Monday, December 14, 2015

Saonao yan Eyak #5: Austronesian Family Reunion

It is less than 200 days til Guam hosts FESTPAC or the largest cultural festival in the Pacific. I am involved in FESTPAC in a number of forms and there are some ways that we are clearly ready and on course and others where ai adai it seems like it'll take a miracle for us to make it on time. But with each day, more and more things are decided and more and more groups come together. Hunggan sesso tai'esperansa yu' gi este na kinalamten, lao kada tumekkon yu', mafatto tinanga ta'lo.

For those of you who would like to receive regular updates about FESTPAC, its planning and organizing go on Facebook and LIKE the official FESTPAC page. Here is the link:

Or, each Friday the Pacific Daily News is featuring a different column under the banner of "Saonao yan Eyak" which covers a different aspect of the organizing taking place and also hopes to help prepare the people for what it is like to host a FESTPAC. Here is my most recent column in the series, talking about my recent trip to Taiwan for the 13th Annual International Austronesian Conference. 


FESTPAC and Austronesian Connections
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Pacific Daily News
November 12, 2015

For the past 13 years, the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan has organized an annual International Austronesian Conference. The conference is organized to bring together dozens of community activists, government representatives and scholars from various Austronesian communities across Southeast Asia and the Pacific so that they might learn more about their shared heritage. For some of you, it may come as a surprise that Taiwan has a “Council of Indigenous People” since most of what we know about Taiwan or Taiwanese seems to be simply Chinese and hardly “native” or “indigenous.” After all the tens of thousands of tourists that come to Guam each year, primarily to get married in chapels by the sea, don’t seem to be very similar to Chamorros or other people in the Pacific. Even if you travel to Taiwan and spend time in Taipei or other major cities, you might be hard-pressed to find out what is indigenous or native about the place.

This is because in the past century, the Chinese population, in particular after the Chinese Civil War, has boomed and heavily marginalized the indigenous peoples of Taiwan. Today those native groups, of which the Taiwanese government recognizes 16 as distinct tribes, only make up about 3% of Taiwan’s 23 million people. Some scholars argue that these 16 tribes are what make Taiwan the “cradle of Austronesia” or a shared genesis  or urheimat, for hundreds of millions of people today, including Chamorros. The Austronesian people settled Taiwan as early as 8,000 years ago and 5,000 years ago they began to migrate into the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, eventually spreading across what is today known as Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. The Austronesian language family even stretches as far west as Madagascar.

I was honored to attend this year’s International Austronesian Conference as a board member of the Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency (Guam CAHA), which is integral in coordinating next year’s Festival of Pacific Arts (FESTPAC) which Guam will be hosting. To be honest, this four-day conference was one of the best I have ever attended. It featured two days of presentations and discussion in Taipei and then two days of traveling to visit more remote areas in Southern Taiwan, where the branches of the Paiwan and Rukai tribes live. The academic discussions, which featured presentations from Fiji, Guam, Palau, New Zealand, the Philippines and other areas were thought-provoking, but I far more enjoyed the chance to spend time with members of the indigenous tribes. We traveled by train, bus and up mountains in the backs of trucks to visit them in their villages and learn more about their culture and the ways they are working to sustain themselves.

On these trips we made use of interpreters as the international delegates couldn’t understand Paiwan, Rukai or Mandarin. But despite these linguistic differences, when interacting with the indigenous Taiwanese, there was also a constant feeling of being connected, or reuniting and reacquainting with each other after an impossibly, unimaginably long time. Even though there may have been little to no contact between parts of the Austronesian family for millennia, there are still ways in which you can illustrate the shared heritage, the language being the primary means. During one meeting with the leaders of the Paiwan in Wulaluzi Village, one tribal leader whose only English was “Ok, Ok” and a Fijian woman whose only Paiwan knowledge was “Malimali” which meant thank you, nonetheless had an engaging and inspiring conversation. On their fingers, they counted off the numbers one through ten in their respective languages. When he said “ita,” she said “saiva.” He said “drusa” and she said “dua.” For three he said “tielu” and she said “tolu.” The rest of us listened in, counting in our own languages and hearing these faint similarities (in Chamorro hacha, hugua, tulu, for example). When he hit five, they both said “lima” and realizing that this is the number that remains similar throughout hundreds of languages, they began to dance excitedly and hug. Others joined in the linguistic celebration. As “lima” is also five in the ancient Chamorro counting system, I also did a little dance in solidarity. Throughout the conference we all sought out other linguistic similarities. Ultimately we found common ground on things which have remained part of the lives of Austronesian peoples even as the millennia and oceans have separated us. You could still hear the similarities in words for ear, face, hand, head, rain, sky and even people.

Taiwan will be sending a delegation to Guam as part of FESTPAC next May. When you meet members of the delegation, feel free to ask them the similar questions and learn about other Austronesian connections. This is one of the many exciting possibilities FESTPAC offers, it is like an Austronesian family reunion, a way for us to come together and share again, after not seeing or hearing from each other in so long.  

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