TAITUNG, Taiwan — Deep bass kicks and nose flute melodies pulsated from the outdoor stage framed by lush greenery just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.

Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw stopped singing, then switched to Mandarin. This was an ode to the ancestral land that he revered, he explained — the land on which the crowd of 200 Chinese-speaking Taiwanese now stood.

“We have had many colonists who have come here,” Sangpuy said, not delving too deeply into the painful history of his Puyuma Katratripulr tribe. “But Taiwan has always been the same,” he added, “nourishing us, protecting us.”

Sangpuy then launched into the song “Mavva,” or “Embrace,” one of the tracks that helped make the 45-year-old former iron worker an award-winning singer and one of several Indigenous artists who are gaining mainstream traction in an era of political change in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s roughly 580,000 Indigenous people in 16 officially recognized tribes share ancestry with Austronesian people who departed the island by boat thousands of years ago and settled as far away as Madagascar and New Zealand. For centuries, the ones who stayed were marginalized by newcomers, including imperial Japan and ethnic Chinese, who came in waves starting in the 17th century and have governed the island since the 1940s. Today, 98 percent of Taiwanese are ethnic Han Chinese.

Although Taiwan’s relationship with China is intensely debated, one thing is certain: there has been a shift among younger generations who increasingly do not feel China’s emotional pull but rather embrace their home island’s history, and its Indigenous culture, as an expression of being distinctly Taiwanese.

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In 2017, Sangpuy won the award for best album at Taiwan’s Grammys, the Golden Melody Awards. Last year, the R&B singer Abao, full name Aljenljeng Tjaluvie, emerged as the biggest winner at the 2020 awards with the album “Kinakaian,” which means “Mother Tongue.”

In awarding the album, propelled by modern electronic beats but sung in the Indigenous Paiwan language, judges said Abao’s music “reflects the greatest consensus of Taiwan’s society this year.”

Indigenous dance troupes like Taitung’s Bulareyaung Dance Company and the Tjimur Dance Theatre in Pingtung have garnered lavish reviews in Taiwan and abroad.

The growing visibility of Indigenous artists follows Taiwan’s political and social liberalization since the 1990s, when the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), which had fled from China in 1949, began to lose its iron grip on power. Taiwan saw the rise of the nativist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates a national identity separate from China.

The current president and DPP leader, Tsai Ing-wen, is one-quarter Paiwan, and she formally apologized to the Indigenous population for past injustices in one of her first presidential speeches in 2016. Tsai’s spokeswoman, Kolas Yotaka, who belongs to the Amis ethnic group, legally changed her name in 2005 after Taiwan relaxed KMT-era laws that required every citizen to have a Chinese name.

In recent years, mass movements like the 2014 Sunflower Movement, when tens of thousands of students occupied the legislature to protest a proposed trade agreement with China, have also reinforced Taiwanese identity, according to sociologists. Polls also show Taiwanese sentiment toward China soured further last year after pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and China’s crackdown.

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“The social atmosphere is changing,” said Suming Rupi, a singer who struggled a decade ago to convince a record label to back an album sung in Amis. After his first 2010 album received critical acclaim, he released four more recordings.

The social atmosphere is changing.”
— Suming Rupi, a singer

“The events such as the 2014 Sunflower Movement and then the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2019 prompted Taiwanese people to value what is seen as our culture,” Suming said. “If we speak Mandarin Chinese, it’s hard to stand out. But if we speak Taiwan’s Indigenous languages, then that absolutely presents Taiwan’s culture. That’s one of the reasons why our music is getting easier to be accepted by the public.”

Since 2013, Suming has drawn thousands of visitors to his Amis Music Festival in his hometown, where he has invited Indigenous musicians from Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Taiwan’s LGBTQ and feminist groups.

Daya (Da-Wei) Kuan, a professor of ethnology at National Chengchi University and a member of the Tayal tribe, also pointed to geopolitical factors.

“Under Chinese pressure, Taiwanese are emphasizing that our cultural roots are no longer from the central plains of China,” he said. “They’re beginning to highlight the characteristics of Taiwan’s Aboriginal culture and connecting Taiwan closer to the Austronesian countries in the Pacific.”

For centuries, Taiwan’s Indigenous population faced discrimination, land seizure and forced assimilation. Villages were razed and their residents pressed into labor during Japanese occupation. Tribal languages were banned after the KMT arrived in Taiwan in 1945. Some coastal Indigenous languages are now extinct.

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In her 2016 speech, President Tsai apologized for “centuries of pain and mistreatment.” Taiwan had to face “the truth” to move forward “as a country of one people,” she said.

Tsai pledged to give Indigenous communities greater autonomy and strengthen their land rights. Her administration announced a native languages act that would expand instruction for 16 native languages in schools, which activists say has represented progress.

[Taiwanese are] beginning to highlight the characteristics of Taiwan’s Aboriginal culture and connecting Taiwan closer to the Austronesian countries in the Pacific.”
— Daya (Da-Wei) Kuan, professor of ethnology at National Chengchi University and member of the Tayal tribe

But many artists and activists say that beneath the mainstream recognition of Indigenous singers, conflicts over land rights and development remain an uphill battle. For all their musical success, artists have not been able to translate that popularity into broad support for their causes.

The Amis singer Panai Kusui, for instance, has held a protest for more than 1,400 days in central Taipei to demand that the government expand the territory that Indigenous tribes can reclaim as their ancestral land.

Daya, the ethnologist, said the public might find Panai’s music more digestible than her message. “I don’t think it’s proportional: the people who like her music and the people who actually follow Indigenous causes,” he said.

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On a recent Saturday night in Taitung, on the Taiwanese east coast that is slowly seeing commercial development, Sangpuy ran through upbeat songs and ballads. He chanted in the Pinuyumayan language and played a mouth harp and yueqin, a moon-shaped, four-stringed instrument. He sang about the feel of spring water and the scent of the wind.

Backstage, the singer said he has been happy to see ethnic Chinese fans fill 1,000-seat auditoriums in Taipei and the public’s tastes change. Taiwanese today should “lay deeper roots” after spending decades gazing at China, he said.

“In school we learned about the Yangtze River and the Yellow River and all of China’s provinces, but nothing about Taiwan’s rivers,” Sangpuy said. “We knew everything about the outside world and nothing of our own soil. That’s not right.”

After the show, Jeff Wang, a 23-year-old ecology student who took a train for hours to the concert, waited in line for Sangpuy to sign his CD. Wang, who is ethnic Chinese, had seen Sangpuy listed on a social media post introducing Taiwan’s “must-listen” musicians. He was hooked by the music and message, Wang said, even if he didn’t immediately understand the lyrics.

“I’m very proud to be from a place surrounded by so many different cultures,” Wang said. “After all, they were here before we Han.”