnect.

Hunting is also one of the most popular ways for native Taiwanese men to maintain rituals, while some schools may offer native language classes to young students.

Meanwhile, the people of central Paiwan received international attention for their award-winning choir at Taiwu Primary School. Founded by actor and musician Paiwan Camake Valaule, who appeared in the Netflix streaming miniseries Seqalu: Formosa 1867 before his death in August, the group has recorded and performed songs in Paiwan overseas.

As the second largest indigenous group in Taiwan, the Paiwans are only part of the puzzle of cultural preservation.

Some indigenous ethnic groups are threatened with linguistic extinction and in others their numbers have fallen to a few hundred descendants.

The government of Taiwan has made serious efforts to intervene, as the Tsai administration is keen to distinguish its history and culture from China, but on the ground it varies from community to community and culture to culture. the other, said Daniel Davies, a doctoral student at National Sun Yat-sen University who studies Paiwan culture.

Paiwan community members wear traditional clothing for a wedding in Pintung [Joshua Wang/Al Jazeera]

“Localism is an important thing. How each community has succeeded in preserving parts of traditional culture somehow depends on the strength of the institutions within that community. In Qijia, you could say that the religious aspect of the ritual, the families and the pulingaw has been strong and for some it is part of the culture around which people can gather, ”he said.


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