playing aborigine (1): awkward dancers and layered sovereignty

The past few days I’ve been cleaning up some files–as you’ve probably noted from the recycling of old poems and papers today (sorry!). But my writing has also turned to the subject of a couple previous posts here as I prepare a couple talks

I could make it easier for myself, I guess, by just giving a talk that I presented on malikoda (the hand holding dance) earlier; after all, that’s the abstract submitted to the AAA program committee as part of a panel on ritual and politics. And then I have some copy on the ongoing argument over spears versus umbrellas in the kulakul. But no… my writing’s been derailed a bit by something that makes me really anxious

ethnic chinese people trying, usually with aesthetically unfortunate results, to perform taiwanese indigenous–usually ‘amis–dances

why they need to do this $#!^ on the national day celebration of the ROC is a mystery to me, unless i read the comments: oh yes, it’s because Taiwan is now a “multicultural” democracy, so how could we celebrate without presenting the “culture” of Taiwan’s indigenous people!

except that they are dancing in the wrong direction, with mixed up regalia, and with a handhold so awkward it’s amazing that they can move at all. they couldn’t have learned this from anyone who actually knew the dances that they want to emulate

these people are at it the way you might expect if you think of the history of blackface minstrels or playing indian in the united states: the dominant group attempting to find some colour, some vitality, by appropriating the musics of those who they have otherwise marginalized. i’m willing to admit that those who cork up have some admiration for the skills of those they emulate. but of course, few are willing to put in the time in the kinds of social contexts they would need to engage to really learn. and they certainly don’t want the burden

but let me step away from moral judgment toward an anthropological understanding of what might be going on here. in this attempt, i might be helped out by the work of philip j. deloria, a scholar of native american studies. in his (1998) book playing indian, deloria turns to the boston tea party to ask

“Why, of all the possible rebellion and re-creation has the notion of disguised Indians dumping tea in Boston Harbor had such a powerful hold on Americans’ imaginations?”

Why, indeed!

Deloria argues that this power of “disguised Indians” to prehend an American national imagination has to do with three features:

(1) existing myths of noble savagery, which informed the worldviews of Americans well into the last century;
(2) the material culture and practices of “playing Indian,” such as regalia, feathers, and dance;
(3) national insecurities attendant on a settler colonial society’s cultural relationship to the erstwhile metropole

while i’m not certain that the myth of noble savagery is particularly widespread on Taiwan–someone might want to help me out here–certain forms of primitivism have informed Taiwanese popular culture at least since the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945) and continue today in film and other media. it’s also clear, i would want to say obvious, that wearing regalia or performing indigenous dance is a powerful, embodied response to Taiwan’s insecurities, particularly in relationship to its much larger neighbor

If the ROC on Taiwan impersonated China for 40 years (1949-1989) now it plays at being indigenous

Stated differently, a “multicultural” Taiwan which wishes to allay some of its national insecurities (what “culture” do we have that is not just a form of “chinese culture”?) turns to its austronesian communities almost fetishistically. and thus, “indigenous dance” becomes a component of Taiwanese “soft power” as well as a hobby among sinophones

here’s another example. i’d comment on YouTube, but they have disabled comments (probably to keep those pesky, real indigenous people away)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRPFxaFqk20

again, setting aside that this sort of performance is the musical equivalent of dropping the N word, we might ask a few questions about the stances toward indigeneity that inform those of the sinophone performers and the indigenous people whose critical voices they have censored from their YouTube channel

as for the sinophone performers, they seem both to respond to the historic inclusion of indigenous dance forms within the category of “folk dances” (土風舞), promoted by the nationalist (KMT) government from the 1950s onward, and to current shifts in the position of images of indigeneity in taiwan’s public culture. as promoters of folk dance absorbed and “improved” an entire array of “minority ethnic group folk dances” within this category of performance, usually practiced by amateurs, what is so bad, the sinophone performers might ask, with appropriating choreography and costumes now? the sinophone performers may also note that images of indigeneity circulate throughout taiwan today, often as a form of respect for an indigenous heritage (yet, no one seems to have asked indigenous people if this is the kind of respect they desire), what is wrong in participating in the circulation of these images as tokens of “taiwan” internationally?

the stances of sinophone performers are thus a kind of ownership stance in relationship to a valued–and shared–national heritage, which potentially differentiates taiwan from china. another stance is a kind of compulsion to disclose an indigenous heritage when discussing or presenting taiwan: although they may not be indigenous people, not disclosing indigenous heritage in a presentation of taiwan, a multicultural democracy, would be wrong. how is one to engage in this work in the absence of real indigenous people? by playing aboriginal

in this sense, such performances share in a kind of mass indigeneity now pervasive on the island. because traces of indigenous heritage are central in arguments for taiwanese sovereignty, those who play aboriginal likely view critics with surprise

i cannot be sure, however, because the sinophone performers have not responded to my messages

the problems here have to do with the role of culture in promoting a particular social imagination of taiwan, one in which the dominant social group is invested. this imagination articulates anxieties about taiwanese sovereignty. and yet, the malikoda and a few other varieties of indigenous dance themselves either assert indigenous sovereignty or mediate between indigenous groups and outside power. quite apart from the issue of “heritage” and who owns it, then, these dances remain closed forms

the dance realizes a kind of layered sovereignty in which indigenous communities remain (virtually? imaginatively?) autonomous

One Reply to “playing aborigine (1): awkward dancers and layered sovereignty”

  1. caraw Post author

    wow….i should have copied those videos. now they are no longer on youtube! maybe my activist indigenous friends succeeded in having the person who was teaching and performing “mountain folk” dance reconsider posting such items on the web

    Reply

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