Taiwan tribe fetes war god in fight for identity

ALISHAN, Taiwan (Reuters Life!) - For centuries, Taiwan’s Tsou tribe celebrated the Mayasvi war festival to honor its gods and warriors. Now, the ritual is part of another battle: the tribe’s struggle to protect its cultural identity.

People dance around elders from the Tsou aboriginal tribe after the "Mayasvi" war ceremony in the village of Tefuye in Alishan March 1, 2008. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

Like other indigenous tribes around the world, the Tsou have defended their language and traditions against government oppression, only to see them eroded by economic change. But the Mayasvi festival still brings together the male members of the patriarchal tribe for two days of singing, rites of passage, and the blessing of newborn boys.

“I have been studying away from the tribe since elementary school, and rarely had the chance to come back,” said Wang Mali, a Tsou youth.

“It wasn’t until I grew up a bit to realize my culture is draining away so fast. Especially when we practice singing, I felt a strong impact. This is very important for young people because once we forget, then we won’t have anything left.”

There are still about 8,000 Tsou. The Austronesian tribe, which lives in the mountain range of around 1,000 meters on Alishan or Mount Ali, is one of Taiwan’s smaller indigenous groups -- in total, there are about half a million aboriginals in Taiwan, or about 2 percent of the population.

Last weekend, Tsou men gathered to worship their war gods, as they had done for centuries. Mayasvi was traditionally celebrated after tribesmen returned from hunting, or before the start of any major project.


“A few hundred years ago when there was war, we often go into battles. And when we returned in victory, we would renovate the ‘kuba’ meeting hut, or when we have other major achievements, we would host this Mayasvi,” said Voyu-E-Peongsi, the chief of the Tfuya settlement.

While head-hunting has been long banned by the Taiwanese government and hunting animals has lost its importance in modern society, tribes host the festivals to educate their youths.

The tribesmen first welcome the gods by bringing torches to the center of the village square. They then sacrifice a boar in front of a spirit tree. Tree branches are trimmed to allow the gods to descend from heaven as tribesmen sing a welcome hymn.

Different families offer pork, rice cakes, and millet wine to symbolize tribal unity.

The ritual finishes with the gods returning to heaven, accompanied by more songs. After that, the women join in.

Only male adults are allowed to be a part of the Mayasvi. It is considered taboo for women to enter or even touch the meeting hut where men make tribal decisions and teach the younger ones how to hunt.

Newborn boys are brought into the hut for the first time during the festival. Older boys must undergo a rite of passage that involves being whipped by tribe elders to remind them of the responsibilities of adulthood.

“We hope the ceremonies may help to bring children back to our culture,” said Kao Deshang, another Tsou aboriginal.

As the tourist industry develops in the mountains, many Tsou gave up traditional farming and hunting to make a living by managing hotels and restaurants. Others leave for the cities.

In the 1960s, former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered an assimilation of aboriginals, destroying homes in some areas and requiring them to speak Mandarin instead of native languages.

In a shift from that assimilation policy, Taiwan’s government has raised its budget for helping the 13 recognized aboriginal groups to maintain their culture, an official said.

Indigenous activists are also trying to get Taiwan’s tribes to work together so they can lobby for their rights as a single tribe.

Writing by Sophie Hardach