The plainspeople from China brought the legal notion of land title. Well, my father often jokes, “It used to be that if a Paiwan person had walked through a place leaving footprints with his own two feet enough times, that place belonged to him.”
Precious little literature from Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples has made the transition to English, so it’s always a pleasure to see a new translation. Hunter School, by Sakinu Ahronglong, continues UK-based publisher Honford Star’s excellent run of translated literature from East Asia.
Sakinu Ahronglong is a member of the Paiwan people, from Taitung County in the southeast of Taiwan, and Hunter School is a blend of personal recollection, traditional stories, and tales gathered from the lives of the people around him. How much is fact and how much fiction isn’t clear, and in a way that distinction is beside the point. A sense of loss permeates the book – loss of culture, loss of habitat, loss of language. The writing itself feels like an act of defiance against an encroaching world that has already taken much of what Sakinu considers to be the essential nature of the Paiwan people.
A potent example of this loss is found in alcohol. For Sakinu, the millet wine traditionally made in Lalaoran – his village – is “a driver of indigenous society and a symbol of continuity […] it enhances the sacred character of rituals”. He contrasts this with the “alcohol sold by the public liquor bureau, [which] has numbed the spirits and hobbled the bodies of my people and eroded our traditional culture”. Strong liquor has left a trail of destruction through Indigenous Taiwanese communities:
These pailang [bad people] use booze to get what they want, and we indigenous people lose our culture to them. We can’t beat them at their game because we don’t know the rules. They are familiar with much that we don’t understand. We are the ultimate losers. We don’t have anything left.
The most terrifying episode in the book comes when the teenage Sakinu and his younger brother are summoned to Taipei for the first time by their father, who is working there, to collect money for their school tuition. Lost, bewildered, unable to find their father as night falls, Sakinu convincingly conveys the alien nature of the huge mass of humanity, the traffic, the concrete, the gripping fear of being robbed or abducted. It also brings home the racism faced by Indigenous Taiwanese in their own country.
In later years, I would visit Taipei again and stand in front of the Mitsukoshi Shin Kong Life Tower that now towers over the train station, a landmark in Greater Taipei. I would stand on the overpass in front of the tower and remember what the site had looked like before the tower was built, when I came to Taipei with my brother and got called “chief”, “native”, and “savage”.
The happy times, by contrast, are all associated with home. The freedom of the mountains, of hunting, of times spent chatting with his grandmother or scaring birds away from the millet field. His grandfather says the black birds which come at dusk hold the spirits of their ancestors, and bids Sakinu to let them eat their fill. Village elders use smoke from cooking fires to communicate with the same ancestors, who look with interest at the deeds of their descendants.
Where the text moves into Paiwan mythology is where it grows tender, as in the story of the forbidden lovers Izang and Tsukuba, who end up transmuted into a hawk and a hundred pacer snake. This snake, a totemic animal for the Paiwan, often raises its head, explained as Tsukuba looking to the sky in search of her lost love. These tales reinforce the allegiance of people and place, as Sakinu believes that only when saturated in their traditions and situated in their ancestral lands can the Paiwan really be themselves.
One particularly moving passage comes when the young Sakinu and his cousin accompany Sakinu’s father to an abandoned village deep in the forest, which his father tells them was the home of their ancestors. It has remained undisturbed by archeologists or anthropologists thanks to its remoteness. The village is an impressive settlement, built of heavy slate quarried some distance away, and sited in a good position to defend against raids from enemies. The boys are impressed with the might of their forebears, and see visions of life in the village when it was populated.
Min-ch’üen walked up to me and confided, “The moment you took out your knife, I saw warriors holding spears and arrows standing in front of the platform. I heard them shout in response to your shout, as if they were about to go off to war. And when you put your knife back in the scabbard, right in that instant, they went blurry and disappeared before my very eyes. Maybe in a previous lifetime you were a warrior of this village, a great warrior who survived a hundred battles. Maybe you were their commander.”
After returning home Sakinu dreams of his great-great-grandfather, also called Sakinu, as a young man. Long-haired, tattooed, strong and commanding, he names the younger Sakinu his avatar, and charges him with preserving the Paiwan. It is no stretch to make the link to Sakinu as a grown man, modern-day custodian of Paiwan culture and advocate for his people. Sakinu enumerates the outsider influences on his village: Han Chinese, Japanese, Christian, and other Indigenous peoples, the Puyuma but particularly the Amis, whose rituals and dress his village adopted decades ago. His own father, when told that Sakinu wishes to have a Paiwan-style wedding and not a Christian one, is scornful. But he presses ahead and – forty years since the last Paiwan wedding in Lalaoran – Sakinu’s marriage is, he hopes, the spark that will rekindle the old traditions and help his people remember what it means to be Paiwan.
Hunter School is not only Sakinu’s lament for the damage wrought on his people and their home, but also a manifesto for their resurgence, a plea for the most harmful aspects of outsider society to be kept at bay while traditions can be relearned, language can be passed on, and young people given a reason to stay. A sensitive translation is central to the impact of the book in English, and Darryl Sterk delivers, striking the right balance between a flowing, readable text and giving background for readers unfamiliar with the cultural context. Sakinu’s passion is infectious, his message vital, and together they make Hunter School a compelling collection.
Hunter School is published by Honford Star.