Return of Ancestral Spirits Re-Energizes Tafalong Community
in Taiwan Panorama Magazine (May 2013, p.106-113)
In a documentary film directed by anthropologist Hu Tai-li, young Amis of the Tafalong community strive to bring back ancestral spirits and reconstruct a family home that had special ceremonial importance. But since traditional ceremonies and ancestor worship have long been marginalized in the tribe, can those ancestral spirits really come home?
Thanks to efforts by tribal youth that commenced a decade ago, the spirits of the Tafalong ancestors, which had been taken to a museum along with the tribal artifacts that held them, were finally returned to their hometown after a five-decade absence. Their return has offered an opportunity for reviving tribal culture.
How did Tafalong’s ancestral spirits come to leave home in the first place? And how do the current Amis tribespeople of the village, who have long since converted to Christianity, view their relationship to the ancestral spirits?
Hu Tai-li, a research fellow at the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Ethnology, has made a documentary film about the process of recovering Tafalong’s ancestral spirits, called Returning Souls. A film tour with screenings at six prominent US universities, including UC Berkeley and Harvard, just ended in April. In November 2012 the film recieved a special mention for the Prix du Patrimoine Culturel Immateriel (Intangible Cultural Heritage Award) at the renowned Jean Rouch Film Festival for ethnographic and anthropological documentaries in Paris, and in April 2013 it won a Remi Award in the category “Film and Video Production—Ethnic/Cultural” at the WorldFest–Houston International Film and Video Festival in Houston, Texas.
Kakita’an: Tafalong’s spiritual center
Ten years ago, an email from Fuday, an elementary school teacher in Tafalong, created shockwaves at the Academia Sinica. The email delivered a request for the Institute of Ethnology to return some carved pillars that had been in the Kakita’an ancestral home in the Tafalong community of Amis. It was the first time that Aborigines in Taiwan had themselves initiated a request for the return of cultural artifacts from a museum or academic institute.
By then, most of the tribal community’s young people had moved to the cities for their educations or careers, leaving behind a debilitating sense of anxiety fostered by uncertainty and cultural loss. Amid that atmosphere, Fuday and other youths had organized a book club to encourage discussion and interviews with tribal elders. They came to the conclusion that they could only reinvigorate Tafalong’s spirit by rebuilding the Kakita’an ancestral home.
In August of 2003, Fuday and other tribal youths paid their first visit to the Institute of Ethnology to hold discussions on the matter. Hu Tai-li, who was also on the board of the institute’s museum, picked up a video camera when the Tafalong youth arrived. It was the beginning of a documentary process that would stretch on for eight years.
In negotiations with the institute, Fuday reaffirmed that the Kakita’an household held a status in Tafalong that was akin to a presidency over the community. It was, for instance, responsible for dictating how the tribal lands were divided. Other youths noted that when their ancestors would come back from headhunting, they would place the heads that they had taken in the Kakita’an home. The building hosted all of the ceremonies connected to headhunting, which were of paramount importance to the tribe.
Ethnological research has determined that the Kakita’an was the only Amis ancestral home with carved pillars. The Tafalong origin myths are depicted in the pillar carvings: a girl that emanates light, a great flood, a brother-sister marriage, a heavenly shaman’s descent to the world, and the hunting of a father’s head by his sons.
But the question remains: Why did these young Tafalong people go to the Institute of Ethnology to bring the Kakita’ans back home?
Removal after a typhoon’s destruction
In 1958 a typhoon destroyed the Kakita’an home, which was a wooden structure with a thatched roof. Of the nine pillars that were inside, seven were salvaged and temporarily set aside. Academia Sinica research fellow Jen Shien-min, who had an interest in Aboriginal architectural carvings, asked his colleague Liu Pin-hsiung to go to Tafalong to collect them. It was thus that these seven pillars that depict Tafalong myths came into the possession of the Institute of Ethnology.
In 2003, during discussions between the Tafalong youth and the institute, Jiang Bin, who was then the institute’s assistant director, reminded Fuday and the other youths that “culture isn’t just a few pieces of wood.” Moreover, due to the condition of the wooden pillars at that time, they weren’t suited for reuse. Not long after those discussions, the tribal youths revisited the Academia Sinica, bringing with them a medium, who conjured forth the ancestral spirits.
That most senior of tribal shamans—or sikawasay—was Kating Hongay, a woman in her late 60s. Wearing the traditional black sikawasay clothes, she stood in front of the pillars and sprayed out a mouthful of rice wine. She leaned forward, her body constantly shaking, as she passed along the ancestral spirits’ complaints: “Where are the descendants of the Kakita’an? Why can we see none of them?”
Why indeed hadn’t the descendants of the Kakita’an come with the tribespeople to see the Tafalong ancestral spirits? Exploring this question, Returning Souls delves into conflicts between the Kakita’an family and the tribal powers that be, as well as the differences between Aboriginal traditions and modern laws. There was a dispute between the Kakita’an family and the tribal chief over who had rights to the land around the family’s ancestral home. The Kakita’an descendants were taking legal action to get land that had been confiscated by the Japanese, and later taken over by the community as a whole, to be returned to the Kakita’an family.
It turns out that from 1895 to 1945, the Japanese colonial administration prohibited the Kakita’an from hosting headhunting ceremonies, and forced the members of the family to leave their home, designating the building a historic monument and the land surrounding it national property. After the Japanese left, the tribe continued the arrangement set up by the colonial government, insisting that the land belonged to the tribe as a whole.
As a result of that land dispute, Kakita’an descendants were unwilling to go with the other tribespeople to the Institute of Ethnology to visit their ancestors’ spirits, arranging instead to visit by themselves at another time.
“My mother Saumah Geliu was a 58th-generation Kakita’an,” says the 59th-generation Tipus Saumah to the camera.
As these successive groups of Amis tribespeople came to the Academia Sinica to discuss the return of the pillars, Hu Tai-li, who was filming their visits, began to wonder: Assuming that the pillars should go back to Tafalong, to whom should they be given? “I, at least, feel that Tipus has the strongest claim. After all, it was her relatives that carved these pillars and built the structure.”
Returning and rebuilding
When the young tribespeople returned to the village and discussed how to continue to press forward, they took a new tack based on what the medium Kating had said: “We realized that we didn’t want the pillars; we wanted the spirits of the old people that were inside the pillars.”
On August 14 of the following year, on a scorching summer day, the Tafalong youth, accompanied by the Tafalong chief, tribal representatives, and a mountain boar, came once again to the Institute of Ethnology, bringing offerings of pork to feed the ancestral spirits. The medium conducted a ceremony as they prepared to bring the spirits back to the tribe, while leaving the seven carved pillars depicting traditional myths in the museum. The dispute over these cultural artifacts had come to a conclusion.
When the ancestral spirits returned to the tribal village, they were first placed in a thatched hut where the Kakita’an home used to stand. In 2005, with assistance provided by the institute to purchase building materials and pay for carving expenses, work began on rebuilding the Kakita’an ancestral home.
Yet, with the land dispute within the tribe unsettled, the process of rebuilding the Kakita’an home was a rocky one.
On the legal front, the township office had sent people out to the site to plant signs declaring: “No construction allowed.” The threat was loud and clear. Fearing that the Kakita’an home would be razed after reconstruction was completed in January of 2006, Tipus took the advice of the Institute of Ethnology to send an application to the Hualien County Cultural Bureau to have the building protected as a cultural site, averting the danger that it would be torn down.
Issues of face played a role. The tribal leaders, including the chief and elected representatives, didn’t support reconstructing the ancestral home of the Kakita’an, whose economic and social status in the community had fallen.
It turns out that the Kakita’an, in addition to controlling tribal lands, had also been a provider of social welfare to the community. The Kakita’an family took on responsibility for helping the poorest members of the tribe—widows, orphans and so forth.
Tipus, who left for Taipei to work as a hairdresser when she was 16, admits that her mother hadn’t previously actively pushed to rebuild the Kakita’an home, largely because the family was so poor. Even if she had insisted upon trying to rebuild, the lack of money would have left the job unfinished, and that, she explains, would have been humiliating for their ancestors.
Even now, most people in Tafalong use the Amis word kitaan (place of wealth) to describe the Kakita’an home, ignoring the ceremonial functions served within. A young tribe member named Tilo analyses it thus: Although many of the tribal elders had no strong feelings either way about whether the home should be rebuilt, they didn’t object because its reconstruction would permit the holding of ceremonies and the observance of taboos unique to the Kakita’an that couldn’t be duplicated elsewhere in the community.
Take the Ilisin, the annual ceremony of the greatest importance to the tribe. Traditionally, the first day of the ceremony would be spent at the Kakita’an home, with offerings of food given to the ancestral spirits. With the decline in the Kakita’an family fortunes, the ceremony was simply not observed for 50 years. No one in the community had tried to usurp their authority over such ceremonial matters.
Who still believes in ancestral spirits?
Perhaps it’s of greater relevance to point out that like most other Aboriginal peoples in Taiwan, the Tafalong have largely converted to Christianity, placing their faith in God and shunning ancestral spirits. Today visitors to Tafalong find three beautiful churches: Catholic, Presbyterian and Seventh Day Adventist. The Catholic congregation is largest.
“Would the Tafalong ancestral spirits, which had been away for nearly 50 years, be able to adapt to the changes in the tribal village?” Hu Tai-li asks this sensitive question about clashing faiths in her documentary Returning Souls.
Even Tipus’s mother, a 58th-generation descendant of Kakita’an, converted to Catholicism after the Japanese left. “We were so poor back then there was no other way,” recalls Tipus. “To get baby formula and clothes, many converted to Catholicism.”
Yet, it can’t be denied that although the land dispute has not been settled, the Tafalong’s ancestral spirits have already returned, and their return has gradually changed life in the community. The teachers and students of Tafalong’s elementary school use the Kakita’an ancestral home for experiential education. They sit in a semicircle inside and sing traditional Amis songs and learn about the Amis origin myth. “Rebuilding was hard work,” says Tipus. “But knowing that the ancestral spirits have a comfortable home like before gives me peace of mind. It makes me happy.”
Although the Kakita’an family can no longer play the key role in the tribe’s most important annual ceremonies as it did a half century before, Tipus remains undeterred: Since rebuilding, she’s been holding her own ceremony outside the ancestral home every year. The tribal youths are optimistic, believing that so long as the ceremony continues to exist, the Kakita’an and the tribal spirit will live on. They believe that at some point in the future the tribe as a whole will once again recognize the importance of the Kakita’an.
“When seeing the rebuilt Kakita’an home, two kinds of people cry,” writes Fuday, reflecting on the decade-long movement to welcome the ancestral spirits back to the village. “One type cries because they see it as it used to be. The other type cries because they see the difficulties looming on the path ahead.”
Returning Souls is a poignant film that shows how traditional Aboriginal culture has repeatedly been bent and twisted over the course of history. The film bears witness to the courage of people persevering in the face of insurmountable odds.