New Zealand's long-lost Taiwanese cuzzies

When you wait 5000 years to catch up with close relatives, it's no wonder the family reunion goes off with quite a bang. Adam Dudding reports on a remarkable meeting between Maori writers and their Taiwanese 'living ancestors'.

First contact: Poet Robert Sullivan hongis a resident of Wulai during a visit by Maori writers.
Adam Dudding/Fairfax NZ

First contact: Poet Robert Sullivan hongis a resident of Wulai during a visit by Maori writers.

Early last month, after a hollering introduction from a crazed Taiwanese MC with a Monkees haircut, Witi Ihimaera took the podium at the gala dinner thrown in honour of the New Zealand contingent to the Taipei book fair.

"Actually," said the Whale Rider author (or "Maori super-writer", as the MC had put it), "I already feel at home, because someone asked me for directions today in Mandarin . . ."

(Two indulgent laughs: one from the English speakers then another from the Chinese speakers once the translator had finished.)

The New Zealand delegation visited Wulai, in Taipei County, Taiwan.
Adam Dudding/Fairfax Nz

The New Zealand delegation visited Wulai, in Taipei County, Taiwan.

"And at a bookshop," Ihimaera continued, "a young boy came up to me and wanted to put his hand in mine, because he thought I was his father."

Silver-tongued Ihimaera, 71 years old and a former diplomat, was possibly laying it on a bit thick to flatter his hosts, but the idea of a visiting Maori being confused for a local actually makes perfect sense.

In the past decade and a half, geneticists have confirmed what linguists and archaeologists had been saying since the 1970s - that there is a clear lineage running from Taiwan's inhabitants of 5000 years ago to modern-day Polynesians, including Maori.

Staunch defender: Retired teacher Yungay Isaw dressed in traditional Atayal attire.
Adam Dudding/Fairfax NZ

Staunch defender: Retired teacher Yungay Isaw dressed in traditional Atayal attire.

Most modern Taiwanese are of Han Chinese origin, but around 2 per cent - 500,000 people - belong to one of the island's 20-odd indigenous tribes and are direct descendants of those early inhabitants. Maori and indigenous Taiwanese are cousins.

New Zealand was this year's guest of honour at the book fair, so the usual handful of publishers flogging translation rights was joined by a huge Kiwi contingent including authors, poets, artists, performers and officials.

Many were Maori: writers including Ihimaera, poet Robert Sullivan, novelist Tina Makereti and Waikato University academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith; Huia Press publishers Brian Morris and Eboni Waitere; six dancers and two carvers from Rotorua's Nga Kete Tuku Iho cultural institute.

11032015. News. Photo Adam Dudding / Fairfax NZ.
Whalerider author Witi Ihimaera in Wulai, Taiwan
Adam Dudding

11032015. News. Photo Adam Dudding / Fairfax NZ. Whalerider author Witi Ihimaera in Wulai, Taiwan

And on day two of the week-long fair, most of Maori present were bundled into a bus and taken on a day-trip, organised by Taiwan's Council of Indigenous People (CIP), to the nearby hill region of Wulai to meet the indigenous Atayal people. Tagging along were this Pakeha journalist and poet Selina Tusitala Marsh who, by dint of her Pasifika heritage has the same Polynesian links to Taiwan as Maori but, as a New Zealand-born Samoan, can't claim to be "indigenous".

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It was a day of striking, and occasionally moving, moments of connection: as Maori met Atayal, each spotted familiar words, cultural practices and physical features in the other, as they traded stories about their battles for self-determination and the preservation of culture and language.

Before leaving New Zealand for Taipei, I'd phoned Victoria University biologist Dr Geoff Chambers, an expert on the Maori-Taiwanese connection. It all started, said Chambers, about 5000 years ago when a group of people, now known as Austronesians, began to make forays south from their home in Taiwan, spreading first to the nearby Batenes Islands, then to the Philippines and beyond.

About 3000 years ago, in what is now Papua New Guinea, the Austronesians encountered another major group, the Papuans, who are closely related to modern-day Australian Aboriginals. Intermarriage between the groups, in a genetic mix of about 70 per cent Austronesian and 30 per cent Papuan, produced the ancestors of the modern Polynesians.

The proto-Polynesians, with their unique genetic mix, then "sailed into the Pacific, settled it, and arrived in New Zealand about 750 years ago", says Chambers.

Back in Asia, other Austronesians kept moving and mixing. Today, 350 million people have some Austronesian heritage, and they're spread from Madagascar off the African coast to Easter Island near South America, though the biggest groups are in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Some Austronesians, though, stayed put in Taiwan for five millennia, experiencing little genetic intermingling. The upshot, says Chambers, is that "there's a very real sense in which the aboriginal people of Taiwan are the living ancestors of Maori".

Over the millennia, Taiwan's stay-at-home Austronesians have divided into distinct tribes with clearly differentiated languages, physical appearance and cultural practices. All are related to Polynesians, but there are "tantalising" clues to suggest the east coast's Amis people are most closely related.

Take a look, for instance, at the first 10 counting numbers in Maori and Amis: tahi=cecay; rua=toso; toro=tolo; wha=sepat; rima=lima; ono=enem; whitu=pito; waru=falo; iwa=siwa; tekau=polo.

The first evidence of the Austronesian family tree was linguistic: the discovery of Asian and Pacific languages that clearly had a common ancestor in the same way French, Spanish and Italian all hark back to Latin. The theory was bolstered by archaeological evidence of Austronesian settlements along the presumed migration routes out of Taiwan: fish hooks, wooden artefacts and the distinctive "lapita pottery" that arose in their Austronesian settlements about 3000 years ago and was then carried into the Pacific.

Recent genetic analysis of has confirmed and refined the family tree, and helped explain the "strong commonality" of certain health problems, including gout and type 2 diabetes. This may prove handy, says Chambers, because new treatments for these conditions in Maori and Pacific Islanders could be swiftly applicable to the other 350 million people of Austronesian descent, and vice versa.

"The link creates a commonality of interest between large groups of people," says Chambers, "and a sense of affinity."

So on Thursday, February 10, a busload of New Zealanders went looking for a sense of affinity.

From smoggy Taipei to the fresh air and soaring green hills of Wulai district was an hour's winding drive. Our guide and translator was the Atayal academic Yobu Losin, who filled us in on local demographics, mythology and history, then took us to visit the cosy home of his mother, who demonstrated how to strip a local plant for the tough fibre in its stalk, hand-spin it into a thread that could be dyed with pigment from a boiled tuber, then weave it into fabric on a hand-loom.

The Atayal word for the plant fibre, she said, was "nuka".

"Aaah," murmured te reo speakers. The Maori word for fibre is "muka".

Losin's mum held up the traditional Atayal pattern she was creating on her loom - a series of concentric diamond shapes. They looked, said Robert Sullivan, exactly like the patterns in woven headbands - taniko - of kapa haka groups.

Another local woman, former schoolteacher Yungay Isaw, who'd dressed up in Atayal costume for our benefit, popped in and sang a weaving action song.

She had a stripe of Atayal tattoo on each cheek. It was a DIY temporary tattoo, but the design was authentic. The Kiwis nodded knowingly: "Moko."

During lunch at a nearby restaurant, one of the dishes was prawns, sliced lemon and star anise sizzling on the table in a large bowl full of smoking hot pebbles.

"Ha," said Tina Makeriti, half-joking. "Hangi!"

It was difficult, on the basis of a whistle-stop guided tour in a well-touristed area, to be sure what was evidence of a genuine historical link, what was a parallel borrowing of a modern globalised influences, and what was simple coincidence. Cooking with hot stones, after all, features in the cuisine of Mongolia, Chile and Iceland. Facial tattoos are traditional in Algeria and Brazil.

Less ambiguous, though, were the shared experiences of Maori and Atayal fighting to preserve their language and culture, and to wrest back control over resources lost during colonisation.

After lunch, the New Zealanders crowded into a meeting room with half a dozen Atayal activists, teachers and elders. For about an hour, with Professor Losin gamely translating between Mandarin and halting English, the Q and As bounced back and forth.

"Do Maori women work outside the home?"

"In Atayal culture, who tells the stories - the men or the women?"

"What do you Maori eat to make you so tall?"

"How many of the people running Taiwan's Council of Indigenous People are indigenous themselves?"

"How do you Maori preserve your culture?"

"Is the Atayal language taught in schools?"

The language barrier kept communication basic, but Atayal still heard about the Treaty of Waitangi and 40 years of Maori activism, about kapa haka and kohanga reo, about Maori TV and Maori food. The New Zealanders learnt about the role of Atayal women, and how their schoolchildren are finally getting mother-tongue lessons in school - but only 40 minutes a week. There were also florid statements of mutual amity, a bit of song and lots of laughter.

Atayal are visibly different from the Han Chinese majority, with browner skin, rounder eyes, a broader nose, yet they don't quite look Polynesian. Members of some other tribes, though, are the spitting image - which was apparent that evening in Taipei at a dinner attended not only by Atayal but by Paiwan, Tsou, Amis and others.

It was evening of overeating, overdrinking, exchanges of gifts and performances. All night Kiwis and Taiwanese went to the stage to read a poem or a page of prose, to perform a waita or play a flute, to dance with poi or, in the case of Ihimaera, improvise a rhyming drinking song that tested the extraordinarily nimble English-Mandarin translator beyond her limit.

The diversity of skin colours, eye shapes, physical build, clothing and music was huge, but all night the Kiwis were doing double-takes: that guy looks just like my cousin; that woman looks like a kuia; I could swear that elderly singer was Samoan.

"I got a deep sense, looking into their eyes, of an ancient ancestry," said Ihimaera later. "A sense of looking into the eyes of my own grandparents."

For Robert Sullivan, who belong to Nga Puhi and Kai Tahu, and is also of Irish descent, it had been a day of glimpses of connection.

"You can never be sure what's what, but there's enough there to sense an affinity."

The political context is, indeed, fraught.

P Kerim Friedman is an American-born linguistic anthropologist who teaches at Taiwan's Dong Hwa University in Hualien. According to Friedman, indigenous Taiwanese regard the situation of Maori in New Zealand with something approaching astonishment: an indigenous people who make up 15 per cent of the population, who have a treaty that's treated as a living document; who have radio and TV stations in their own language; who have language immersion schools, who despite suffering the usual ills that plague indigenous people with regard to education, the prison system, unemployment and ill-health, have made huge strides in recent decades towards self-determination and cultural survival.

In Taiwan, said Friedman, indigenous culture is often seen as something to be celebrated, and part of the country's unique legacy, but not the basis of real power-sharing as is in New Zealand. Arguably, official attitudes towards Taiwan's tribes is like those toward Maori in New Zealand before the protest and radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Under Taiwan's pre-1987 martial law, people caught speaking non-Chinese languages would be forced to wear a billboard confessing to speaking the wrong tongue. Indigenous language classes joined the curriculum only in 2001.

As recently as the 1990s, tribes were fighting for the right to be called "indigenous", rather than the older term "mountain compatriot" - a definition that really mattered because of the United Nations's growing interest in a declaration of human rights for indigenous people.

Some indigenous rights are protected by something called "basic law", yet they're not always observed.

In 2005, three young Atayal men were sentenced to three months' prison for taking home the stump of a beech tree knocked over by a typhoon. They were acquitted four years later, after a debate about the boundaries of traditional lands.

Compared with Maori, Taiwan's indigenous people are few (2 per cent of the population versus Maori's 15 per cent), and fractured. Currently, 16 indigenous tribes are officially recognised by the Taiwanese government and others are seeking recognition.

Each has its own distinct language, beliefs and culture, hindering efforts to find common causes and methods.

They face racism, too. Ordinary Taiwanese "love the songs, the music, the festivals and the tourist attractions, and they're proud of how it reflects positively on their country as a whole," says Friedman.

"But at the same time, there are stereotyped attitudes towards them as being lazy drunkards who don't have the values to make positive contributions to society."

Adam Dudding travelled to Taiwan as a guest of the Taipei International Book Exhibition.

 - Stuff

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