2. Becoming Indigenous
  3. Are We Really Free in God’s Hands?

Written by Bali Nangavulan; Translated by 林士棻 Shihfen Lin; Illustrated by Lin Jia-Dong


Today’s indigenous peoples in Taiwan, when subjected to the scrutiny of society, are often troubled by their failure to conform to the superficial image portrayed by the mainstream preconception. Be it viewed outwardly from physical features or inwardly from traditional culture, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are always met by others with intuitive prejudice. When people talk about religions, the most frequently asked question is,“ Are you a Christian?”

A seemingly common, innocuous question, it nonetheless highlights the close connection between indigenous peoples and Christianity and even implies an intuitive assumption that some of them are Christians. But if we look more closely at the root of modern indigenous people’s faiths, we will find them quite diverse and fascinating.


Miracles of the 20th Century:

Prevalence of Christianity in Taiwan’s Indigenous Communities


In Taiwan, churches featuring a red cross on the roof can be seen everywhere in most indigenous communities. They are not only the religious center for local Christians but also a destination many government officials must not miss when visiting these villages. Local religious leaders, such as priests and ministers, are important figures with far-reaching and profound influence. This can be attributed to the prestige and authority built over an extended period since the arrival of Western powers that introduced Christianity to the island. 


The spread of Christianity in Taiwan can be traced as far back as the late 19th century when the Netherlands and Spaniard missionaries went deep into the regions resided by Taiwanese Plains Indigenous Peoples on the west part of the island. During the Japanese colonial period, despite the official ban on the Western religion, missionary activities remained active. Records are maintained which documented the work of Canadian and Japanese missionaries preaching in indigenous communities in the Eastern and Mid-northern Taiwan, respectively. In the early Republican period, after the Chinese Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek, the then president, imposed strict restrictions over indigenous regions. The entry of outsiders into the mountainous areas was prohibited except for the Presbyterian Church, which was allowed preferential access simply because Chiang himself was a Christian. Thereafter, churches were established throughout Taiwan’s indigenous regions, with a rising percentage of indigenous people converting to Christianity. So astonishing was the popularity of Christianity across the indigenous area that the phenomenon was dubbed as “miracles of the 20th century” by the Christianity community at that time. 


After the martial law was lifted, the restrictions on indigenous regions were gradually loosened, and local churches began to interact closely with those in the lowlands. Those who work and study far away from their hometowns would join urban churches in their neighborhood. When indigenous community churches are to construct new buildings and expand equipment, their befriending urban churches will provide aid to meet their needs. With mutual reliance built over long-term friendship, theses churches often refer to themselves as sisters, indicating a firm fellowship with each other.


Indigenous Subjectivity Demonstrated

Through the Choice of Faith


Viewed from a colonial perspective, the conversion of Taiwan’s indigenous people to Christianity tends to be attributed solely to the Church’s ability to provide supplies and medical care that were lacking in indigenous communities. But if we look more closely at the contexts where both sides come into contact, we will find that in the traditional mainstream discourse, there has been an absence of concerns about the subjectivity of indigenous peoples.


Take for instance the Bunun’s Naihunpu Community in Xinyi Township, Nantou County. The earliest record of its exposure to missionaries dated from 1947. The missionary also served as the administrative instructor stationed in the village but did not stay long because his missionary work proved unsuccessful, due to his civil servant status and the language barrier. His successors faced the same difficulties, which hampered the spread of Christianity. It was not until around 1950 when Hualien-based Bunun missionaries came to the Bunun communities in Central Taiwan that local residents finally had the opportunity to gain a better understanding of Christianity and the Bible, thanks to their common ground in ethnicity and language. Having come to understand and identify with the content of Christianity, the Naihunpu Community established its church in 1952. 


There is more than one path for indigenous people to decide on whether they will follow a foreign faith. For example, some other communities nearby Xinyi Township, which have collectively converted to the Christian faith, made the decision based on the discussions of elders from their clans, weighing the possible effects and impacts of the foreign religion on their indigenous culture. Looking back at this process from their perspective, we can see that Taiwan’s indigenous people have made the choice “consciously,” demonstrating their subjectivity in the pursuit of religious beliefs. 


Reconciliation Between Religion and Culture:

An Ambiguous Conundrum


With the Christian religion being “chosen” as their new faith, indigenous people are invariably faced with such issues as conflicts between traditional values and cultural identity. These problems are addressed differently by the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church in their parishes. For example, the former would send foreign priests directly to indigenous communities, where they seek to gain the trust of locals by distributing supplies and paying respect to their culture. The latter, on the other hand, used local pastors to persuade their fellow villagers to abandon traditional beliefs and convert to Christianity, replacing indigenous customs with the more progressive and superior Christian practices. 


Take the aforementioned Naihunpu Community for example. A parish of the Presbyterian Church, it adopts a gentle approach to striking a balance between traditional Bunun rituals and Christian activities. The church seeks to weaken the sacredness of conventional rituals by replacing them with Christian concepts and practices, which can be exemplified by the Christianized funeral of the community as follows. 


In the Bunun tradition, funerals are considered “inauspicious” and therefore are closed to outsiders and solely attended by family members and blood relatives. But now the ceremony is completely handled by the church in a Christian way, allowing fellow church members to come to express their condolences and provide support. Such a shift has changed the views of villagers about funerals and the way they react to such occasions. In some extreme cases, the core values of indigenous beliefs are inappropriately replaced by existing Christian concepts. For example, in the translation of the Bible, “quanitu (ghost, or soul of the deceased),” the core concept of the traditional Bunun belief, is used to refer to “devil” against the monotheistic God. The meaning of “quanitu,” which is neutral in itself, is therefore distorted by the church’s improper use of negative association. What is worse, the church has always failed to respect and highlight the cultural significance embodied by the term, which ultimately results in the ambiguities and conflicts of the Bunun rituals in relation to the Christian faith.


Getting Lost

in Faith


The ambiguities of their religious belief and original culture have also influenced the way indigenous people view themselves. Today’s indigenous Christians often refer themselves as followers of some generation, while non-indigenous outsiders may intuitively assume that all indigenous peoples are Christians. And thanks to the fact that early missionaries have achieved great success in indigenous regions within a short period of time, Christians of mainstream denominations in Taiwan are generally full of praise and admiration to the indigenous community for their “piety.”


Since indigenous Christians are usually politically and economically disadvantaged, the recognition from the “mainstream” community serves to strengthen their self-identification and a strong sense of superiority in being “Christians.” Yet this also aggravates the microaggression held by the mainstream society toward ethnic minorities, giving rise to unintentional prejudice revealed by behavior in daily interaction.


Taiwan’s mainstream Christian community typically assume that indigenous people are “optimistic by nature,” which helps draw them closer to Christian values. But such misconception has confined the definition of indigenous Christians to a narrowing set of criteria. That is, those who are less optimistic than expected or fail to act in a way to bring them “nearer to God” would not only be considered unqualified as Christians, but also lose their assumed trademark of being indigenous as well. Such dual negation can result in a collapse of their self-identification and pressures from being a member of the church?


As a result, many indigenous Christians often choose to remain silent behind the mainstream values of the faith. Nowadays controversial issues about diversified Christian teachings, such as the translation of the Bible, the passing on of shamanism, and marriage equality, have been discussed by churches in non-indigenous areas. In indigenous areas, however, dissidents with different views to traditional values are muted by the church, which seeks to suppress the subjectivity of the community with its because they want to maintain their assumed image as a model of God’s miracles. This has resulted in the constant marginalization of indigenous Christians who are deprived of opportunities to voice their opinions. 


Speak Up

for Your Freedom of Faith 


Although everyone has equal rights to enjoy the freedom of faith, indigenous peoples, however, are robbed of the right to interpret their identity in terms of region beliefs. They are one-sided and limited in their imagination of subjectivity due to the colonization of the mainstream society. In the eyes of the church, indigenous communities are reduced merely to figures showcasing the success of missionary work or viewed as decorative motifs that highlight the features of churches in Taiwan. 


The neglect of indigenous traditions and cultures by both the state and the church has deprived indigenous peoples of the value system and cultural identity they live by, as well as the ability to understand and interpret their own culture. Yet, it is in the process of “identifying with the new faith” that indigenous peoples have rediscovered the dignity and significance of their lives. This in turn triggers their collective conversion to Christianity and the rapid establishment of churches in indigenous areas, which indirectly contributes to the “miracles of the 20th century” of which the Church in Taiwan is so proud. 


It is just that the indigenous community is undeniably the most disadvantaged in Taiwan’s Christian society in terms of resources, financial conditions, and distribution of power when viewed in terms of the missionary history of Western religions and interaction between the Church and indigenous peoples in Taiwan. It is difficult for Taiwan’s indigenous Christians to have a say in the church. To indigenous peoples, the church plays an ambivalent role. On the one hand, it serves as a spiritual home where they can find a sense of belonging, On the other hand, it restricts the development of their religious diversity. With this in mind, we must accept and bear the result of colonization in history and develop the ability to make independent value judgments. Only by doing so can we genuinely enjoy the freedom of faith.

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