Chia-Yuan Huang, Daniel Davies and Dafydd Fell (eds.), Taiwan’s Contemporary Indigenous Peoples

In: International Journal of Taiwan Studies
Paul D. BarclayProfessor of History, Lafayette College, Easton, PA, USA,

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Chia-Yuan Huang, Daniel Davies and Dafydd Fell (eds.), Taiwan’s Contemporary Indigenous Peoples. Routledge Research on Taiwan. London & New York: Routledge, 2021. isbn: 9780367553579 (hbk). xviii + 298pp. 19 illus. US$ 160.00.

Recently, I was asked to write an epilogue to Outcasts of Empire: Japan’s Rule on Taiwan’s “Savage Border,” 1874–1945 (University of California Press, 2018) to bring the story of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples (Taiwan Yuanzhuminzu) ‘up to date’. For readers of the timely volume under review, such a request will seem outlandish. As the authors of Taiwan’s Contemporary Indigenous Peoples (hereafter tcip) demonstrate, the history of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples cannot be ‘brought up to date’ because it is still in the making. At the time of its publication in 2021, a plethora of contests related to land rights, livelihoods, the nature of community life, the definition of citizenship, and indigenous political identities remained vibrant and unresolved, no less compelling than struggles for recognition that grabbed headlines during the heady years of martial law’s dissolution in the 1980s. No short historical summary could possibly do justice to the regionally, politically, and socio-economically diverse experiences and aspirations of indigenous peoples in postcolonial Taiwan. Therefore, tcip, which focuses most of its attention on twenty-first-century developments, is a most welcome arrival.

As with most edited volumes, its chapters can be read as freestanding essays. The virtue of tcip’s loose structure is that it allows the authors to illuminate the aspects of indigenous life appropriate to their respective areas of expertise. For a reviewer, the drawback is that the lack of a unified approach makes it difficult to situate the book in relation to others. Nonetheless, this volume has an institutional backdrop of sorts, as a project receiving extensive support from the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, an organisation that co-published two works that can be viewed as its predecessors.

In 2000 Austronesian Taiwan: Linguistics, History, Ethnology, Prehistory appeared under David Blundell’s editorship and the Shung Ye Museum’s imprint. It is centred on ethnological concerns about indigenous ritual life, linguistic taxonomies, and holistic appraisals of culture, enriched by a few historical episodes from the seventeenth century (Blundell, 2000). It thus forms a contrast to tcip, which is rich in statistically informed studies of policy, demography, law, economy, and electoral politics in ‘Austronesian Taiwan’ but which pays little attention to the classical themes of comparative ethnography. With its spotlight on scholars who studied Taiwan Indigenous Peoples as outsiders during the Japanese and Kuomintang periods of rule, and the absence of contributors who identify as indigenous Taiwanese, the predecessor volume Austronesian Taiwan exemplifies the state of the field in the 1990s, criticised by Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith as one where

the worlds of indigenous peoples and research intersected only to the extent that indigenous communities were most often the objects or subjects of study by non-indigenous researchers. They were not considered agents themselves, as capable of or interested in research, or as having expert knowledge about themselves and their conditions.

smith, 2012: x

In fairness to the Shung Ye Museum, and to Professor Blundell, their continued collaboration produced Taiwan Since Martial Law: Society, Culture, Politics and Economy (2012), a volume which appropriately removes Taiwan Indigenous Peoples from the museum-house of comparative linguistics, studies in colonial knowledge production, and holistic treatments of culture, to refocus the conversation around the keywords ‘rights’, ‘recognition’, and ‘struggle’ in the four chapters it dedicates to indigenous issues. In fact, Taiwan Since Martial Law is a worthy companion volume to the book under review and is highly recommended. At the same time, tcip goes further by featuring three chapters by self-identified indigenous scholars with practical experience in policy and activism around indigenous affairs. In addition, tcip widens the trail blazed by the indigenous-themed chapters in the 2012 Taiwan Since Martial Law by adding emic perspectives from linguistics and from museum, literary, film, education, and legal studies.

This collection should convince Taiwan-based policymakers, educators, and journalists to consider the ethical and empirical imperatives of treating Taiwan Indigenous Peoples as integral participants in Taiwan’s politics, economy, and cultural landscape. It will also garner considerable interest among scholars who are working on Taiwan. But can it pull in readers who are not already committed to the study of Taiwan, but who have an interest in Indigenous Studies?

One prominent group of scholars has devoted attention to the historical plight of indigenous peoples with reference to globally diffuse structures of oppression such as capitalism, Eurocentrism, Orientalism, unitary sovereignty, and racism. This tradition challenged an academic status quo that marginalised or ignored indigenous peoples in its explanatory frameworks for the creation and operations of the modern world (Clifford, 2013; Niezen, 2003; Thomas, 1994; Wolf, 1982). Despite noble intentions, however, much of this critical scholarship falls comfortably into the genealogy characterised by Linda Tuhiwai Smith as research done by outsiders, for outsiders. While these seminal works pose searching questions and have launched many vessels, their major protagonists are non-indigenous persons, representations of indigenous peoples, and the authors themselves.

Calls for an indigenous-centred methodology question the possibility of adopting a neutral, objective, scholarly position vis-à-vis indigenous peoples. In this programme, the tribal and ethnic affiliations of scholars provide access to worldviews and emic perspectives that are unavailable to outsiders. Jodi Byrd’s prescription for an ‘indigenous critical theory arising from the work of native scholars grounded in the knowledges of their communities’ is indicative. For Byrd, the only way to ‘negotiate the Western colonial biases that render indigenous peoples as precolonial ethnographic purveyors of cultural authenticity instead of scholars capable of research and insight’ is to use indigenous categories and mythological structures as explanatory frameworks for global conditions, rather than reducing them to mere objects of study (Byrd, 2012: xv–xxxv). Byrd’s provocation is the logical extension of social anthropology’s foundational goal of understanding cultures on their own terms. If one concedes that Western social science is a value-laden product of a particular historical trajectory, then it is an act of bad faith to assert its universal authority. But the wrinkle here is that indigenous epistemologies are specific and multiple. The adoption of decentred methodologies that are forthrightly (instead of implicitly) particularistic raises the spectre of ever smaller and numerous subdisciplines all talking past each other.

The editors and contributors to this volume side-step the vexing and seeming intractable conundrums facing the field of Indigenous Studies, and make no claims to intervene in such debates. The individual chapters jump directly into the stream of Taiwan history and initiate proceedings without theoretical posturing. For readers already concerned about conditions in Taiwan, the volume’s astringent focus on empiricism and description may come as a relief. Indeed, its forthrightness allows tcip to pack an incredible amount of information about a neglected topic between two book covers. This accomplishment should not be minimised. Rather than arguing for a multiplicity of situated methodologies, or calling for critical engagement with social science as an imperialist undertaking, this volume makes a different sort of statement, which is radical in its own right. Namely, its authors and editors assume that Taiwan Indigenous Peoples command attention as vital participants in the contemporary world, without qualification. For this reason, tcip deserves a place on the shelves of all teachers, students, and scholars of Indigenous Studies, in Taiwan and beyond.


  • Blundell, David (ed.) (2000) Austronesian Taiwan: Linguistics, History, Ethnology, Prehistory, Taipei: Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines; Berkeley, CA: Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.

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  • Blundell, David (ed.) (2012) Taiwan Since Martial Law: Society. Culture. Politics. Economy. Taipei: Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines; Berkeley: University of California.

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  • Byrd, Jodi A. (2011) The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Clifford, James (2013) Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Niezen, Ronald (2003) The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed., London: Zed Books.

  • Thomas, Nicholas (1994) Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel, and Government, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Wolf, Eric R. (1982) Europe and the People without History, Berkeley: University of California Press.

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