Journalist investigates
Māori - Taiwanese links

With support from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, Māori Television journalist Talisa Kupenga travelled to Taiwan in late 2016 as part of a three-person Māori delegation to build connections between Māori and indigenous Taiwanese.

Kupenga and the New Zealand delegation visited 12 of Taiwan's 16 indigenous tribes

Having already visited places like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, I was eager to learn where Taiwan would fit in comparison. I was also curious to learn about the cultural differences and similarities shared by the indigenous Taiwanese and Māori, and what economic and cultural relationships were being built between these groups.

The indigenous Taiwanese look similar to Māori and share many similar characteristics, such as language and tribal hierarchy, respect for elders, roles in the community, as well as weaving, hunting and fishing practices. The further you drift from the city into the rural areas, the more apparent the indigenous culture becomes.

The past and present challenges faced by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are similar to what Māori experienced from the 1970s onwards, as well as initial struggles with colonization. But the Taiwanese have found a new purpose through tourism.

Because tourists want to experience their unique culture and way of life, tourism has become a means to build a worldwide cultural profile on their terms. Tourism is used by the people here as a lifeline to ensure their culture does not fade out, while creating incentive for young people to return to their villages after getting an education in the city. Many Māori  communities have been affected by the disconnect caused by urbanization and having to travel to get educated. Many Maori tribes are working now to draw youth back to their regions.

Myself, Newshub’s Maiki Sherman and Otago University’s Jade Aikman were hosted by Sayun Tosu (Shuijin Dosue) and Paula Lai of the Taiwanese Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP). They were absolutely amazing. They went over and above to ensure we were well looked after and I continue to keep in touch with them because through this trip they became my friends.

Highlights of the trip for me include the many meals we shared in different villages, which reminded me of communal dining at the marae (when I came back I felt really sad to not be using chopsticks and having an entire meal to myself); hearing the language similarities between the many Taiwanese dialects and Māori (especially counting 1-10); and walking in the Maliba Village meadow wetlands in Pingtung, the most southern county of Taiwan. You walk barefoot in the wetlands to thank the ancestors for letting you visit and the further you sink in the mud, the more blessings you receive.

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 Māori .

For the people, this connection is one reason that drives them to pursue personal and business relationships with Māori - because indigenous Taiwanese consider Maori family and feel they are more trustworthy. Currently, the Māori economy is worth more than $40 billion and growing and while I was in Taiwan, the Taiwanese would happily discuss potential business opportunities they wanted to pursue with Maori – including a coffee business in Taiwu township’s Ulaljuc village that was already in discussions with the Federation of Māori Authorities. 

Kupenga (second from left) found many similarities between Māori and indigenous Taiwanese culture, including a strong affinity to the land

There is no doubting the parallels between Māori and the Taiwanese, or the positive cultural connection both groups share. An exchange of cultures is not necessarily visiting new territory, instead it’s a revisiting of old values in a contemporary context. Its trips like these that allow cultures to come together to build relationships, economic or otherwise, in order to strengthen indigenous opportunity for future generations.

The cultural exchange programme was organised by the Taiwanese Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP), working with Te Puni Kokiri. Kupenga's travel was supported by an Asia New Zealand Foundation discretionary media travel grant.