Rebirth in Fire: The Sakizaya Tribe of Hualien

Rebirth in Fire: The Sakizaya Tribe of Hualien

By Candice Leow     Photos by Wu Yi-kai

On January 17, 2007, the Sakizaya became Taiwan’s 13th officially recognized indigenous tribe. From their homeland on the Hualien plains of eastern Taiwan, the Sakizaya people were driven out due to disputes with and defeat by Chinese imperial forces in the 19th century. The Sakizaya hid among the Amis tribe, through the Japanese occupation period (1895-1945). Hence, the Sakizaya was considered a subgroup of the Amis for a long time. The Sakizaya is currently concentrated in Hualien County with a population estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000, but a much lower number has registered as members of this group.  

Jaliwan Incident

In 1878, the Jaliwan Incident occurred in which the Qing dynasty troops burned down the Takobowan Community, by first destroying the Sakizaya’s most primary mode of defense, a bamboo wall that surrounded the entire community. While the Qing troops had several clashes with the Sakizaya tribe over territory, they were also rude to Kavalan women in the Jaliwan village when buying local produce. The Kavalan and Sakizaya hence united against the Qing troops. In a bid to protect his people, the Sakizaya chieftain, Komod Pazik, surrendered to the Qing troops. In spite of his openness to peace negotiations, the Qing soldiers killed him and his wife, Icep Kanasaw, as a warning to the Amis tribe living in the same region that the Qing would not condone any form of revolt.

The Amis people helped some of the surviving Sakizaya youth to escape a similar fate and these Sakizaya youth lived among the Amis, hiding their identity. They learned the Amis language, and even took on Amis names. Later generations continued to live in Amis communities, thus when Japanese researchers arrived to the area in the early 20th century, they mistakenly, but understandably, categorized these Sakizaya as a sub-group of the Amis. 

Cultural Revival, Remembrance and Rebirth of the Sakizaya Tribe through Fire

Only in 2001, did the Sakizaya people start to revive their culture and traditions, including the holding of the Palamal ceremony to commemorate their ancestors. The Palamal ceremony focuses on the worship of the ancestral spirits and re-enacts the struggle between the Sakizaya and the Qing troops, serving to tell the story of the rebirth of the Sakizaya tribe through fire. The Sakizaya chieftain, Komod Pazik, and his wife, Icep Kanasaw, who put up a brave resistance against the Qing troops, are commemorated as “fire gods”.


Traditional Sakizaya Clothing

Sakizaya traditional clothing features three colors: earthy yellow-gold represents traditional lands, crimson red bloodshed from the ancestors’ resistance against the Qing troops, and navy blue gratitude to the Amis tribe for protecting them.

The motifs on the headgear worn by young women depict the elements of nature such as wind, rain, earth and fire. The use of seashells represents the Sakizaya’s relationship with the sea, white pearls symbolize tears, and green beads represent the bamboo wall which surrounded each Sakizaya village as a form of defense and protection. Lastly, the coffee brown leg wrappings are representative of the mud, branches and grass that caught onto their ancestors’ clothes as they tried to escape from harm.


Sakizaya Palamal Ceremony

The Sakizaya Palamal ceremony is held in the fall on the ceremonial grounds of the Sakol Community in Hualien. The old Takobowan Community of the Sakizaya was located in Hualien City. After the Jaliwan Incident, the first place of relocation for the Sakizaya was in a few other consolidated areas of Hualien City, of which there were many bishopwood trees, known as sakol in the Amis language. Hence, although subsequent relocations followed due to typhoons and other reasons, the name Sakol was used to commemorate the Sakizaya ancestors.

The entire Palamal ceremony begins in the late afternoon and continues into the night. It involves the participation of some members of the Kavalan Tribe, particularly from Xinshe Village of Fengbin Township. The participation of a senior Kavalan shaman is crucial for younger members from both tribes to learn the proceedings.  The ceremony begins with summoning and welcoming of the ancestral spirits from the peaks of Meilun (sacred hills), by shamans and their assistants, accessorized in red, white, green, black and blue, with those donning white being the most senior.


Reclaiming the Sakizaya Identity

While younger Sakizaya may agree with the observance of the Palamal ceremony as part of their own cultural identity, some of them are concerned with the intrusion of tourists as observers. Thus, as with other indigenous ceremonies be respectful and listen to the instructions of the indigenous people. From the revival of this ceremony, what is clear is that although the Sakizaya population may not be large, the Sakizaya people are resilient in their rebirth through fire and are reclaiming their identity.