Ships of Tao people at Orchid Island
|Regions with significant populations|
|Orchid Island, Taiwan|
|Yami (Tao), Mandarin|
|Christianity & Spiritual Beliefs|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Ivatan people, Taiwanese Aborigines|
The Yami people, also known as the Tao people, are an Austronesian ethnic group native to the tiny outlying Orchid Island of Taiwan. These indigenous peoples have been more commonly recognized as the Yami people, following a Japanese anthropologist's coining of the name. However, as a collective, these Orchid Island inhabitants typically prefer "Tao people" as their group identifier. They are part of the Austronesian family, and designated members of the Taiwanese aborigines. Despite being linked to both indigenous Taiwanese and Filipino populations, the Tao people remain unique in their customs and cultural practices.
Composed of approximately 3,100 individuals, the island populace relies heavily on fishing for survival. The Tao people's emphasis on fishing and ocean culture reflects their intense connection to the sea as being about much more than survival; they use fishing and the building of boats as an extension of themselves, and as a way to honor their spiritual beliefs. Their ways of life have been threatened by the continued emigration to the mainland of Taiwan in search of jobs and education. As a result, the continuation of past traditions has been hindered.
Citing threats to their cultures and health concerns, the Tao people have been protesting the nuclear waste plant imposed on their island by the government in 1982 and advocating for its removal.
The origin of the Tao people is largely unknown. However they are presumed more closely related to individuals of the Philippines than those of Taiwan. A common theory tracing their ancestry posits that their ancestors left the Batan Archipelago in the Philippines, and made home of Orchid Island approximately 800 years ago. This reasoning is based primarily on the language similarities of the Batanese and the Tao people. Also, it appears that these two groups traded goats, pigs, weapons, and gold until about 300 years ago due to continuous warfare. However, there is still no certainty as to how the Tao people began their lives on Orchid Island.
In addition to the Tao people of Orchid Island, there is a growing population of Taiwanese and Chinese individuals. These populations add approximately 1,000 people to the number of inhabitants on the island.
The word "Tao" simply means "people" in the language of the Tao people. The word Yami originated from Japanese ethnologist Torii Ryūzō. He used the term to refer to the culture and language of the Tao People. In recent years, some Tao people have rejected the name, but opinion remains divided. While this indigenous group identifies collectively by the name Tao or Yami, individual communities on the island affiliate with unique names tied to their locality.
The language of the Tao people can be referred to simply as Tao or Yami. It is a Malayo-Polynesian language, a subgroup of Austronesian languages. More specifically, it is considered a Western Malayo-Polynesian language, one of two primary branches in the Austronesian subgroup—the other being Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian. As of 1994, there were a total of 3,000 speakers, and 3,255 individuals deemed ethnically Yami.
Orchid Island, also referred to as Lanyu or Pongso no Tao (Island of the People), is located approximately 40 miles off the southeastern coast of Taiwan, and directly north of the Batanes Islands of the Philippines. It is a small island of about 45 square kilometers with an estimated total population of 4,000 inhabitants. It was originally referred to as Hongtou Island (Red Head Island), however was officially renamed Orchid Island in 1947 for its rich orchid produces. There are very few plains on the island, instead its geography is composed of steep mountains and hilly terrain. Most villages are located at mountain bases, because river run-off is considered an ample source of fresh water.
In 1877, the Qing Dynasty claimed Orchid Island as part of its Chinese empire, but was unable to rule effectively. The island was ceded to Japan along with Taiwan in 1895. Japan's rule of the island lasted from 1895 to 1945. During this time, the government declared the island off limits to outsiders, and deemed it an ethnological research area. The Japanese government heavily monitored any outside influence that may drastically interfere with the Tao people's ways of life. As a result, the Tao people remain the most primitive of Taiwan's aboriginal societies.
Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Republic of China took control of Orchid Island in 1945.  Tourism was introduced to the island in 1967, and the Tao people were introduced to a new variety of modernization.
Ritual and Religion
Due to westernization, their indigenous beliefs have melded with Christian practices. As a result, they have a belief system made of components from ancestral beliefs and Christian ideologies. Ancestral Tao belief systems consisted of several layers, each host to a variety of gods and spirits. The first layer is home to the main god, Simo-Rapao, who oversees all other gods. According to Tao mythology, he created the Earth's first two individuals from a piece of rock, and a piece of bamboo. He doles out punishment, and is responsible for all natural calamities that affect the island. Sio-Mima is native of the second layer of the Tao cosmogony. He is believed to control the rest of the world, deemed dominated by white people. The third level is home to Si-Toriao and Si-Lovolovoin. Si Toriao allegedly controls the rain and lightning, while Si-Lovolovoin serves as a messenger to all of the gods. In the final layer of their ancient religious belief system resides the malevolent gods who may punish the Tao peoples with invasions of caterpillars and locusts.
Ancestral Tao people believed that goddesses were responsible for the birth of their children. According to their lore, there were separate goddesses for each gender. These goddesses dictated the births and lifetimes of the Tao populace. The length of an individual's life was determined by cracking a coconut and the measurement of the outpouring juice.
While their ancestral religious system was based on the dictation of gods, the Tao people rarely adhere to such a stringent belief system today. Instead, their belief system is intermixed with components of Christianity and remnants of their beliefs past. Today, many Tao people have converted to a Christianity (especially branches of Catholicism and Protestantism). However, much of their traditional Christian ideologies are muddied with adherence to ancient superstitions. The Tao people greatly fear anito, the collection of evil spirits, even more than they worship an omnipotent God. They believe that when an individual passes away, his or her soul travels to Malavang a Pongso, the White Island, while the rest of the minor souls from within become anito. As a result of this belief, they have an uncontrollable fear of the dead. When a Tao individual is near death, relatives and friends stand beside his or her deathbed in full battle regalia in order to fight off evil spirits. Once the funeral has commenced, attendees catch crab and fish to be cooked and eaten on that day in remembrance of the deceased.
There is no specific ceremony for the entrance into adulthood. A boy is considered an adult when he reaches the ages of 18 or 19, while a girl is considered an adult when she turns 16 or 17. A Tao man is deemed eligible for marriage when he participates in a fishing team, and can accomplish his fishing duties on his own. For women, they have to be proficient at taro cultivation and fabric weaving. Once the two parties are of marrying capabilities, relatives of both families formally propose to the woman's parents through the giving of presents. If her parents accept these offerings, they equivocally accept the proposal.
Fishing and Ceremony
The Tao peoples divide their year into three separate fishing seasons: rayon, teyteyka, and amyan. Rayon is equivalent to spring, and spans from February to May. This is considered to be flying fish season, during which the men catch fish for ceremonial use. Teyteyka lasts from June to October, and signifies the end of the period of time in which flying fish can be caught on the surface. Finally, the amyan season signifies the time of year spent waiting for the flying fish to return. This season lasts from November to January. During the latter two seasons, fish cannot be caught for ceremonial use. During these off seasons, the Tao people are charged with producing goods and recreation. Fishing is the main way in which Tao men can make a living on the island.
A crucial component of Tao life centers upon the building of their fishing boats. As a device used for their sole method of securing sustenance and monetary gain, they place great emphasis on the production of these boats. They make their boats using multiple wooden planks shaped with an ax. Due to their boats not being made from a single tree trunk or log, they cannot be considered canoes. They join the wooden planks together with dowels and rattan. Once they have successfully constructed the boat, they carve patterns and paint them using the traditional red, white, and black. They then adorn the bow and stern of the boat with chicken feather decorations. The hull of the boat typically consists of three main patterns: human figure, eye of the boat, and waves. The human figure symbolizes heroism through the representation of the earliest Tao man. They eye of the boat consists of a variety of concentric circles edged with triangles. Their composition represents the sun's rays, and is considered to ward off evil spirits that may cause disasters at sea. They typically make boats to seat 1-3 people, 6 people, 8 people, or 10 people. However, no matter the size of the boat, the shape remains consistent. The bow and the stern of the boat are both steep, upward arcs that allow for stability and sharp turns. They consider a boat an extension of man's body, and thus boat building is deemed a sacred mission. For the Tao, boat building is the ultimate creation of beauty.
Once the building of the boat is completed, the boat's owner will host a large launching ceremony. To celebrate, Tao women wear their agate beads necklaces and octagonal wooden hats a few days prior to the actual event. On the actual day of the launching ceremony, the Tao people gather and slaughter pigs as sacrifice, and the boat owner offers meat and taro to all of the families in his community. The men, dressed in traditional garb, circle the launching boat performing ceremonial rituals to ward off evil spirits before sending it into the water. They also throw the boat in the air several times prior to launch. The ceremony is deemed complete once the boat has remained afloat.
Attire and Dress
Traditional Tao garb consists of simple, uni-colored fabrics made of natural plant fibers. Due to the nature of their fishing tasks, men typically only wear a loincloth and collarless vest. This also helps them to better cope with the stifling heat. Women's dress typically consists of a cloth or short vest to cover their upper body, and an apron-like cloth to cover parts of their lower body. For special or ceremonial occasions, men and women wear blue and white vests in addition to vibrant accessories, such as an octagonal wooden hat for women, and silver helmets for men. During funerals and times of mourning, women wear their upper garments inside out, and men wear a piece of cloth, reverse side out, on their heads. It is also considered taboo to wear clothing with an odd number of blue or black stripes. Therefore, clothing patterns typically consist of 8 to 12 stripes. Neither in ritualistic or everyday situations do the Tao people wear shoes.
The Tao peoples' production methods are divided into two primary categories: agriculture and fishing. Due to taro's ability to grow in a wide array of climates, it is a vital part of the Tao diet. The Tao people plant taro on the narrow coastal plains, and thus their diet consists of wetland taro and taro sweet potatoes. Their food is divided into two groups: kanen and yakan. Kanen is considered an entree similar to rice, while yakan is deemed a side dish. Women are charged the task of collecting and cooking the kanen, while men are supposed to search for the yakan.
A crucial aspect of the Tao daily diet is seafood. While men are primarily charged with fishing duties, women are responsible for gathering shells, seaweed, and smaller fish from holes along the shore. The men practice both spear and net fishing as means for sustenance. All fish is categorized as either rahed or oyod. Rahed fish is deemed bad, and thus only eaten by the men. While the oyod fish is considered the real fish and can be eaten by both men and women.
The Tao people are members of the Council of Indigenous Peoples, a Taiwanese cabinet-level government body that serves the needs of the country's indigenous populations. They are one of sixteen aborigine populations represented by the council. The Tao people have no formal hierarchical structure. When disputes arise, the involved families are called upon to resolve the situation. While social affairs are governed by the male heads of families and members of the fishing community.
In 1967, the Taiwanese government stepped in to provide the Tao people concrete homes, an act which the aboriginal community deemed an affront to their culture. However, most Tao live in these homes now with the addition of open-air pavilions. Due to the island's relative remoteness, it lacks the equivalent infrastructure in transportation, health care or education in comparison to the main island. However, in 2007 an official of the Council of Indigenous Peoples stated that it would raise its budget to help the aboriginal groups of Taiwan.
In 1982, Taipower, the Taiwan Power Company, completed construction on Orchid Island's storage plant facility. The facility houses waste from Taiwan's three operating nuclear power plants. Since its construction, the storage facility has been met with opposition. Due to language barriers, the Tao people were not aware that a nuclear storage facility was being erected on their island. During its construction, workers told the islanders that they were building a food cannery that would help the local economy. In 1987, when the Tao people finally learned the danger of nuclear waste, they began a protestation battle that has lasted more than twenty years. Since its erection, 98,700 barrels of waste have been deposited on the island. In the near three decades since the storage facility was constructed, reports have indicated that the number of incidences of cancer has increased, in addition to higher rates of mutated fish due to the increased radiation levels. As a result, the Tao people are working together to protest the continuation of waste dumping on their island as it negatively affects facets of their daily lives. Taipower has since promised to remove all nuclear waste by 2016.
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