Introduction to the Ethnic Group

Formally dressed Yami women

Viewing the sight of Orchid Island from far away

The Tao ethnic group on Orchid Island belongs to the Austronesian group, which is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language family. Their ancestors moved to Orchid Island from the Batanes Islands in the northern part of the Philippines about 800 years ago (de Beauclair 1959). Though they speak a Malayo-Polynesian language along with other indigenous peoples in Taiwan, their culture shows different traits. The Tao ethnic group is the only one which does not possess brewing skills and the customs of head-hunting, tattooing, and using bows and arrows are also absent. They make their living by fishing and growing tuber crops such as wetland taro and sweet potatoes, and their diet sets them apart from other groups. Moreover, their architectural style, their Flying Fish Ceremony, Boat Launching Ceremony, House Completion Ceremony, and their attitude toward death and spirits are also unique. The current Tao population is about 5,000, and it is the only maritime ethnic group among Taiwan’s Austronesian groups.

Tao (or Yami) are the aboriginal residents of Orchid Island. The name “Yami” first appeared in a report written by a Japanese scholar, Torii Ryuzo, after he paid his first visit to Orchid Island in the twenty third year of Emperor Guangxu’s reign (1897) during the Qing dynasty. Ever since then, “Yami” became the tribal name for aboriginals on the island and was used extensively in official documents and academic periodicals. However, the indigenous people on the island call themselves Tao or Tao no pongso, meaning “human” or “people on the island.” This is how they identify themselves. In addition, their name for the island, Pongso no tao, means “an island of people.” In Tao people’s traditional view of the cosmos, Orchid Island is not the center of the world, while the sea surrounding it is. This is distinct from the “China-centered concept” held by the P.R.C.

Due to its geographical location, Orchid Island acts as a transit point for the migration of Southeast Pacific islanders, animals and plants, containing a rich Tao culture and various rare animal and plant species. This characteristic is of great value for the academic research concerning aboriginal people's ethnic origins and cultures, as well as ancient geography, biological geography and ancient animals in Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands and the South Pacific region. During Japanese colonial rule, the government declared Orchid Island a research zone in 1895, which helped preserve the traditional life style on the island and prohibited outsiders from entering or cultivating land there. Therefore, the Tao’s unique culture could be preserved during the fifty-year colonial period.


Yami distribution map

Geographical Distribution

Hongtou Island (Red Head Island), off the southeastern coast of Taiwan in the western Pacific region, at 22°03' N, 121°32' E, is 40 nautical miles from Taiwan, 49 nautical miles from Taitung County, and to the south are the Batanes Islands of the Philippines. It is an ancient volcanic island with a coastline of 38.54 kilometers, and a coastal road of 45 kilometers long. There are nine mountains on the island, with Hongtou Mountain (Red Head Mountain) being the highest (548 meters above the sea). At sunrise, the mountain top glows red, hence the name. The pronunciation of Hongtou in Mandarin is similar to that of hongchong (red bug); as a consequence, most government workers declined to serve here. To correct this situation, the Taitung County government then renamed the island as “Orchid Island,” since it is home to phalaenopsis orchids, a very rare species.
Orchid Island is surrounded by the sea, and has limited resources. The living areas on the island are divided into four similar environments by rocks; therefore, the Tao people distinguish them into ocean, coastal area, and mountain area. The transition areas between the coastal area and mountains are places where villages are established.
Orchid Island is mountainous and steep, with very few plains. There are rivers in the valleys, forming alluvial fans along mountain piedmonts and beaches at the mouths of rivers. These alluvial fans have ample water resources, and are close to arch bays and long reef coasts where harbors lie. Also, these low-rise fans are ideal for settlement, hence the close concentration of villages.





Social Structure and Social Organizations

When it comes to social organization, the Tao culture emphasizes the bond formed by married couples; in terms of rituals, a successful Boat Launching Ceremony and House Completion Ceremony are occasions for the Tao people to gain renown. So they work hard to achieve their goals. While men are busy building houses or boats, women must also prepare feasts of wetland taro – the two are indispensable for a successful ceremony. Yumei Chen (1994) points out that a married couple (or a nuclear family) is the basic unit of the Tao social structure, as well as a concrete manifestation of the concept known as “sharing of substance.” This concept can help us understand both the group’s socio-cultural categorization and part of its socio-cultural operation. The author suggests that the Tao ethnic group is not equipped with a stringent patrilineal or matrilineal system. The formation of society and co-working groups must be studied by applying the concept of zipos (i.e. kin). The Tao social structure is defined by its agnatic lineage – they hold on to patrilineage, and kin from the same male ancestors are often tied together. The Tao do not have a clear social hierarchy, nor do they have chiefs. Instead, under the fishing-dependent culture, men compose kakavay (a team with boats and a large boat as the center) to strengthen their economic power in a paternal society.


Production Method and Food Culture

Yami people sharing their food culture with others

Yami dried Flying Fish

Yami people processing sweet potatoes

In the early days, the Tao people maintained a subsistent economic lifestyle on the island: they planted sweet potatoes and taro along the mountains, while capturing fish and shells on the sea. They also fed animals such as hogs, sheep, and chickens. But all these were just ways to be self-sufficient; Tao people are both producers and consumers. The traditional Tao diet includes wetland taro, taro sweet potatoes, fish, birds and other animals. They also supplement their diet with foods such as coconuts, Lintou (Pandanus tectorius), and other kinds of fruit in addition to the two meals. Thus, the Tao’s production methods can be divided into two categories: one is agriculture based on sedentary paddy cultivation and hillside crop rotation; the other is fishing. Secondary production methods include feeding livestock (hogs, chickens and sheep) and collecting wild plants. Wetland taro and sweet potatoes are staple foods, and are thus widely planted on the narrow coastal plains on Orchid Island, forming the unique landscape. Guanghong Yu (1994:6) notes that “the Tao divide food into two categories – kanen and yakan. The former is the main dish and is similar to our idea of rice, while the latter can be understood as the side dish. Usually the women’s daily duty is mangerp so kanen (collecting and cooking rice), and the men’s is manersavat (looking for side dishes). Wakei (sweet potatoes) and soli (wetland taro) are the most important staple foods. The non-staple foods come with a richer variety and are obtained from the sea, an unreliable supplier. As a result, the quantity of yakan is at the center of attention in a Tao household. Family members have great expectations for the man who goes out fishing, and if he can return with a full load, not only can he support the family and share the catch with relatives and neighbors, he will also be respected in the society.”

The “gift exchange” system is still rooted in the life and rituals on Orchid Island. This custom is a natural result of the “mutually beneficial” inter-personal relations of the Tao, but not motivated by self-interest. However, in recent years, there have been signs indicating that the Tao people have been more and more involved in the trade of goods and the market economy. Moreover, their growing dependence on commercial products and application of currency will also put pressure on the Tao’s traditional material culture and subsistent economy. Guanghong Yu (1994:8) points out that the Tao people may lose their economic independence in the next two or three decades. This trend has been especially obvious after Orchid Island was opened for sightseeing in 1971. Beginning from 1972, ships and flights have travelled regularly between Orchid Island and Taiwan. Modern transportation has sped up capitalization and commercialization trends on the island, and led to a significant migration of youth labor. Orchid Island is now a remote area with inevitable economic penetration from Taiwan, which has changed their traditional economic system more quickly and more profoundly. When modern Tao people are more and more influenced by the wave of currency value and the market economy, it won’t take long for the following wave of capitalism and the global system to reach the “island of humans.” Or, we should say that the wave of currency value and the market economy will flood the Tao people out of Orchid Island – just as other mountain aborigines were forced to leave their mountains after the collapse of their traditional economies and social structures. The only difference will be that for the Tao, it is not “down from the mountain,” but “off of the island!”


Ritual and Religion

The ceremony of launching for Yami's new boat

The Tao ethnic group lacks a well-developed religion, but they harbor an extreme fear of irresistible natural powers and the unknown world. As a consequence, they dread anito (evil spirits) more than the almighty god. Tao people point at the sun or the moon to make confessions and pray to god; however, there are no temples to worship gods and holy spirits, nor are there statues of gods. All these characteristics indicate that the Tao is a lesser developed ethnic group. Surrounded by sea, the Tao society is a typical maritime one. Their annual schedule corresponds to the flying fish season. The Tao people designed a calendar according to habitual behaviors of marine life and the movements of ocean currents, which includes restrictions and taboos regulating the fishing area, timing and methods. This calendar represents the Tao’s ethnic biology after accumulating immeasurable experience and wisdom from the sea. Spring is the major fishing season in a year; summer and autumn for agriculture; autumn and winter for producing goods and recreation. With the flying fish season as the center, all the months from February to October are assigned to related work accordingly, such as preparation, fishing, distributing the catch, and storage. We can say that the production, distribution and consumption of flying fish have determined the Tao people’s collective life style. The whole process of fishing for flying fish has tremendous ritual significance, and the Tao’s close ties with the ocean are also reflected in related ceremonies and rituals – the Boat Launching Ceremony and the Flying Fish Ceremony, in particular. The Tao also has a rich material culture in this aspect; for example, building and carving plank boats, making silver, producing pottery and clay dolls are their extraordinary skills. Fishing is the major activity for Tao men to make a living, and advanced boat-building skills are thus developed. They consider a boat as a man’s body. Boat-building is a sacred mission and a part of life. Owning a boat means owning the ocean and the sky and having valor. For the Tao, boat-building is the manifestation of divinity and beauty.


Art Crafts and Music

Yami silver hat

Cultural collection- Figuline pot

Aboriginal ethnic groups in Taiwan all have made remarkable achievements in terms of singing and dancing, and the Tao are no exception. Upon listening to their songs, Changhuei Syu, an expert in folk music, said that the Tao people only have three melodies, but Tao people insist that they have quite a number of songs applied to specific occasions. In fact, Tao people don’t emphasize the variety of melodies, but instead, they pay more attention to lyrics – every song with different lyrics is considered a new one. As for dancing, traditional dances such as the women’s Hair Dance and the men’s Warrior Spiritual Dance are world-renowned performances. Other forms of dancing include the very delicate one performed during the “boat flinging” part of a boat launching ceremony.


Relations with the Government

As we have seen the north-south, east-west, and urban-rural development gaps in Taiwan, there is also a similar gap between Taiwan and its offshore islands. These Islands are regarded as “remote areas” and do not come with equivalent infrastructure in terms of transportation, health care and education compared to that of Taiwan. Orchid Island is such a case – it is truly an “off–center” island under Taiwan’s political and economic structures. Divided by the Pacific Ocean, Orchid Island is not only distant from the political and economic center, but also has had a series of painful experiences with the central government. The following governmental events and plans have caused serious damage and resulted in conflicts, for example, “sea sand national apartments,” “the farm of the Veteran Affairs Commission,” a “reformation management corps for army criminals,” a “national park plan,” the “establishment of a nuclear waste dump,” etc. In addition, there are other issues generated during the process of interaction between the Tao and outsiders (mainly Taiwanese). In recent years, Orchid Island’s “nuclear waste protest” has been in full swing. The Tao people have repeatedly expressed their determination that “nuclear waste must be relocated from Orchid Island, and there will be no compromise on this!” In a word, the nuclear waste dumping ground has been an “undying trauma” for the Tao as well as a painful “historical experience!”

Orchid Island- the boat for 14 people

Young people from Orchid Island to
National Museum of Prehistory

The development of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples is a part of national development. Nevertheless, when indigenous peoples undergo modernization, they are also trapped in a disadvantageous position within the nation's political and economic structures – not to mention the crisis of the extinction of traditional cultures, which would be highly regrettable under Taiwan’s rapid development. The Tao ethnic group had long been isolated on the island, and lived in a closely knit ecological and social system. Therefore, every time something new is introduced to the island whether according to or against the people’s will, both the “island of humans” and the people have to accept it, but an initial rejection and continuous absorption are hard to avoid. In this sense, how to properly govern this tribal society under the “national regime” of the R.O.C. seems to be an indicator of the government’s performance. Hence, a number of Tao intellectuals have acknowledged one thing: “The decisive power is in the hands of the outlying political society, in other words, the political power of the ethnic groups in the Taiwanese societyat large. Can the group to which one belongs dominate, or be dominated?” For example, these intellectuals have successfully changed the name “Yami,” adopted by traditional anthropologists and the general public, back to “Tao.” They have also established a “Tribal Parliament for the Tao people on Orchid Island.” These movements are attempts to emphasize the line between us/others through restoring the ethnic name; there are also efforts to achieve ethnic identity and awareness of ethnic interests, and seek for the possibility to take some actions. In conclusion, by analyzing the “nuclear waste protest” phenomenon, we can understand Tao people’s reaction to the enormous threat from the “national regime.” It is the Tao people’s “nuclear waste protest” that reconstructed the contemporary Tao’s “ethnic awareness.”


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