Documentary spotlights efforts to return Amis lost souls
The visitor’s eye is immediately drawn to two weathered wooden panels standing against the wall inside the entrance to the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s foremost research body.
The carved bas-reliefs, recording the Amis origin myth and legends relating to tribal customs, belong to a rare collection of seven Amis panels, all stored at the institute. To the untrained eye, they may appear primitive and battered, but to anthropologist Liu Pin-hsiung, who spotted them over five decades ago in Tafalong Village in Hualien County’s Guangfu Township, they were jewels.
In 1958, a severe tropical storm knocked down the ancestral shrine of the Kakita’an, the most powerful family among the Amis of the Tafalong area. The panels, originally housed inside the shrine, were then exposed to the elements.
Granted permission by the Tafalong tribal chief at the time, Marang Namoh, Liu took the panels back to Academia Sinica for preservation, where they have remained ever since, unbeknownst to later generations of the Kakita’an family.
In 2003, however, a group of young people from Tafalong came knocking on the door of the institute. Thus began an unusual collaboration between the Amis and the institute that has brought the panels back to life, in a process captured in a documentary film by Hu Tai-li, a research fellow with the institute and veteran maker of documentaries featuring Taiwan’s indigenous cultures.
The premiere of “Returning Souls” at the institute Dec. 12 revealed a very creative solution to the conflicts that frequently arise between museums and the groups whose artifacts they hold.
“There is certainly an issue of ethics involved,” Hu said. “When the young Amis appeared, I felt intuitively that they were there to ask for the return of the panels. I grabbed my video camera and began to record what I perceived to be a great opportunity for an anthropologist’s self-reflection.”
Fuday Kumud Menale, an elementary school teacher, organized the visit. “As younger members of the village, we have long wished to recover the tribal culture and knowledge our elders possessed.
“We realized that the panels are essential to the Kakita’an ancestral house, which was Tafalong’s religious and political center,” he said.
According to Hu, the shrine is the only Amis edifice described in detail in documents from the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), and has attracted the attention of many researchers.
Both the panels and high standing of the Kakita’an family led to the reverence felt for the building. For generations, the family was responsible for all the land in Tafalong and for organizing the legendary headhunting ritual, from which the Amis harvest ceremony, known as ilisin, derived.
“It is believed that the Japanese ban on headhunting forced the family to abandon the house, hence lowering its social status,” Hu said. Yet the colonial government recognized the symbolic importance of the structure and designated it a public asset in 1935 for special maintenance and display.
When the Tafalong youth met with the institute in 2003, both sides agreed that the panels must be preserved, but the question was where—in the institute museum or in their cultural context? The Amis did not fret over this issue for long.
With the help of the village shaman, Kating Hongay, they soon decided that the panels would be better protected at the institute, but also that the Kakita’an family would bring home the souls of their ancestors believed to be living in the panels by rebuilding the ancestral house on its original site and carving new panels.
This decision began the reconstruction project, and Hu’s documentary, which follows the steps of the restoration, intertwined with narratives of Amis legends and the history of the Kakita’an family.
As the project unfolded, the Amis specialty of communicating with their ancestors through a shaman was also resurrected.
“‘You have finally come,’ is what the ancestors trapped in the museum said to tribal visitors,” Fuday Kumud Menale related. “They asked why no Kakita’an successors were present, and said they had long wanted to go home.”
He said it was the ancestors who guided the group to their decision on how to deal with the panels.
In 2004, the Kakita’an family performed a ritual to bring the ancestral souls home, with a boar as sacrifice, at the Institute of Ethnology.
“We all burst into tears at the reunion, hearing our ancestors speak [through the shaman], although the emotional moment is not shown in the film,” Tipus Saumah, the Kakita’an family heir of the 59th generation, said at the film screening.
With funding from the institute, the family was able to make new panels. Then it raised money for the reconstruction of the shrine, which commenced in 2006, based on the only known images of the house—drawings by Japanese architect Chijiiwa Suketaro (1897-1991) from 1940.
The documentary shows how the ancestors, again through possession of the shaman, told family members where the ancestral house used to stand and how it should be oriented, as well as pointing out the correct location of the panels.
“We are grateful that through the project we are finally able to see the building, which had existed in the living memories of only one or two people,” Tipus Saumah said.
She added that her mother seldom talked about the Kakita’an family’s role as Tafalong’s organizer of traditional rituals. “She herself became a Catholic in the 1950s, going to church in exchange for daily necessities during those difficult times.”
Upon completion of the restored ancestral house, however, debate arose on several fronts: The government questioned the Kakita’an claim that the shrine site is private land, and thus the building’s legality; local politicians wanted the land for other uses; and some Tafalong villagers suggested that the land and shrine should belong to the whole tribe.
The Kakita’an ended up in a lawsuit over the land rights, which they lost. Yet the house was saved when the Council of Indigenous Peoples took over control of the land, and the government designated the rebuilt shrine complex a cultural landscape in 2007 in accordance with 2005 amendments to the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act.
According to Tilu Totoy, a veteran cultural activist based in Tafalong, the reconstruction project has highlighted clashes between different values.
“In the past, a communal spirit prevailed in which the land belonged to the whole tribe, while the Kakita’an family held public services that came with its representative power.”
However, land policies adopted first by the Japanese colonial government and then the Chinese Nationalist government disrupted the tradition of tribal ownership, leading to today’s disputes, he said. These clashes have created a gulf between the Kakita’an family and the rest of the tribe, he added.
He and Kuday Kumud Menale are most concerned, however, about how traditional rituals can be revived along with the ancestral house, to help revitalize their tribal culture. “A consensus and collaboration between the tribe and the family is definitely required,” Tilu Totoy said.
In practice, he noted, “the headhunting ritual cannot be performed anymore, for sure, but other ceremonies, such as the harvest festivals, should not be organized as they are today, more occasions for tourists and politicians than anything else.”
Hu said she agrees with the young Amis that the rebuilding of the ancestral house and panels should lead to a return of the Amis spirit and inspire the whole tribe to work toward a cultural renaissance.
“After all, a static structure like a museum is not enough to keep indigenous culture alive.”
She hopes her film will also provoke serious thought on contemporary issues faced by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, such as strategies of community empowerment and tribal struggles against Western religion and secular politics.
“Times have changed so much, and I wonder if the ancestral souls can feel at home again,” she said.
Kuday Kumud Menale was not worried: “In one way or another, the ancestors will let us know what to do and how to do it.” (THN)
Pillars of the community
Academia Sinica researcher and filmmaker Hu Tai-li recently released ‘Returning Souls,’ a documentary that details the complex process of preserving and revitalizing Aboriginal relics
The negotiation process was captured on film by Academia Sinica researcher and filmmaker Hu Tai-li (胡台麗), who has recently released Returning Souls (讓靈魂回家), a documentary detailing the long and complex process of preserving and revitalizing these important items of Taiwan’s cultural heritage. Issues of government policy, religious belief, community identity, economic interest and clan rivalries all play a part in this story.
Hu said that, initially at least, this tale was recorded more by accident than design.
In a telephone interview with the Taipei Times, Hu said she had taken video notes of the events surrounding the unusual occurrence of a group of young Aboriginal people writing to and subsequently visiting Academia Sinica in an effort to retrieve the pillars. She had recorded interviews simply as a matter of habit. Hu has been a documentary filmmaker for nearly three decades and some form of camera is never far from her reach. Her films have often reached out to a wider, non-academic audience, an aspect of her mission that is underlined by her continuing role as founder and director of the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (台灣國際民族誌影展), which aims to bring ethnographic films to a non-specialists.
Once she decided that the story of these pillars, which provide a pictorial narrative of a number of important Amis myths, also had a contemporary story to tell, she pulled her various notes together and began pursuing developments in earnest. This was the beginning of a film that follows the twists and turns of nearly a decade of discussions between the Aborigines and Academia Sinica, as well as elements within the Amis community itself; discussions that highlight the many often conflicting strands that make up Aboriginal society in Taiwan.
The story begins with an e-mail from a young Amis called Fuday, who works as a teacher at Tafalong Primary School (太巴塱國小). In his e-mail, penned in 2003, he wrote to Academia Sinica to express his belief that the removal of these pillars dispossessed his community not only of its ancestral spirits, but even its sense of identity, and that he and others felt it was their mission to bring these items back home. The pillars had been part of an ancestral house belonging to the Kakita’an clan, which had an important leadership and spiritual role within the Tafalong community (located in Guangfu Township, Hualien County). They are also one of the only examples of a pictorial narrative relating to Amis mythology that has been preserved. During the Japanese occupation, the colonial government had already noted the importance of the pillars, designating the Kakita’an house a preservation site in 1935. After damage caused by Super Typhoon Winnie in 1958, researchers from Academia Sinica removed the pillars to the museum for safekeeping.
The determination of Fuday and his associates to retrieve the pillars ran into a number of obstacles. Although the Institute of Ethnography and Hu herself were very sympathetic to their desires in principle, there were conflicting demands regarding the long-term preservation of important artifacts of Aboriginal history and their return to a location where they would no longer fall under the watchful eye of experienced museum curators. The issue was further complicated by conflicts of interest within the Tafalong community, and some members of the Kakita’an family who had converted to Christianity and were either indifferent or hostile to efforts to tinker with symbols of earlier religious creeds and customs.
Hu’s close tracking of the discussions reveals a great deal about the changing and far from homogeneous views held by members of Taiwan’s Aboriginal community about their culture and identity. While the mythology and historical significance of the artifacts themselves from an academic point of view are not in doubt, the detailed study of their relationship to contemporary circumstances of Aboriginal life in Taiwan is what makes Returning Souls a particularly valuable sociological study. The film manages to challenge the easy assumptions that heritage is something that all minority peoples wish to embrace, and sketches out the complex issues related to the managing of a cultural preservation project.
Returning Souls premiered last month and Hu says that in addition to taking the film on the road to provide screenings for all the various communities involved in the debate over the fate of the pillars, other Aboriginal communities, museums and colleges have shown interest in viewing the film.
Hu said her interest in making a full documentary about the fate of the pillars grew after Fuday and others decided that it would be sufficient if shamans could bring the pillars’ ancestral spirits back to the community, leaving the pillars themselves in the care of the Institute of Ethnography. In the film, Fuday expressed a great sense of attainment in becoming intimately involved in the shamanistic legacy of his people, and the ritual invocation of the spirits to depart the original pillars and their “repatriation” to the Tafalong community solved the issue of the artifacts themselves.
“I have studied shamanistic culture for many years, and I was very surprised to discover that it was still such a potent force in Tafalong,” Hu told the Taipei Times. “We’ve had no record of their activities. I thought the shamanistic rites might have disappeared over time, but because of this debate over the pillars, the shamans came out into the open. As many of the community have converted to Christianity, they [the shamans] often don’t participate in larger [community] activities.”
Hu added that it was the shamans who provided the inspiration for the title of the film. “The shamans could see and hear the spirits, and so this gave rise to the idea of bringing the spirits home.”
Hu said that exposure to the elements had rendered the original pillars unsuitable as a building material for the renovation of the Kakita’an house, and that these important records of tribal mythology should not be needlessly endangered.
As to the pillars being listed by the government as a “national treasure,” Hu said that this had not caused much of a stir among the community in Tafalong. Members of the Institute of Ethnography went to the community to make a presentation about the listing early last month, but Hu said that reports from her colleagues suggested a mix of surprise and indifference on the part of many local residents. On the other hand, Fuday and the others have strongly supported the screening of the film in the community. “They believe that it might make people there think more deeply about a number of issues,” Hu said. “The whole process of bringing the pillars home brought about some very unexpected consequences.”
There will be a screening of Returning Souls on Feb. 24 at 7pm at the Activity Center of the Tafalong Primary School (太巴塱國小), 23, Zhongshan Rd Sec 2, Guangfu Township, Hualien County (花蓮縣光復鄉中正路二段23號).
Detailed information about the film can be found at the official blog of Returning Souls at returningsouls.pixnet.net/blog. Organizations interested in screening the film can contact Hu Tai-li through the blog or by calling the Institute of Ethnology at (02) 2652-3300.
The original pillars can be viewed at the Museum of the Institute of Ethnology (民族學研究所博物館), 128, Academia Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市研究院路二段128號). The museum is open on Wednesday and Saturday between 9:30am to 4:30pm (except public holidays). The Kakita’an house, which has now undergone extensive renovations, can be found in Futien Village (富田村), Guangfu Township (光復鄉), Hualien County.