hegemony and hopeful indigeneity (1): the diversity condition

it is time that we place the idea that indigenous people have a responsibility to maintain their languages and expressive cultures in an historical context. although we consider diversity a social good, often in analogy to biodiversity, indigenous people may not share such an assessment. indeed, diversity–here appearing as a divergence from dominant norms–has often been felt as a condition to be endured: a burden rather than an asset.

in societies that have shifted from assimilationist to multiculturalist modes of public participation, such as taiwan, the recognition of diversity as a social good has often made measures meant to ameliorate poverty and underrepresentation conditional on a competent performance of indigenous culture. thus, multiculturalism on taiwan has created an entire auditing and testing bureaucracy surrounding the authentic performance of indigenous dance in ritual events and, of course, the measurement of competence in indigenous languages. indigenous youth face this conditional recognition with ambivalence; and yet, there is little critical discussion among indigenous youth about the notion that they must maintain “tradition.” their experience is shaped by a kind of common sense understanding of diversity as necessary. this common sense is not widely shared across cultural cohorts. we might challenge it in the interest of finding alternate forms of cultural transmission

cultural activists who work to reconstruct traditional ritual practices often encounter difficulties. these difficulties are of course compounded in communities which intentionally renounced these practices as part of religious conversion. among the ‘amis of eastern taiwan, maintenance of annual harvest festival rituals and their associated material cultures was uneven, and often depended on the denomination that became ascendant in a given community. thus in ‘amis communities where protestant denominations, particularly the pentecostal true jesus church, dominate, village elders forbade traditional dances and burned regalia. participation in any social groups associated with pre-christian religious observance was also proscribed, leading to the disintegration of age set organizations in many villages

conversion, for those in these communities, led to a wholesale reconfiguration of kinship and social life. yet, we should not call this transformation a form of anomie: one network of norms and institutions was replaced by a newer one, in which those engaged in conversion placed a variety of hopes, for this world as well as the next

scholarship on religious conversion in taiwanese indigenous communities generally poses questions of syncretism or otherwise looks for traces of traditional culture imbricated with, or under the veneer of, christianity. these questions issue from a subject position alien to that of those who were converts to true jesus or presbyterianism. in other words, this type of scholarship operates with the understanding that traditional culture is “authentic” (as opposed to the inauthenticity of christianity) and a diversity an unalloyed social good

we might ask here, good for whom? clearly, it was not good–or not good enough–for the cohort of indigenous people who converted. understanding the hopes and experience of this cohort can give us critical purchase on the “diversity condition,” because the hopes of this cohort responded to a sociopolitical context different from that of multiculturalism and its associated common sense

indigenous youth are often frustrated by what they perceive as obstruction on the part of middle aged and senior members of their communities, who oppose many forms of cultural reconstruction. a community nearby ‘atolan has recently resurrected its age set organization. in keeping with kapot (age set) names, the first age set in this new organization was named lakashi, beginning. one might think that senior members of the community would all greet this new beginning of the kapot system and renewed observance of the annual kiloma’an harvest festival warmly. far from it: youth most active in attempts at reconstruction face greatest opposition from members of the community in their 60s and 70s. the youth i know in this effort argue that the malitengay (old people) should cordon off religion from cultural performance. how else, do the youth ask, can we continue to be ‘amis, if not through the age set system and its related rituals? does belief have to be so total?

i should add here that the malitengay are not assimilationist, however, if by assimilation we mean adoption of the majority language. malitengay speak sowal no ‘amis among each other and particularly in church services. as one of my friends in ‘atolan, a 40 something woman who grew up in a true jesus community north of here, told me, “the only place i could encounter my mother tongue was in church” (her parents spoke mandarin at home, and schools proscribed use of any language other than mandarin). we cannot write off the church as a villain in a cultural survival narrative

the youth accuse their elders of not being ‘amis enough, but the work of the young activists issues from a kind of insecurity, i think, about recognition of their indigenous identity in mainstream (e.g., ethnic chinese) settler colonial society. if the elders do not feel this insecurity, it is because their subject position was not formed by multiculturalism and its associated demands that indigenous people perform an indigenous identity. rather, the elders were indigenous people who sought to escape the material and social conditions of their marginalization in martial law taiwan

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