The idea that indigenous tribes of Taiwan might benefit from the creation of youth councils led to an amazing overseas exchange between six Native American youth leaders and two chaperones during a 10-day journey in East Asia. The six Native youth leaders, representing tribes across the U.S., are part of UNITY—United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc.
UNITY has a network of 140 youth councils in 35 states. The UNITY delegation, sponsored by Taiwan’s Vox Nativa, visited the aboriginal homelands of seven of the 14 indigenous tribes including the Thao, Bunun, Rukai and Paiwan tribes in the lush and mountainous interior of Taiwan.
Flying 6,500 miles to Taiwan requires a 14-hour plane ride from San Francisco. The 14,000 square mile island sits more than 100 miles off the southeast coast of mainland China with sub-tropical and tropical weather.
Taiwan’s history is intriguing. Between 1626 and today, the indigenous tribes experienced colonization with the Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and Chinese. The tribes face challenges similar to those of U.S. tribes with culture, language and ancestral land preservation. Tribal leaders are battling social ills such as rampant poverty, alcoholism, and high school drop out rates while striving to build their local economies. Indigenous villages, some rich with slate rock and nearby marble canyons, rely heavily on tourism by performing tribal dances and selling tribal arts and crafts.
Aside from touring tribal villages by bus and trying indigenous foods like wild boar meat, squid, duck, turnip cakes and rice cooked in bamboo, UNITY youth shared their tribal songs, friendship dances and their involvement in the National UNITY Council.
Two special exchanges happened during the pre-show of the annual Jade Mountain Starry Night Concert, featuring Vox Nativa’s youth choir, which was attended by Chow Mei- ching, the First Lady of Taiwan, and with indigenous college students at National Dong Hwa University. After Tyler Owens, 19, shared an Akimel O’odham friendship dance at the college, the Taiwan students spontaneously engaged UNITY youth in one of their friendship dances.
“To see different ways that indigenous tribes in Taiwan are similar to the indigenous tribes in America was captivating. I enjoyed our time with the students at the National Dong Hwa University where we shared our songs and dances from home,” said Owens. The UNITY delegation toured the country with a group of 15 Chinese American tourists, including two indigenous college students, who served as translators.
While visiting the Yanping village, a pastor and tribal leader of the Bunun Tribe, the Rev. Pai Kwang Sheng, through a translator, explained how his small village moved from extreme poverty to thriving conditions through the establishment of a foundation to build a tourist village that includes a cultural theater, restaurant, coffee shop, convenience store and weaving shop. Interestingly, the U.S. based company 7-Eleven, which can be found everywhere in Taiwan, assisted by encouraging what amounted to millions of dollars in donations to the foundation. Bunun, which means “people,” with 40,000 to 50,000 members, is the fourth largest tribe in Taiwan. They are known historically for being headhunters.
“Getting to know about what they’ve been though and the struggles they are going through today with trying to keep their languages alive brought me back to some of the struggles with keeping our language alive on my reservation,” said Carrie Hood, 20, Yavapai.
According to the Taiwan Indigenous Culture Park website, there are two theories to explain the origin of the Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan. One advocates the indigenous people migrated from the southeast coast of China. The other recognizes that Taiwan is the ancient origin of the Austronesian peoples, which includes the ethnic groups of Malaysia, Philippines, and Polynesia. Some tribes like the Bunun, are patrilineal, while others like Amis, are matrilineal. Unlike most non-indigenous Taiwanese who practice Buddhism, more than 90 percent of the indigenous Taiwanese are Christian. The dominant languages are three Chinese dialects, however, many indigenous adults and elders still speak their languages.
The UNITY organization began a relationship with the Vox Nativa Children’s Choir in 2013. The choir made up of Bunun tribal youth performed at the National UNITY Conference in Los Angeles, California. It was the group’s first U.S. tour and first contact with Native Americans, specifically Native American youth. Vox Nativa then extended an invitation for UNITY youth to travel to Taiwan in mid-March for a cultural exchange and to discuss the concept of a youth council network.
Vox Nativa is a nonprofit organization dedicated “to achieve social reform within the poverty stricken aboriginal populations and communities through cultivation of gifted aboriginal children” and “to preserve and promote aboriginal culture, pride, and identity through a children’s choir group.” Vox Nativa runs a weekend magnet and music school in the XinYi Township, known for its plum farms. The village’s annual Starry Night Concert attracts 3,000 people.
Before leaving Taiwan, UNITY youth leaders met with Kao Yang-sheng, Deputy Minister of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan, to explain how UNITY’s youth council network operates. Owens explained the annual elections of the National UNITY Council and how officers are selected from 10 U.S. regions with two co-presidents leading the Executive Committee.
“You are excellent Indian youth representatives chosen by states, so I see you as the hope of your people. Your visit of UNITY and comments will help us improve ourselves here,” said Yang-sheng. On its website, the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan claims to “follow the concepts of upholding national interest with priority given to promoting quality of life among indigenous peoples when formulating policy directions and strategies, to enhance the living standards of the pride among Indigenous tribes and to restore their confidence and status.”
Five of the six UNITY youth leaders who traveled to Taiwan serve as regional representatives of the National UNITY Council. They include Alex Toledo, 19, Jemez Pueblo (Southwest Region Representative), Tyler Owens, 19, Akimel O’odham/Gila River Indian Community (Western Region Representative), Santana “Sonny” Johnson, 19, Kickapoo (Southern Plains Representative), Aaron Leaureaux, 20, Saginaw Chippewa (Midwest Region Representative), and Simon Montelongo, 16, Eastern Cherokee (Southeast Region Representative). Carrie Hood, 20, Yavapai, and the current Miss Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation, also traveled with the group. Mary Kim Titla, San Carlos Apache and UNITY Executive Director as well as Christine Porter, Mohawk, and Ft. McDowell Youth Council advisor, served as chaperones.
“I will never forget the amazing indigenous people of Taiwan! I wish them all the best at restoring their culture and language. We are thousands of miles apart yet we are very much the same,” said Porter.
“I learned many things while in Taiwan, and I’m looking forward to going back and visiting again someday. I’m thankful for this experience, I will cherish the memories forever,” said Leaureaux, 20, Saginaw Chippewa.
UNITY and Vox Nativa are planning future exchanges.