Maori-Taiwan exchange group forges ties

The Wild East / Culture

NEW FRIENDS: Despite the language barrier Eru Paranihi forges a friendship with an indigenous Taiwanese elder
Six Maori media studies undergraduates from Aukland University of Technology (AUT) made a tour of Taiwan in January this year, where they learned about its indigenous people. Creative media projects between New Zealand and Taiwan could be on the cards after the two-week cultural exchange.

The trip was organized by the ATAYAL Organization, a not-for-profit aiming to unite worldwide indigenous communities.

The group had comprised Maori film students, university faculty from Auckland, New Zealand as well as Maori elders.

During the two weeks, they visited Aboriginal villages, museums and archaeological sites in New Taipei City, Greater Taichung, Hualien County and Taitung County. They also met Aboriginal and film students from Chaoyang University of Technology, National Dong Hwa University and Jin Shan High School.


The exchange came about after the students met film-maker Tony Coolidge, who is also the director of the Tap Root Cultural Exchange Program, at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival in 2012.

Coolidge is American-Taiwanese, and after his mother’s death he discovered she was actually Atayal tribe, from Wulai, northern Taiwan. He moved to Taiwan, reuniting with his mother’s side of the family and began exploring his heritage through writing and film.

He was so impressed with the AUT students he invited them to Taiwan. During the 15-day visit the students met with indigenous elders and visited the country’s national indigenous university.


The trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for participants such as Eru Paranihi from New Windsor, opening his mind to possibilities of future travel or even creative collaborations.

Paranihi, 26, says he was blown away by the experience. “Overall it was a cultural exchange, two different cultures mingling and meeting each other. It was the indigenous people of this county, the Maori, meeting up with indigenous Taiwanese to share our cultures.”

While there, he learned of the potential for joint media projects.

“One of the coolest things for a media student was for future cooperative projects,” he says. “There is a trade agreement between New Zealand and Taiwan and that includes media organisations, so if it’s a planned co-operation between indigenous Taiwanese and Maori then not only can they apply for funding from their sources but they can apply for funding from here, and likewise we can apply over there — provided it’s a co-operative.”

A film charting the journey of an indigenous Taiwanese person coming to New Zealand is one idea he has for a co-production.

Another highlight was meeting an elderly woman with whom he was able to forge a connection despite not sharing a language. The 97-year-old spoke only her indigenous language and a smattering of Japanese so conversation had to be relayed through her Chinese-speaking son and a translator.

“From the whole trip this was the person who will stay with me forever.
The person I will remember the most is her. She just had a beautiful soul. It was a privilege to meet her.”

The pair bonded by sharing some sweets and were able to communicate on their own through body language.

“I was just my cheeky self with her and she was laughing,” Paranihi says.

From a media perspective he says there are things both countries can learn from each other. “With their indigenous media it’s just recently got up and running, where we have TVNZ that plays some Maori programs and Maori Television.

“They are just finding their feet. But they have more programming catered towards their elders which is something we could do, but in saying that they could probably cater more to their youth because that’s who you want to target to revitalize your language. They are the next generation who are going to use the language.”

“I think their biggest challenge is it’s a lot harder for them to have their voices heard than for Maori to be heard. But they are getting there.”


Michael Wikiriwhi-Heta closed his eyes as Atayal elder Sigi Uming blessed his pendant, wishing the students from New Zealand a safe trip and a fruitful future. During a visit to the Atayal Facial Tattoo Studio in Hualien, the Maori delegation met with Uming, currently one of the few remaining indigenous elders with facial tattoos.

At the age of 92, Uming’s Atayal tattoos were the result of centuries of traditional practice before the art was forbidden during the Japanese occupation, and later by the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Armies that fled to Taiwan in 1949). Uming’s life and spirit deeply inspired the delegation.

Following their trip to Wulai, the delegation traveled to the East and
South of Taiwan, visiting various universities along the way, as well as indigenous museums including Peinan Culture Park (卑南文化公園) and the National Museum of Prehistory (國立台灣史前 文化博物館) in Taitung.

During their visits to the park and the museum, the delegation noted
some more Austronesian similarities in the ancient tools used by the
prehistoric ancestors of both Taiwan and New Zealand.

The group was even honored with the Rukai rendition of the Haka dance — an ancestral war dance of the Maori people — during their visit to Taromak village. To repay their sincerity, the delegation embraced their hosts in Hongi, an honorable gesture much like a handshake with two people touching foreheads, as well as returning a Haka gesture with just as much prowess and respect to their hosts.

“When the Maori group visited the Rukai tribe in Taromak Village, the way they were greeted and treated made them feel very much at home,” said ATAYAL Organization Executive Director Tony Coolidge.” There was a lot of tribal spirit shared through their hospitality, song and dance.”


Tobie Openshaw, one of filmmakers documenting the trip also found the interactions between the Maori and other tribes to be enchanting. “At the “At the Dream Community, we had a mini-dance festival with Taiwanese indigenous groups, and others doing Hawaiian, Fijian and other cultural dances,” said Openshaw. “After the performances, all the dancers were on stage and it was as if they were just one big happy family, united in dance.”

Creating potential film collaborations between Maori and the local indigenous film industry was one of the main objectives of
the delegation’s visit, and as such workshops featuring guest speakers
and film festivals were scheduled with universities such as Dong Hwa and Chaoyang University of Technology (朝陽科技大學). However, certain plans for film screenings from AUT students such as rising star Reece Howard were not carried out, due to time and budget constraints.

For students like Mahia Ponga-Fou, the trip sparked the idea of a possible documentary about the fight for cultural recognition. “I have been told by students and people I met in Taiwan wan that they never really fought for their culture,” said Ponga-Fou, “I hope that it will change some time through the future. In New Zealand,
Maori ancestors and chiefs went through a lot to keep our culture
alive, but yet at this day we are still fighting to be recognized and revitalizing the culture and language.”

For others like Kahurangi Peke-King-Minnear, the trip, though lacking in translation at times, was nevertheless enjoyable. “In my opinion, having a sponsor would have helped a bit,” said Peke-King-Minnear, “and I guess having time to really appreciate what we experienced would have been awesome.”


The Maori group gave a performance at every stop throughout the trip, though not completely voluntarily, said Makarita (Maaki) Howard, who lectures about Maori traditions at her university.

“In New Zealand, we don’t expect our guests to entertain; whereas we have been required to entertain,” she said. She added that being required to perform had hurt the students’ feelings.

For her, the best part was their first stop at Greater Taichung’s Chao Yang University of Technology, where film students of both schools engaged with each other in workshops, forums and film screenings.


Even with a few misunderstandings, Howard and Ansell still considered the journey “an amazing experience,” citing the meet with the Taromak Rukai people as one of the most memorable parts.

One evening the Maoris and Rukai people talked to one another about their cultures by a campfire. “We called it jamming; it was great fun,” Howard said.

He added that he felt familiar with the way Rukai people socialize.

The Rukai hosts learned the Haka dance — an ancestral war dance of the Maori people — from the Internet and performed it for their guests.

“They did it really well, and we did the same in return,” Howard said.

Now, after bidding E noho ra, Maori for Goodbye, to Taiwan,
some of the students avidly talked about the possibility of returning to


After the Maori visitors returned to New Zealand, ATAYAL’s Tony Coolidge said he regretted the fundraising didn’t come through as expected and the group’s film project hadn’t panned out as planned.

“The film [Beyond Hawaiki] is not in development yet; it’s been put aside,” Coolidge told the Taipei Times.

He explained that all financial support they had gained over the past year and a half went into the two-week pilot run of the Tap Root Cultural Exchange Program, which promotes mutual understanding between the Maoris and Aboriginal peoples in Taiwan.


Says Coolidge in an interview with the Wild East, “We are currently putting together board members and raising funds to create a new organization in Taiwan to continue the mission that the Tap Root Cultural Exchange Program laid the groundwork for. The proposed name for the organization is the Austronesian Cultural end Economic Cooperation Association (南島民族文化與經濟合作協會). The mission of the organization is evident through the name, with seeds already planted through our activities for expanded cooperation between Taiwan, New Zealand and other Austronesian (Pacific) nations.”

Coolidge continued: “The new organization will make it much easier for Taiwan to enjoy the benefits of international activities and grow the interest overseas in cultural tourism and trade with Taiwan. Pride in Taiwan’s first cultures, the Austronesian cultures, should be a benefit for all Taiwanese citizens, as it can sit at the table of international communities through its unique cultural connections with them.”

“Support us with a donation,” he urges, “so we can pay for our registration and hire full-time staff to organize our volunteers and complete new projects. We learned from our first Tap Root Cultural Exchange Program that most problems can be resolved with adequate support and funding. This organization is in a unique position to build more bridges between the indigenous communities of Taiwan, foreigners in Taiwan, and international organizations.”

Visit and donate at the ATAYAL web site:

Taipei Times
The China Post

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