ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH AND FILM – THE BUNUN OF SOUTHERN TAIWAN
How it began
In 2003, I met David Blundell, an anthropologist from the University of California, Berkley, who was teaching a course at National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taiwan. The course was called Culture and Ethnic Structure of Taiwan, and several students were making a film for their class project. I tagged along with David and the students to learn more about the course and the film project, which focused on the Bunun, an indigenous ethnolinguistic group.
The film is named Rendezvouz with the Moon.
One night, I received a phone call from Tommie Williamson (1955-2017), a TV producer from the US who I had met from one of the students in the class. Tommie explained that he was planning to videotape the original stories of a particular Bunun family who had once lived in a remote jungle valley, high in the mountains of southern Taiwan.
They were among the last headhunters of the Formosan Aborigines.
My first film project
I was keen to be involved, especially if I could frame the work as an oral ethnography project and apply it toward college credit.
Before long, I was making films with Tommie, conducting ethnographic research, and writing my MA thesis. In 2004, I made a short, six-minute film about the research for my history class project, which I named In Our Hearts and Minds (posted here and on YouTube).
In 2006, I earned my Master's of Arts in Taiwan Studies based on the video tape recordings and their translation to English.
2004 – In Our Hearts and Minds
The Bunun and Laipunuk
The Bunun are one of the 16 indigenous groups recognized by the Taiwan government and have a rich history of living in the high-mountains.
The mountainous region of Laipunuk, pronounced Nei Ben Lu (內本鹿) in Chinese, was once a group of Bunun villages, and was among the last frontier areas to be annexed into Imperial Japan in Taiwan (see Maps 1 and 2 below).
The remoteness of the region, coupled with the late arrival of Japanese forces, afforded the Bunun children of that time to have a traditional lifestyle and observe their indigenous way of life.
To learn more about this story, please visit my Taiwan Photo Journal page.
Interview set up at the Bunun Educational and Cultural Foundation in Taidong, Taiwan
Master of Arts in Taiwan Studies
In 2006, I earned my Master of Arts in Taiwan Studies. The research was based mainly on the translation of my ethnographic films from the Bunun language to English, and the interpretation of meaning and content. The abstract and full thesis are available below for English readers.
Thesis Title: Ethnohistorical Perspectives of the Bunun: A Case Study of Laipunuk, Taiwan [ 台灣原住民之民族史觀 : 以布農族內本鹿為例 ]
This thesis is a compilation of ethnographic narrative and ethnohistorical research in the form of a case study of the Bunun people of the Laipunuk geographic region of Taiwan. The research encompasses the life experiences of three members of the Istanda family, with cross verification of narrative history from extant documentation where possible. Informants were videotaped, audio taped, and where not possible, extensive and detailed notes were taken. Some informants also served as translators for others; one particularly valuable source is conversant in the Bunun language, Japanese, Chinese, and English, providing invaluable material and insight. This report begins with an overview of indigenous peoples, their prehistory, and their relationship with the greater Austronesian culture. This is followed by a brief survey of each indigenous culture’s social organization, with emphasis on the Bunun. Included is a political survey of major transformational and developmental periods in Taiwan’s history, beginning with the Dutch East India Company period, and ending with the modern Democratic Reform period. I have concluded, based on my extensive work with these indigenous peoples and my examination of available historical documentation, that Taiwan’s indigenous people have endured constant pressure from external forces and, as a direct result, have undergone acute social and cultural degradation from the loss of their native homelands. Nevertheless, vast knowledge is still available from elderly informants born into a relatively pristine Bunun culture. This knowledge contributes to the field of Taiwan Studies by providing an objective survey across the history of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, offering a view through a previously closed window into the richness of Taiwan’s full history. It is recommended that such studies continue and expand.
Keywords: Bunun, Laipunuk, Austronesian, Taiwan, ethnohistorical, indigenous
International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies – The Last Frontier of the Taiwan Aborigines
In 2011, I published a section of my MA thesis in the International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies (IJAPS), featuring the oral history of one of my informants, 84-year-old Langus Istanda. Born in 1920, Langus remembers the arrival of the Japanese police and experienced the forced extradition of her family from their region. Her childhood memories include stories of games, adventures, a safe and comfortable environment, and a sense of wonder for the modernity of the Japanese culture. She remembers the forced relocations and the period of illness and death of friends and relatives.
Below, I have provided a reference for the journal, an abstract, and a sample video tape used in developing the paper.
Martin, S. A. (2011). Laipunuk (Nei Ben Lu)—The last frontier of the Taiwan aborigines during the Japanese occupation on Taiwan: Ethnographic narratives of a Bunun elder. The International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies (IJAPS), 7(1) 123–142.
Oral history of Langus Istanda – Ethnographic narrative
The Bunun are one of the indigenous groups of Taiwan that have a rich history of living in the high-mountains. The region of Laipunuk (Nei Ben Lu) was once a group of mountain villages and among the last frontier areas to be annexed into Imperial Japan in Taiwan. The remoteness of the region, coupled with the late arrival of Japanese forces, afforded the Bunun children of that time to have a lifestyle, where they participated in and observed their indigenous way of life. This research is an oral ethnography of Langus Istanda, born in 1920, remembering firsthand the arrival of the Japanese police and experienced the forced extradition of her family from their region. The research finds that the informant’s childhood memories are generally positive, inasmuch as she tells stories of games, adventures, a safe and comfortable environment, and a sense of wonder for the modernity of the Japanese culture; yet her memories move to a negative tone regarding the forced relocations and the period of illness and death of friends and relatives. The research indicates that the Laipunuk Bunun have endured constant pressure from external forces and, as a direct result, have undergone acute social, cultural, and linguistic degradation from the loss of their native homelands. This study contributes to an understanding of the value of cultural resource management by providing an objective and comprehensive record for future generations; it opens a pathway to Laipunuk and Bunun epistemology in the English language. Ultimately, the study proved to be mutually beneficial to both researcher and participant, offering extensive source of information as well as a sense of reconciliation to the Bunun elders; it represents the resilience of Bunun heritage.
Keywords: Laipunuk, Bunun, Taiwan, Central Range, heritage, indigenous, oral ethnography
Journal of International Studies – Rebuilding A Bunun House
Martin, S. A. (2011). Rebuilding mama’s house—An ethnohistorical reconstruction and homecoming of the Bunun on Taiwan. Journal of International Studies, 1(2) 61–78. Phuket, Thailand: Faculty of International Studies, Prince of Songkla University.
In 2011, I developed a section of my MA thesis for publication in the Journal of International Studies. Ethnohistorical methods served to conceptually reconstruct an abandoned Bunun house located in the remote mountains of southern Taiwan. The house was reconstructed in 2008 based on my 2005-2006 videotaped oral history of three informants, a 19-day expedition to the house site (see videos at the bottom of this page), and the development of drawing and architectural design videos.
Below, I have provided a some background and materials employed in the research.
This study is the ethnography of three members of an indigenous Bunun family on Taiwan. In 1941, during the Japanese occupation era, the family was forced to abandon their home. The research moved to conceptually reconstruct their domicile through in-depth interviews followed by a 19-day mountaineering expedition to the remote village of Takivahlas in the Laipunuk region. The research reveals four stages of indigenous adaptation and reconstruction over time as access to knowledge and new resources became available. Ultimately, the study pinpoints the severity and outcome of foreign cultural incursion and sheds light on the cultural revival and homecoming of the Bunun with the house as a point of contact with the past; it serves to reconcile the past with the present to produce a lasting story and insight to Bunun epistemology and heritage for English readers.
Keywords: Taiwan aborigines, Austronesian, Bunun, Laipunuk, Ethnohistorical
Ethnohistorical house reconstruction 1
Ethnohistorical house reconstruction 2
Langus Istanda (1920 – )
Biung Istanda (1917–2017)
Nabu Istanda (1964 – )
Indigenous Music of Taiwan
In 2005, as part of my coursework in Taiwan Studies, I made several films on the musical traditions of the Bunun based on audio-visual recordings made at the Bunun Cultural and Educational Foundation in Taidong, Taiwan.
As European powers contacted and influenced ethnolinguistic Austronesian-speaking groups in Southeast Asia, vocal folk songs were influenced by percussion instruments. In contrast, Taiwan aborigines held on to acappella traditions, and vocal music retained rich and complicated style and content.
Acappella styles range from the most primitive to the most complicated of all modern vocal music. With songs for nearly every occasion of life, content includes those for religious ceremonies, worship, nature, work and recreation.
Indigenous Music of Taiwan – Part 1
Indigenous Music of Taiwan – Part 2
Synopsis of the film
The Introduction is a newly created song for the kids to sing on the Bunun Buluo stage. The music was composed by Daganau, from the Paiwan and Rukai ethnic groups, and illustrates a variety of cultural influences. It is intended to be song by the younger generation, capturing the spirit of today’s young indigenous people and inspiring them to come together in harmony. The lyrics is Chinese and includes: “Come everyone sing… Join us to sing… May this never change… Black and white come together – no matter where you’re from – Taidong, Kaosiung… Think globally and act locally…”
Macilumaha. A newly created piece for the Bunun Buluo show. The very beginning of the song may be rooted in the Bunun tradition to call ahead to the village when returning from the hunt or from time away. In such case, the voice should be that of a familiar member of the village and signal that there is no reason for alarm.
Pasibutbut. Often called the "Harvest Prayer Song," it expresses hope for the millet to grow and provide a bountiful harvest. It features an 8-tone harmony in the chromatic style unique in the entire world. Good harmony is important for a good harvest. Today this song has evolved to represent good harmony for good luck. Gathered in a circle and holding hands, the group’s movement is counter-clockwise. According to one version of Bunun oral history, a long time ago a hunter went to the mountains and after hearing the sound of honey bees, he brought this sound home to his family group or clan.
Pisilaiya. Traditional hunting song. The music features the shaking of the reeds and is usually sung before the hunt. The music is used to worship the animal's spirits and calls them to come. The lyrics include… "May the cooked meat come to our basket…" and the performer calls the name of animals, such as goat, bear, deer, and flying squirrel.
Malastabang. Traditional Bunun announcement song or the “Report of events”. This ritual was originally used to announce the triumph or details of headhunting, as if a forum for bragging rights. During the Japanese period, when headhunting was outlawed, the significance changed to focus only on the events of hunting animals, such as how, when, where, or how many animals were killed. During the Kuomintang period, hunting was outlawed and the song fell into decline. Today, the Bunun are allowed to return to various mountain areas, and the ritual has evolved to report the events of exploring ancestral villages and tribal mapping.
Featured in this video, a young man announces which village he has actually returned to in recent years. Before drinking from the gourd, three drops of millet wine are sprinkled as an offering to heaven, earth, and spirit. The report is traditionally done by men, and when announcements or actions are favorable, his wife will enter the circle and dance to show her support.
Malastabang is also a method of identification when clans came together, revealing who you are, where you’re from, and serves as an indication of eligibility for marriage. For example, the performer states: “Taki-Luvun” meaning his mother’s clan came from "Luvun".
Field Research Videos in Laipunuk
I was fortunate to have the experience of participating in several expeditions to Laipunuk with friends from the Bunun Cultural and Educational Foundation, also known as the Bunun Village or Bunun Buluo. The videos below were taken in 2006, when our party crossed the Central Range of Taiwan from west to east during a 19-day expedition.
Crossing a stream near Shou, Laipunuk (內本鹿)
Crossing a landslide near Madaipulan, Laipunuk (內本鹿)
Bunun youth at Takivahlas, Laipunuk (內本鹿)
Papers and presentations
Martin, S. A., & Blundell, D. (2017). Cultural continuum among the Bunun of Laipunuk (Nei Ben Lu), southern Taiwan (pp. 215–246). In H. Chang and A. Mona [C. Tsai] (Eds.), Religion, law and state: Cultural re-invigoration in the new age. Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines and SMC: Taipei.
Martin, S. A., & Blundell, D. (2014). A new trial for the journey home to the Bunun villages of old Laipunuk, Taiwan: Contextualizing island Formosa through cultural heritage, digital mapping, and museology. Proceedings of the 2014 International Conference on Formosan Indigenous peoples: Contemporary Perspectives (p. 89). Taipei, Taiwan, ROC, September 15–17.
Martin, S. A. (2011). Laipunuk (Nei Ben Lu)—The last frontier of the Taiwan aborigines during the Japanese occupation on Taiwan: Ethnographic narratives of a Bunun elder. The International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies (IJAS), 7(1) 123–142. Retrieved from http://ijaps.usm.my/?page_id=508 (accessed April 5, 2017).
Martin, S. A. (2011). Rebuilding mama’s house—An ethnohistorical reconstruction and homecoming of the Bunun on Taiwan. Journal of International Studies, 1(2) 61–78. Phuket, Thailand: Faculty of International Studies, Prince of Songkla University. Retrieved from http://jis.fis.psu.ac.th/images/jis_file/JIS_Vol1_No2/JIS_Vol.1_No.2_6.pdf (accessed January 15, 2017).
Martin, S. A. (2010). Laipunuk (Nei Ben Lu)—The last frontier of the Bunun during the Japanese occupation on Taiwan: Ethnographic narratives of an Isbukun elder. Scholarly presentation [PowerPoint]. 3rd Annual PSU Phuket Conference: Multidisciplinary Studies on Sustainable Development. Nov. 17–19. Prince of Songkla University, Phuket, Thailand.