The Kavalan used to live in Yilan for thousands of years and have the right to the land of Lanyang Plains. They lived in groups by the rivers, along the coast and by the sea. At earlier times, they lived in stilt houses, similar to those in ancient Southeast Asia. Kavalan people traded through navigation. At the end of the nineteenth century, due to the impact of the Jialiwan Incident, the Kavalan hid themselves in Amis villages for more than a century. The current Kavalan population is 1,421 (until March 2016).
In recent years, the Kavalan launched recognition movement and were officially recognized as an independent indigenous group in 2002. In terms of craft, the Kavalan still maintain the skills to make clothes from banana tree fibers. This is special Kavalan culture.
The Kavalan call themselves ‘kavalan’, meaning people living on the plains, to identify themselves from the Atayal who live in the mountains. Legend has it that the Kavalan originated from an island in the south. They travelled from there and passed by a place called Sanasai before they landed and settled on Lanyang Plain in Taiwan. They moved to the coast of Hualien and Taitung in the nineteenth century.
There used to be more than thirty Kavalan villages on Lanyang Plain. At the end of the eighteenth century, Han Chinese immigrants moved into Lanyang Plain; in the nineteenth century, the Qing government set up ‘Kavalan Prefecture’ and implemented ‘Jia Liu Yu Pu’ reserve land policies to protect the land rights of local villagers. Nevertheless, due to social and ecological environmental changes, a large number of Kavalan had still to leave Lanyang Plain and migrated to Hualien Plain by boat. They formed six small and big villages around the major Kaliwan Village.
The Qing government implemented policies of opening up the mountains and pacifying the aborigines, pushing its power to Hualien Plain and harassing the life of Kavalan people. In 1878, the Kavalan worked with Sakizaya people in armed resistance against the Qing government. After the ‘Kaliwan Battle’, the power of Kavalan and Sakizaya was seriously compromised. Some villagers were dispersed to the east coast or hid themselves inside Amis villages. Currently, Kavalan people live in Qiliban and Maoliwuhan in Zhuangwei Township and Kaliwan, Liuliu and Zejian in Wujie Township, Yilan County; Jialiwan of Jiali Village in Xincheng Township and Xinshe Village and Fengbin Village of Lide in Fengbin Township, Hualien County; Sanjiancuo, Zhangyuancun and Dafengfeng (aka Dajianshi) in Changbin Township, Taitung County.
Since the 1980s, the Kavalan fought for the recognition of the Nationalist Government of the existence and sovereignty of their people. In 2002, Kavalan people were recognized as one of the independent indigenous peoples.
1. Industry and Cuisine
Kavalan people live on agriculture, fishing and hunting. These are their main economic activities. Traditional crops include sweet potato, taro, water rice and upland rice. In addition to agriculture, they also collect food in the sea like algae and shellfish. Hunting is usually done by men between October and March of the following year. Before going hunting, the hunters will pray with betel nut, cigarette, wine and intestines of the animals for the blessing from the God of Mountain. Important game includes Paguma larvata, Formosan Samba deer and wild boar. Every spring when the India Coral trees grow new leaves, Kavalan people renovate their fishing boat and fishing gear and wait for the time when the India Coral trees blossom again between April and September, so they can catch flying fish.
2. Trade and Exchange
The Kavalan are good at navigating and trade. Before the nineteenth century, Kavalan people living on Lanyang Plain took their rice on the boat and sail to Keelung and Taipei to trade for other goods. Or they sailed southbound to Hualien Plain to trade for gold or cloths, iron pots and accessories with foreign ships on the sea. We find traces of these business deals in prehistory archaeological excavation.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Missionary George L. Mackay arrived at Lanyang Plain to preach. He collected some pieces of traditional Kavalan costumes. There are embroidered long shirt made of hemp and cotton, skirt with woven beads and dangling bells, and headdress. These pieces belong to bridal attire in a wedding. In the nineteenth century, wedding costumes were embroidered with stitched colorful patterns of diamond, star, zigzag and octagonal flower petal; red, blue and yellow were the main colors.
Nowadays, common traditional costumes include the upper shirt made by weaving two pieces of square cloths, and a skirt that is usually a single piece of black or white cloth to cover the legs. Elders dress in black. Kavalan people also possess the skills of making square cloth with banana tree fibers. Banana tree fibers are good to wear in warm weather. They can also be made into accessories like back bag and betel nut bag.
Early Kavalan houses are half-open houses, called stilt houses or pile dwellings. They are built in this way to avoid snake, rat and malaria, those elements that harassed life. Stilt houses are common to Austronesian peoples. It is also available in the ancient culture of Southeast Asia. The Amis, Tsou and Puyuma build stilt public houses and granaries. Only the Kavalan and Ketagelan (another plains aboriginal group), build stilt family houses.
Kavalan villages are small clusters situated by the neighboring river. A grove of bamboo is usually planted on the outskirt of the village with multiple defense purposes: to set the boundary, to stop the wind and to defend the village from potential threats. In Liuliu Village and Jialiwan Village in Wujie Township, Yilan County, one can still see such traditional scenes. The Formosan Nato trees, which are commonly seen in the old villages in Yilan. They have also been planted in the new Kavalan villages in Hualien and Taitung to commerate their hometown in Yilan.
5. Singing and Dancing
When the Kavalan lived on Lanyang Plain, they had two styles of song and dance: the Kavalan style and Trobian style. After they moved to Hualien and had more intensive interaction with the Amis, they developed the third Amis style. Some songs were influenced with Japanese style and Chinese style.
By function, Kavalan songs can be divided into songs for rituals, songs for entertainment and work and songs about the society.
◎Songs for Rituals
They refer to the songs a priest sings when treating patients. The priest performs an important and grand healing ceremony for young girls called ‘kizais’. The ritual has a whole set of songs to summon ancestral spirits, to heal the patient and to send off ancestral spirits. These songs are ‘Song for Summoning Ancestral Spirits’, ‘Soul-Getting Thread’, ‘Performing Magic’, ‘Healing’, ‘Pray to Gods and Spirits’ and ‘Sending Off Gods and Spirits’. In each song, there are stanzas with slow and repetitious melodies so that the priest can focus on chanting and praying with meaningful words. This is the main style for these songs.
◎Songs for Entertainment and Work
These songs are sung at work and leisure hours. They refer to old Kavalan songs like ‘Celebrate New Year’, ‘Lullaby’, ‘Battle Song’ and ‘Celebration Song’. They also refer to songs made impromptu with Amis and Japanese music but Kavalan lyrics, such as ‘Missing Home’, ‘Fishing Song’ or ‘Collecting Greens in the Wild’. Songs for entertainment and work can be revised according to subject and occasion. The main style is to sing with embellishing front grace notes with rich and turning chanting and intoning.
◎Songs about the Society
Songs about the Society are often combinations of Amis, Japanese or newly created music with lyrics in Kavalan language. These songs are about expressing feelings, encouraging people, and revealing the spirit of the time.
In 1984 and 1989, Kavalan people traveled from Xinshe Village in Hualien to return and visit their old villages in Yilan. They modified Amis songs and turned them into Kavalan songs like ‘The Village of Ancestors’ and ‘Going back to Yilan’; they also modified Japanese songs by adding Kavalan style such as ‘The Welcome Song’, ‘Love Song’ or ‘Leaving Home’. There were also new creations, such as ‘We the Kavalan Must Rise’ by one Kavalan teacher who wished to encourage Kavalan people to identify with their ethnic origin and culture. This song has become a representative song of the Kavalan people.
Songs about the society imbibe styles from different ethnic groups and different times. Their lyrics depict life stories and social issues. They are the songs carrying the spirit of the time.
1. Matrilineal Marriage
Traditionally, the Kavalan is a matrilineal society. After marriage, the husband moves in to live with his wife and obeys the female elders in her family. During the Japanese period, the Kavalan in Hualien still practiced endogamy. Since the 1960s, cases of exogamy gradually increased.
2. Village Organization
In the Kavalan society, middle-aged men are called elders. Elders jointly decide important public affairs in the village; the chief acts as their leader. The chief is also responsible for maintaining contact with outside world and implementing decisions. Elders are responsible for communication within and without the village. Events like cultural inheritance, ritual, ceremony and negotiation between government administration and villages are all discussed and decided by the elders and the chief.
3. Age Rank
Age rank is an important force to maintain the village. Different age ranks are responsible for planning and implementing different affairs in the village. For example, in earlier times, men in Xinshe Village cultivated, weeded and harvested according to a division of labor by age rank. Now, at the preparation of a festival, each age rank also takes charge of different parts of the preparation. In ordinary times, people operate by division of labor and community service. In addition to elders and youth, there is also an age rank for women.
Kavalan people believe in pantheism. In their concept of spirits, there are good spirits, bad spirits, and spirits of the nature. Based on their pantheism, Kavalan people develop different rituals, ancestral worships (palilin) and religious healing practices. These rituals are all conducted by the priest (metiyu).
At the end of the nineteenth century, Missionary Mackay of the Presbyterian Church was based in northern Taiwan; he practiced medicine and preached the gospel. Many times he went deep into the Kavalan villages to treat people and preach. The Kavalan were touched by the sincerity and passion of Pastor Mackay. They became Christians and took ‘Jie’, the second syllable of ‘Majie’ (the Chinese name of Pastor Mackay), as one of their surnames in order to remember his devotion to the people. From the twentieth century until now, the Kavalan faith coexists with diverse religions. There are Catholic churches in the village and the people have also been fishing for a long time with Han Chinese.
1. Sea Ritual (sepaw tu lazing)
Between spring and summer, Kavalan people hold a Sea Ritual. The exact date differs from village to village. Xinshe Village has the Ritual in March or April before the flying fish season starts; Zhangyuan Village and Dafenfeng Village have the Ritual in July; and Lide Village has the Ritual in August right before the Harvest Festival.
On the day of the Sea Ritual, elders pray to ancestral spirits by the sea with pig heart, pig liver and pork loin. Young men will bring their fishing gear and bamboo raft to catch fish and shrimp in the sea. After they return ashore, they will cook pork, fish, shrimp and wild vegetables, and share the food with the people to complete the ritual.
2. Harvest Festival (gataban)
The Harvest Festival is an agricultural festival. Its purpose is to thank gods, spirits and ancestral spirits. In recent years in Xinshe Village, the Harvest Festival takes place before mid-August. Before the Festival, the chief convenes a meeting to discuss the date, the procedures and the responsibilities for each age rank. At the Festival, people are all dressed up to attend. The priest is dressed in black. After the Festival starts, adults and women happily dance and sing around the elders.
3. Ritual for Ancestral Spirits (palilin)
In the concept of spirit of the Kavalan, ancestral spirits play an important role. Palilin is a prayer to ancestral spirits at the family reunion before New Year’s Eve. Palilin is to pray for a good year. The Ritual is divided into the one for the Kavalan people and the one for the Dopuwan people. Their offerings and the degree of openness also differ in many aspects.
Kavalan palilin takes place at the end of December on the lunar calendar right before the New Year. On that evening, elders summon and invite ancestral spirits with offerings of red wine, white wine and rice cake. Family members take turns to say their prayers.
In comparison, Dopuwan palilin is more private and exclusive to the family. It takes place before the end of December on the lunar calendar. On the morning of the day, the Ritual starts with female elders. They close the outside gate first. Then they offer red wine, white wine, sticky rice and intestines of a male chicken. The procedures are led by the elders of the family to invite ancestral spirits in turns; the elders also lead the family to offer the viscera of the male chicken - stomach, liver and heart - on the banana tree leaf and pray to ancestral spirits. After the end of the Ritual, they move the offerings to the pillar at the entrance door to the living room.
Although Kavalan and Dopuwan have been merged as Kavalan people with time, every New Year’s Eve at the Ritual for Ancestral Spirits, these two groups actually follow different protocols. This difference indicates that inside the Kavalan society, people practice endogamy. Until now, Kavalan people can still identify the origin of the people by the performance of the rituals.