Wurao Community: Reflecting on Amis Ceremonial Traditions
There are currently 16 officially recognized tribes in Taiwan. Each with its unique culture including rites and ceremonies. Traditional rites and ceremonies were often performed in association with the millet growing season or hunting season. Millet was a staple grain of many of Taiwan's indigenous tribes.
The Amis, the largest of Taiwan's indigenous tribes, is mostly concentrated in the mountains and along the coast in eastern Taiwan's Hualien and Taitung counties. When Han Chinese farmers began arriving in eastern Taiwan, they developed rice paddies. The Amis learned these techniques and replaced millet with rice.
Every summer, the Amis tribe holds what is the most well-known of the indigenous ceremonies, the Harvest Festival. Traditionally, the Harvest Festival followed the harvest of millet. Although the Amis tribe no longer grows this grain in large quantities, these ceremonies are still performed because they carry deep cultural meaning. The Harvest Festival is an opportunity for the members of the Amis tribe to express their gratitude to the ancestral spirits for their blessings and protection, as well as marks the start of a new year. Ancestral spirits are welcomed to the festivities and at the conclusion of the Harvest Festival are given a grand sendoff. Oftentimes, what visitors see is the singing and dancing that goes along with this grand sendoff and mistake it as a community party. The singing and dancing are not meant to entertain people, but rather the ancestral spirits, so that they will continue to provide blessings and protection.
There is much planning and work, as well as many rites, that must be completed before this final sendoff, and thus preparation for the Harvest Festival can take many weeks. Oftentimes, preparatory efforts and rites are off limits to outsiders. For example, just before the start of the grand sendoff, the young males of the community spend at least one night along a river catching fish and going through various tests as part of their coming-of-age rites. Males of the Amis tribe are divided into groups according to age, and each age group has distinct responsibilities. This is an important cultural characteristic of this tribe.
The Amis Harvest Festival differs from community to community. In the Wurao Community of Hegang Village in Ruisui Township of Hualien County, there is much emphasis on sticking close to tradition and gender roles. Once the males return from spending the night along the river, they hold a banquet where they offer up what they have caught, cooking the fish in betel nut calyx containers. They sit together with other members of their age group. After eating, the elders invite each age group one by one to toast them. After this, the younger age groups clean up the area and a dance circle is started. At first, only men are allowed to join in the singing and dancing. Eventually, the women form a circle of their own. It is at this point that outsiders may be invited to join in.
At certain points the dancing and singing stop to allow for other activities, such as performances prepared by the residents of the community or visiting groups of Amis. Unique to this community is the building of simple bamboo rafts. These are used to carry the chieftain and visiting government officials around the ceremonial venue.
Then, once again, the males form a dance circle and this is followed by another circle for the females. The pace of the dancing is sometimes slow and sometimes fast, depending on the pace of the main singer or singers who perform traditional songs in the Amis language.
The next night, a dinner is held again in the ceremonial venue, this time for residents of the entire community and visiting officials. Once again, clean up is done by the younger males and the dance circle and events of the previous night are repeated.
Elders of the Wurao Community understand that this is an important opportunity to pass on traditional culture to the younger generations, as younger generations may be living in the cities and only able to come back once a year for this event. Thus, they place great emphasis on the deeper meaning that lies behind the singing and dancing.