On 1 August, the new president of Taiwan, Dr Tsai Ing-wen, offered an apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. In the presidential building, the apology began with a rite of offering of millet and spirits. Bunun community elder Hu Jin-niang blessed the ceremony, and Taiwanese religious leaders followed with an interfaith prayer. In Tsai’s speech, she said:

Let me put in simple terms why we are apologising to the indigenous peoples. Four hundred years ago, there were already people living in Taiwan. These first inhabitants lived their lives and had their own languages, cultures, customs, and domains. But then, without their consent, another group of people arrived on these shores, and in the course of history, took everything from the first inhabitants who, on the land they have known most intimately, became displaced, foreign, non-mainstream, and marginalised.

The apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples comes as the culmination of many decades of political and legal activism. A modern indigenous rights movement began in the 1980s, in the final years of Taiwan’s authoritarian era from 1945 to 1987 under the Chinese Nationalists (KMT). Activists campaigned on many specific issues, such as the cultural stereotyping of indigenous peoples in school curricula, the nuclear waste site on Orchid Island, home of the Yami people, and the expropriation of the traditional lands of the Taroko people by the Asia Cement Corporation. They also campaigned for legal and constitutional changes to protect and support indigenous rights. In 1994, Taiwan’s legislative assembly passed constitutional amendments that accorded Taiwan’s indigenous people specific protections under law and, in response to a long and vociferous campaign, institutionalised the term in Chinese 原住民 to refer to indigenous peoples, instead of the prevailing pejorative terms 山胞 and 山地人.

In 2002, the Council of Indigenous Peoples was established and an indigenous public television service begin in 2005. Later that year, the legislative assembly passed the Indigenous People’s Basic Law, which further supported indigenous rights.

The history of activism that led up to President Tsai’s apology has been in response to the long history of dispossession of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples that has left a legacy of damaged communities and high rates of social, health and economic disadvantage.

Indigenous Taiwanese have inhabited the island for at least 6000 years, and are part of a diverse group of societies known evocatively as the Civilisation of the Voyaging Canoe, after the huge ocean-going canoes that enabled migration to the islands across the Pacific Ocean. In 1624, a colonial outpost was established on Taiwan by the Dutch, bringing guns and missionaries and drawing it into the trading economy of the Dutch empire in Asia. Through politics and violence, the Dutch subdued indigenous resistance, creating the conditions for permanent settlement by people from southern China.

The Dutch were themselves expelled by the Ming loyalist naval commander Zheng Cheng-gong in 1662, fleeing the advancing Manchus, before Taiwan was incorporated into the Qing empire. Through the next two centuries, Taiwan was settled from Fujian, and indigenous Taiwanese lost their ancestral lands as they were forced higher into Taiwan’s extensive mountain regions or were assimilated into the settler communities.

In 1895, in its final years, the Qing empire ceded Taiwan to Japan. The Japanese colonial government was notably focused on what it saw as a civilising mission for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. There were extraordinary periods of conflict, such as the 1930 Wushe Incident when 300 Seediq warriors began a guerrilla campaign against the colonial government that escalated until Japan deployed the full force of its military against them. Indigenous Taiwanese, the Takasago Volunteers, later fought in the Japanese imperial army in WWII. The last 'holdout' after the war, Private Teruo Nakamura, discovered in Indonesia in 1974, was actually Attun Palalin, a member of the Amis people.

Under the KMT from 1945, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples suffered discrimination and patrician indifference as the new government implemented aggressive anti-Communist and industrial development policies. During the 1947 Anti-Chinese Nationalist uprising, Tsou tribal leader Uyongu Yatauyungana protected many local non-indigenous Taiwanese from mainland KMT troops, and was executed in 1954 after he formed an organisation promoting indigenous autonomy.

Tsai Ing-wen faced this bitter history in her apology. She addressed specific issues such as the Orchid Island nuclear waste site, and of the need for further legal reform to protect land rights. She acknowledged the identity of the Pingpu ethnic groups, the indigenous peoples from western Taiwan who have been largely assimilated into Taiwan’s settler society over the last two hundred years.

She also spoke powerfully of the fundamental act of writing indigenous peoples fully into the history of Taiwan. This is at a time when all Taiwanese are addressing the legacy of their history as never before. The experiences of state terror under martial law, which have been held for years as unspoken secrets by countless individuals and families, have been moving into the public sphere through history-writing, memorialisation and art. In this way, the Taiwanese are rewriting their modern story of driving east Asian developmentalism into something quite different.

Tsai’s apology gave indigenous people a vital place in that process and vastly expanded its scope. Tsai said: 'I call upon our entire society to come together and get to know our history, get to know our land, and get to know the cultures of our many ethnic peoples.'

In the abstruse calculations of geo-politics, security and global trade in centres of power such as Beijing, Washington, Tokyo and Canberra, such a basic appeal may have seemed quixotic. Yet from it proceeds a reordering of social, economic and political priorities that affirms the singular course that Taiwan is on. The apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples will further the cause of indigenous rights, but also signals the distinctive modern society and polity that Taiwan has become. 

Photo by Ashley Pon/Getty Images