Though Taiwan has a majority population of Han Chinese now, its original residents were indigenous Austronesian tribes. In fact, Taiwan is believed to be where the languages and cultures of the Austronesians began, which includes people in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, the Maoris in New Zealand and Polynesians in Hawaii.

Taiwan’s 14 aboriginal tribes occupied the island for as long as 15,000 years before Han settlers from China arrived in the 17th Century. They lived as hunters and gatherers in the mountains or by fishing in the sea. Although they currently number only about 500,000 (2$% of the population), it is still possible to experience their unique cultures.

Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines
Just across the street from Taipei’s famous National Palace Museum is the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, one of the largest museums devoted to indigenous cultures. Its collection of some 2,000 artefacts includes tools for startling birds so they do not eat crops, a horizontal back-strap loom for making cloth from tree stalks and fibers before machine-made thread was available, and tools for face tattooing. Tattoos served as an indication of adulthood, beauty and personal achievement for the Atayal tribe. There are also re-creations of traditional homes, including slate houses used by the Paiwan and Rukai tribes, which are cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The museum touches on significant historical events, including conflicts between aborigines and Han Chinese settlers, and the Wushe Incident — the biggest rebellion against Japanese colonial forces in Taiwan, which resulted in a massacre of hundreds of Seediq tribal people in 1930.

Orchid Island (Lanyu)
Situated off the southeastern coast of Taiwan, the small island is home to the most remotely located indigenous tribe: the Tao. The Japanese colonial government restricted public access to the island to study the Tao. When the Republic of China took over in 1945, it kept the ban in place, lifting it only in 1967. Those restrictions, and Orchid Island’s geographic remoteness, have preserved traditions among these indigenous people. The Tao’s dependence on and respect for the sea are reflected in ancient practices that survive today. When a son is born, the parents plant a tree. It is from this tree that the family builds a canoe for him when he is old enough to fish for a living. To preserve the fish stocks, the Tao only catch certain types of fish, such as the flying fish, at certain times of the year. The canoe launching and Flying Fish festivals are open to the public. Tourists can also visit traditional semi-subterranean homes intelligently built to protect the Tao from typhoons.

Taitung City
On Taiwan’s east coast, Taitung has one of the largest concentrations of indigenous tribes. Each summer, the Festival of Austronesian and Formosa Indigenous Cultures is held here, bringing together native people from Austronesian countries to share their customs, song and dance. The National Museum of Prehistory, built to save a Puyuma tribe archaeological site, is also located here and is a good place to learn about Taiwan’s indigenous cultures.

To hear traditional and contemporary indigenous music live, make a stop at the Dulan Sugar Factory Cafe, a former sugar factory that has been converted into a performance space for indigenous singers who hold impromptu jam sessions and welcome visitors to join in. Indigenous singing and music once echoed through the mountains and was used as a form of communication long before telephones arrived. Music and dance was also used for important worshipping ceremonies or to seek protection from the ancestors and spirits before a hunt or battle. At Eslite bookstores in Taiwan, or at indigenous restaurants and shops, you can pick up CDs of indigenous sounds you will probably never find anywhere else.

Villages in Taitung allow tourists to see how urban indigenous people live, including A’tolan (Dulan) Village, which has preserved the Amis tribe’s traditional ways of life, and the Bunun Leisure Farm, a tribe-operated resort farm, where performances are given of the Bunun tribe’s moving Pasibutbut (eight-part polyphonic singing). This prayer for a bountiful millet harvest is sung without musical instruments and considered one of the most harmonious and amazing works of music in the world.

Alishan (Ali Mountain)
Alishan is a popular scenic attraction in Taiwan, but it is also home to the Tsou tribe, which has largely been left out of the development of this major scenic area. Stop off at villages along the main road, and over a cup of home brewed coffee you will hear how they want to preserve the beauty of the mountain cherished by their ancestors, not overdevelop it.

A Jiang in Leye Village is one of an increasing number of Tsou people who have returned from the cities to open bed and breakfasts or grow organic tea in their homeland. Each October, the Tsou celebrate the Life Bean or Fona Festival. In Tsou language, fona refers to the hyacinth bean, which comes from a perennial plant that grows well on barren soil and adverse conditions. For the Tsou, the bean symbolizes life and the continuation of the tribe. The Fona Festival consists of a modified Tsou marriage, representing efforts to continue the tribe, a rather important task as the populations of many tribes number only a few thousand people.

In many areas where indigenous culture can be seen, there is usually a pavilion-like structure built from wood or bamboo where the community elders gather for discussions. Some areas, like Taitung, have street-side displays of traditional indigenous homes, free for tourists to visit. And restaurants in these areas serve indigenous meals, including rice in bamboo stalks, roasted wild boar and millet wine.

To help Taiwan’s indigenous people make a living in their ancestral land and preserve their language and culture, travellers can stay and eat at tribal-owned bed and breakfasts and restaurants. These tend to be well-adorned with indigenous decorations and the owners warmly greet guests.