NTU student looks at faith in Taroko tribe

By Trista di Genova
Abridged version in The China Post 3/15/09

Many in Taiwan know Angel Cvetkov for his resonant Eddie Vedder-like voice as the lead vocalist of an amazing World Music band, Aashti. Known for its musical influences that span the Silk Road — from Turkish and Arabic to Eastern European — Angel’s music has touched thousands at schools and universities around Taiwan; last night they even performed at the Taiwan History Museum. Hoping Peacefest organizer and musician Scott Cook said the band’s performance in 2006 was “his favorite act.”

Steeped in ancient Balkan folk tales, Angel is also a third-year cultural anthropology undergraduate at NTU (National Taiwan University). He said in an exclusive interview with The China Post on Friday night that his early interest in Balkan folk tales led him to delve into his current research in “local cultures” in Taiwan.

In fact, in early February Angel went to southern Taiwan for 10 days of fieldwork with 20 or so NTU classmates and Professor Wang Mei-shia. “After two years, you have to decide what you want to emphasize more in your studies — archaeology or cultural anthropology,” he said. “I’m interested in ethnic issues; whatever manifests as an authentic expression of a certain group of people is always original and interesting.”

For this research, “We were researching the Catholic church and how Catholic beliefs blend in with the local traditional beliefs,” he said. His classmates were researching other topics such as intermarriage between Aboriginals and Han people, weaving, and the building of convenience stores in aboriginal villages.

“So we went to Shincheng, just one train stop before Hualien. If you go to Taroko Gorge, the last village there is Fushi Village. In the middle of the village is the big highway that goes up to Taroko, and left and right is the village.”

“Taroko people live there, the Taluga ju,” he recounts. “Before they were put together with the Amei tribe, but then they were named a separate tribe a few years ago [they became Taiwan’s 12th official tribe]. The village is called Fushi chun — Fushi Village — and it’s separated into three parts: kele, or the lower village; chong fushi is middle Fushi Village; and the upper part, shan fushi.

The Taroko people have three religious communities there,” he continued. “In the upper part is mostly Presbyterian and some Catholics. The middle area is mostly Catholic and Presbyterian. In the lower part, they have a denomination, Real Christ (jun jesu); it’s a little bit like a charismatic movement. I’ve never encountered such a Christian denomination,” he observed. “It’s a little bit like a charismatic movement. They pray by producing sounds and shaking their body in a certain fashion. Sometimes it’s like vowels — ai, oh. It’s a Christian movement that started in China and spread between Han people and became part of Taroko people and the lower village.”

There were four churches, Christian and Catholic churches, Angel said. They were very simply decorated with some Catholic motifs such as a cross.

“We observed the Catholic mass and also the Real Christ event. Usually they congregate every day in the afternoon, 5-6 p.m.”

What about a more tribal religion? “They have this respect towards nature, and it’s still there. Usually the pre-Christian religion was related to the ancestor worship, and there was also this tradition of headhunting, which is typical of Southeast Asia — not all but many Southeast Asian societies.”

“So obviously, the headhunting was forbidden after a while,” he continued, “and Christianity came to be a way to soothe the after-life anxiety connected to the headhunting ceremony, a deeply symbolic tradition which had an implication on their after-life and other beliefs. Christianity came to replace that; although first to come were Presbyterian beliefs — those actually came by an aboriginal woman who had been converted.”

Contrary to stereotypes, there is frequent contact with outside world — they have souvenir shops, for example, and many people there work in concrete production. Then a lot of people work their own land, do farming up in the hills — mainly table vegetables, cabbage and so on.”

Everybody had their own topic and a partner, Angel said. “We would go around the area, try to interview people and see how they really experience their faith and traditional beliefs. It wasn’t hard, it was okay. We would explain that we’re Taida [NTU] students and we’ve come here to study the Catholic faith and to talk with their local Catholics.”

“We stayed at two different places, first in the lower village and then we moved to the house with the (aboriginal) pastor. It was all in Chinese, but of course they speak a local language. Some of the kids speak it speak the local language, some don’t; they study their language in school.”

With his program, he was the only Caucasian. “Most of my fellow students are Taiwanese. There are a few foreigners, a Chinese from Malaysia. There are also one or two aboriginal students.”

Of his experience, he says, “Every tribe is different from one another and have a different mentality, so if you stay with one tribe, their mentality from the others. Although now, they’re mostly all modernized. In this aboriginal village, they play basketball, video games and sing KTV!”

How much did it seem like they were retaining their traditions? “They dance and have events, and their traditions are still a strong part of their life, in their mindset and how they perceive the world. It doesn’t have to be in the form of aboriginal clothing, although they do make traditional clothing. They learn their language in school and have other ways to preserve their culture. But aside from that, it is who they are, it’s part of their mindset and lifestyle.”

“For example,” he continued, “when bad things happen to them, they think it is Gaya. Gaya is the Taroko word for retribution. They think ancestors angry and are punishing them. If Gaya happens, they go either to pray or they see the shaman lady who uses bamboo sticks to determine if there is actually a spirit — Utux — who is bothering them. She finds out by rolling the bamboo sticks and if they get stuck, it is a positive answer. It’s a yes-no question. Even though she’s Catholic, for the shaman these traditions are still part of their mindset. There’s a quite specific set of situations where the utux might get angry. People visit the shaman, and if it’s something serious, they kill a pig.”

“We participated in a pig-slaughtering ceremony, very interesting. Basically [the shaman] said there were two spirits that liked to eat pork. In the pig ceremony, they offer rice wine to the spirits, and cigarettes. ”

“It was quite fascinating to see how local, traditional beliefs merge with Christianity, how they become part of it,” he concluded. “It’s nothing unusual, it’s everywhere in the world, there are many places like that.

“Women shaman are common in Amei, Taroko cultures,” he added. “In some places that tradition is slowly dissipating, but not necessarily. The shaman women we met were teaching with others the skill of communicating with spirits.”

As for similarities between Taiwan’s and say, Balkan cultures, he found that “Some things are similar, like when they actually kill the pig they invite cousins and offer ancestors something to eat. Those ceremonies are typical in other places and there’s maybe something universal to that — it strengthens the family unit and the community.” That process “reinforces their identity and traditional ways of behavior. So that’s quite strong.”

“You cannot say they are the same people, because even among the Taroko there are three different distinctions, but they don’t really go that deep. There are the Dadau, Tukkudaya, and Taroko. There is a more dynamic definition of their identity. Belonging is seen through family, doing things together, eating, working together, it all is building commonality between them. I think the young people don’t really pay much attention to these differences.”

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