Tag Archives: Austronesian

New Zealand celestial compass project publicly honors ancestral connection to Taiwan

Maori Celestial Compass Project

An artist rendering of the Star Compass project in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Drawing provided by Piripi Smith of Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust.

For thousands of years, Austronesian (南島) navigators (Tohunga) piloted primitive, double-hulled sailing ships called “waka” across vast stretches of the Pacific and Indian Ocean. These highly-trained sailors traveled across hundreds or thousands of kilometers discovering uninhabited islands, creating new colonies, and developing trade networks. What’s hard to believe is that these navigators traversed these great distances using no technology or maps, but instead relying on tuning into the stars, winds and Mother Nature. According to many scholars, these skills brought ancient ancestors from Taiwan to settle the vast area known as Austronesia, including the Philippines, Hawaii, Easter Island, Madagascar and New Zealand.

A traditional Maori waka sailing vessel

A traditional Maori waka sailing vessel

Up until modern times, these traditional sailing methods had been preserved by Polynesian peoples. There has been a recent revival of this method of transport, and to prove to the skeptics that the accuracy of guiding “waka” does not rely on luck, a new generation of navigators continues to sail between distant islands with no maps, compasses or GPS systems.

Waka Sailing Ships

Traditional Maori wakas sailing near New Zealand. Photo provided by Piripi Smith of Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust.

One group in New Zealand that prioritizes the preservation of this tradition is Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust, which manages a program called Waka Experience. The organization is led by Chairman Piripi Smith, who is an experienced Maori navigator. The Trust is partnering with Hawkes Bay Regional Council to undertake an ambitious project to build a large public project called the Star Compass. Not only will the project serve a functional purpose, it will also revitalize the historic Waitangi area.

The Star Compass will be used primarily as an education resource for a wide range of groups; trainee navigators of waka hourua, waka crew, school, youth and community groups. Visitors and tourists to the region will be able to understand the basics of how celestial navigation works. When asked why he was personally committed to this project, Piripi Smith stated, “It’s important to me as a trained navigator, as I now have a responsibility to pass this knowledge on to future generations, like it has been passed onto myself from my mentor Jack Thatcher.”

Mr. Piripi Smith, Maori navigator and Chairman of the Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust.

A photo of Mr. Piripi Smith, Maori navigator and Chairman of the Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust. Photo provided by Piripi Smith of Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust.

The Star Compass consists of thirty-two carved wooden pous (totems) approximately 2-3 meters high placed in a large circle outdoors. Six large limestone rocks will also denote the solstice points and centre of the compass. Four main pous for the North, East, South and West directions represent the four corners of the Austronesian world. The carved designs of the South Pou represents Aotearoa (New Zealand), the East Pou represents Easter Island, the North Pou represents Hawaii, and the West Pou represents Taiwan, home of the Austronesian ancestors.

The Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust worked with the ATAYAL organization and the National Museum of Prehistory (國立台灣史前文化博物館) in Taitung City (台東市) to select a design for the West Pou. Seeking a more authentic connection to their ancient ancestors, they sought an indigenous design from the appropriate region of Taiwan and time period. Chairman Smith explained, “We want to incorporate an ancient indigenous Taiwanese design so we can tell the story of where the voyages of our ancestors started.”

Director Shannan Chang of the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

Director Shannan Chang of the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory. Photo provided by the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

The museum houses the largest collection of ancient Austronesian artifacts from the island. Its director Shan-nan Chang (張善楠) and his staff presented an assortment of ancient pieces from the Beinan (卑南) people, who lived in Southern Taiwan over 2,000 years ago. The museum considers this cooperation significant for helping Taiwan expand its international connections and to help the Maori in New Zealand connect with their roots. Director Chang stated that the project aligns with the museums original mission to expand Austronesian studies through its cultural connections, and expressed, “It is our honor and responsibility to reinforce the relationships for the Taiwanese people.”

Piripi Smith’s team has chosen the main indigenous design, which is from a Beinan Period jade artifact, as well as some other design elements to use in Taiwan’s pou. He is currently in a fundraising stage to build the project. The Star Compass project is tentatively scheduled to open in February 2017, depending on the success of finding sponsorship and other funding.

A large moai statue at Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

A large moai statue similar to those found on Easter Island sits on the grounds of Taiwan’s National Museum of Prehistory. Photo provided by the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

Director Chang hopes to attend the opening ceremony of the Star Compass in New Zealand. When asked about what the design provided by his museum may mean to the Maori in New Zealand, he remarked, “This star compass project is really wonderful, because they can see an authentic design and feel the similarities of the connected cultures from the totem pole design.”

When the Taiwanese people look at projects like this, they shouldn’t underestimate what international opportunities Taiwan’s Austronesian heritage can provide for its future.

Ornamental jade ornament from the Beinan Cultural Period

The ornamental jade ornament from the Beinan Cultural Period chosen to be used in the Star Compass project. Photo provided by the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

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Voters demand change in Taiwan through its elections. Now what?

Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan

As an American journalist living in Taiwan for the past 6 years, I have enjoyed the fruits of living on this diverse island, but its people have been struggling to recover economically after the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Before that, Taiwanese people were recovering from another drain on their economy caused by the steady flight of manufacturing jobs from Taiwanese companies moving their manufacturing to China since before 2000. During that time, along with the flight of companies and skilled labor to China, Taiwan also lost access to foreign investment capital and international markets.

There have been some promising signs of future recovery, however. According to a November 16, 2014 article in the South China Morning Post, Taiwanese manufacturers are beginning to move their operations back to Taiwan. Even though mainland China workers earn a minimum of US $2,472 per year, compared to a minimum of US $8,481 per year for Taiwanese workers, growing risks in the Chinese business environment and benefits of the Taiwanese marketplace are attracting more companies to return. Taiwan has added 89,000 new jobs since 2006.

The signs are positive, although the recovery has been slower than expected. Expectations were set high by the promises of President Ma’s governing administration (2008-present). The ruling Koumingtang (KMT) Party touted liberalization of economic activity with China, which they promised would result in more jobs and increased prosperity for Taiwanese people. After 6 1/2 years of governance by the KMT administration, Taiwan’s economy saw some improvement, but the results fell well short of expectations, and the citizens expressed their disappointment during the local Taiwanese elections of November 29, 2014. The ruling KMT Party lost leadership positions in unprecedented fashion. Many people believed the KMT losses were a result of slow economic growth,  dissatisfaction with the growing disparity between the income classes during the past six years, and they questioned the legislation and negotiation methods of the trade and service agreements with with Beijing.

President Ma Ying-jeou’s cabinet, and Prime Minister Jiang Yi-huah resigned from their posts, and according to a recent article by the BBC, President Ma also resigned as Chair of the Kuomingtang Party, stating that the KMT had failed to reform Taiwan quickly enough to meet the public’s expectations. The people have spoken through their votes, and new leaders from the “Green Camp” (Democratic Progressive Party and other Independent Parties) prepare for the upcoming Presidential election in Spring 2016. It is an exciting time for the new leadership, but they have the challenging task of finding solutions to give people the change and improvements they are looking for.

I know thousands of people in Taiwan, and most of them feel very insecure and uncertain about Taiwan’s future. This past year, over 100,000 recent college graduates could not find a job. I can sympathize with the many parents who invested their savings to educate their children only to find no sign of hope for employment. As a journalist and business entrepreneur residing in Taiwan while observing and learning about Taiwanese society, culture and business, I have my own ideas and thoughts about economic reform that I would like to share for the people’s consideration.

Improved relations with China has been a positive development for Taiwan, as a more relaxed environment has produced more opportunities and cooperation for both sides. There is nothing to gain from political and military tension (except for the people who hold power and supply weapons systems.) What I hope to see is for economic and cultural ties to continue to improve between Taiwan and China, but most people would prefer to see the process of negotiations to be transparent and follow the proper legislative procedures, so the terms of the agreements can be as mutually beneficial as possible.

Taiwan should continue to pursue dialogue and participation in other international agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), but because of the lack of transparency in the negotiations, Taiwan’s leaders should carefully analyze the terms and make its agreements in a transparent manner in order to ensure equitable benefits. Taiwan should follow the lead of New Zealand, which has been firm in negotiating for terms that are fair for the people of their country. I don’t recommend accept terms “as-is” in order to reap potential benefits before weighing what level of autonomy the Taiwanese people will need to give up to gain the benefits.

The Taiwanese leadership should also examine and evaluate its current international agreements and relationships and decide what policies need to be changed to strengthen these relationships. Of course, Taiwan has signed the controversial Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, but it has also signed the Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinsmen and Matsu on Economic Cooperation (ANZTEC). Taiwan also signed a free trade agreement with Singapore in 2013. I believe that continued efforts with these international partners can make Taiwan a more attractive trading partner.

I also believe that Taiwan’s tourism sector is widely underdeveloped for international tourists. Efforts by the Taiwanese government has been focused on Chinese tourists, and I have never really seen any substantial efforts to attract tourists from other countries.

Austronesian Tourism in Taiwan: A visit with the Bunun Tribe

Austronesian Tourism in Taiwan: A visit with the Bunun Tribe

I have worked to promote cultural exchange between the indigenous (Austronesian) tribes of Taiwan and the 400 million Austronesian peoples in 30 plus countries of the Pacific and Southeast Asia, so I believe that another opportunity exists for Taiwan through its Austronesian cultural ties. The 15 recognized Austronesian tribes in Taiwan represent a minority of about 2% of the population, and their culture and language (and DNA) more closely resemble the cultures of Polynesia, New Zealand and Madagascar than the Chinese. Dr. Marie Lin has performed groundbreaking research to show this DNA link.  I believe that if more Taiwanese people could take DNA tests, they would be surprised to discover how closely related they are to the world’s Austronesian population. What does this mean for Taiwan?

As more Austronesian peoples are discovering their cultural and historic links to Taiwan, there is more interest in cultural and academic exchange. As awareness grows, there is also a growing opportunity for tourism from a marketplace of 400 million people. Indigenous tourism and ecotourism is already growing in Taiwan, but efforts to attract international tourists through Taiwan’s Austronesian cultural connection would accelerate that, and develop a type of tourism that has less impact on the environment.

Because of the ANZTEC agreement with New Zealand and the connection with the Austronesian Maori tribe from New Zealand, Taiwan is increasing its cultural activities with New Zealand. But, is anyone prepared to leverage this activity to produce more economic cooperation between the two partners? There may be groups in Taiwan who wish to develop and promote this type of economic development, but in my opinion, they need more recognition and support to create lasting results.

Lastly, I believe the people of Taiwan have a real opportunity in their hands. Being a player in a global economy can bring prosperity, but without self-sufficiency and authoritative self-regulation, Taiwan loses much of its leverage, and puts itself in a weak and vulnerable position with other nations. We can look at the multiple food scandals in Taiwan over the years and see how reliance on food products from Vietnam, China and other countries has put the health of the Taiwanese people in jeopardy. We can also see how lax regulatory oversight and light punishment has led to food industry executives to pursue profits over stricter standards to protect their customers.

As the future leaders of Taiwan start looking for solutions for the future of Taiwan, they should take the time for self-reflection. If they can enact policies that improve the lives of the Taiwanese people, and the environment, other opportunities will fall into place. Take care of the Taiwanese people, and they will happier, healthier, and more productive. In other words, make Taiwan a more attractive place in the world to live and to do business, and the opportunities will naturally come.

International Austronesian Conference in Taiwan

The international conference focused on addressing the issues of the Austronesian indigenous peoples kicks off in Taipei and concludes at Sun Moon Lake.

A welcoming ceremony performed by Amis tribal dancers.

A welcoming ceremony performed by Amis tribal dancers.

The Law School conference center on the campus of National Taiwan University in Taipei was the host site for the 2010 International Austronesian Conference. The Council of Indigenous Peoples has hosted this event since 2002. This year’s conference ran from June 8-11, 2010. A bright red carpet lead into the College of Law building, and banners with bright Polynesian-style motifs flapped in the breeze, welcoming the registered guests. Security was tight that opening morning ahead of the visiting government officials and dignitaries attending the opening ceremonies. Registration was hectic, with organizers greeting guests with cheerful smiles.

Event signage at the entrance.

Event signage at the conference center entrance.

The conference brought together the academic community and government officials to discuss issues important to the indigenous group classified as the Austronesian group. Guest speakers from around the Pacific Rim shared presentations of research and case studies on a variety of topics. What was evident was how the issues of tribal peoples from New Zealand to the Philippines to Taiwan were shared, and how through cooperation and open dialogue, efforts to overcome issues could be strengthened.

A Puyuma tribal shaman performed a blessing ceremony.

A Puyuma tribal shaman performed a blessing ceremony.

The Austronesian ethnic group of over 240 million people, related by genetics, language and culture, is widespread. The range stretches from Madagascar in the west, to Easter Island in the east. The range covers Taiwan, the Hawaiian Islands and the South Pacific atolls.

Tribal performing arts consultant Alice Takewatan in attendance.

Tribal performing arts consultant Alice Takewatan in attendance.

The first day of the conference kicked off with a blessing ceremony performed by a Puyuma tribal shaman. With betel nuts placed on the floor folded in leaves for each ceremonial guest, the shaman chanted in his native language. It was significant for the audience to hear the mesmerizing and ancient chant, containing so much meaning and intention. The audience would learn that this, and many indigenous languages were in danger of disappearing along with much indigenous knowledge.

Dr. Tom Calma, Australian National Coordinator Tackling Indigenous Smoking, was a feature speaker.

Dr. Tom Calma, Australian National Coordinator Tackling Indigenous Smoking, was a feature guest speaker on Day 1.

An energetic and colorful Amis tribal dance welcomed the guests and made sure everyone was awake and aware of the expressive passion for life of Taiwanese indigenous people. Government officials followed the performance with generous welcomes to the international visitors, and acknowledgments to the visiting dignitaries and speakers.

Panel discussions shared insights and experience with conference guests.

Panel discussions shared insights and experience with conference guests.

On the first day, the line-up of speakers focused on Knowledge, Education and Cultural Inheritance. One of the featured speakers was Tom Calma, National Coordinator for Tackling Indigenous Smoking in Australia. (Click for an interview with Dr. Tom Calma.) Many of the issues faced by indigenous peoples, including loss of culture, poverty, alcohol and tobacco abuse could be solved through education. Mr. Calma discussed the difficulties in providing adequate education to remote tribal areas of Australia, and shared how efforts by the government have been slowly overcoming this problem of lack of resources and teachers. Also shared was how incorporating traditional indigenous education into a Western curriculum was important to give aboriginal youth improved ability to fit in as productive adults, and future teachers, in their own local communities.

New Zealand Maori screenwriter and author Briar Grace-Smith was a feature speaker on Day 2.

New Zealand Maori screenwriter and author Briar Grace-Smith was a feature speaker on Day 2.

On the second day, the speaking topics focused on Literature, Images, and the Cultural Creation Industry. The Maori film, “The Strength of Water” was screened during the conference, and the New Zealand screenwriter, Briar Grace-Smith, shared a presentation on her personal experiences as a Maori storyteller. She expressed hope for intertribal collaboration for future projects. (Click for an interview with Briar Grace-Smith)

Participants of the Austronesian Conference were treated to a tour of Taiwanese indigenous communities before continuing the Conference in a different venue. The last day of the conference were hosted at the scenic Fleur De Chine Hotel, on Sun Moon Lake near Taichung. At this popular tourist area, the topics of the conference shifted to Indigenous Culture and the Environmental Ethics.

The seminar covered the lessons learned from the challenges of the reconstructions efforts of indigenous communities after Typhoon Morakot. It became obvious that ignoring indigenous knowledge and forcing policy on tribal communities can be a recipe for disaster. There are many lessons people can learn from the knowledge of the indigenous people. Known as stewards of the Earth, indigenous peoples shared how their intimate knowledge with nature and sustainable living could become the most valuable resource they can offer to global society. They only need to effectively deal with the obstacles and improve collaboration to move forward.

Click to view this story on CNN iReport.

Tribal performers at the gala dinner.

Tribal performers at the gala dinner.