Yami (Tao) people live on Lanyu Island off the southeastern coast of Taitung. Yami (Tao) people have rich myth and annual rituals; besides, they show specific oceanic features. Now, the current Yami population is 4,499 (until March 2016).
Yami or Tao live on Lanyu Island off the southeastern coast of Taitung. ‘yami’ means ‘us’. It was first used by Anthropologist Ryuzo Torii at the end of nineteenth century. Some people also refer themselves as ‘tao’, which means ‘human’. At present, it appears that in studies or in news about Lanyu, the government use Yami while the general public uses Tao.
As far as the origin of Yami (Tao) people on Lanyu is concerned, there are myths about stone origin and bamboo origin. According to Hongtou Village, it is said after God from the South created Little Lanyu and Lanyu, he came to Lanyu Island and touched a giant rock. This giant rock fell into the sea and splitted into two with a loud bang. Male God Nemotacolulito walked out of the cracked rock. He walked towards to the mountains in the back and shook the giant bamboo. From the giant bamboo, another male God Nemotacoluga wuly came out. One day, the Male god from the giant rock gave birth to a boy and a girl from his right and left knees; also, the Male God from the giant bamboo gave birth to a boy and a girl from his two knees. The children of the two Gods got married and developed the society and culture of Yami (Tao).
Archaeologists have unearthed nephrite, urn coffin, glazed beads and agate beads on Lanyu Island. They show that the pre-history period of Lanyu is culturally related to Taiwan that lies to its west and the Philippines that lie to its south. According to the migration legend of Yami (Tao) people, their ancestors used to live on the Batan Islands of the Philippines. They moved to Lanyu Island around hundreds of years ago as interactions in ecology, society and inter-people exchanges (interchanges) between these islands got intense. Gradually, two different local cultures on Lanyu and Batan were developed. People of Lanyu and Batan used to exchange fishing techniques and cultures, but these exchanges slowly ceased in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In 1903, an American merchant ship was damaged by hurricanes and drifted to Lanyu. The people of Yami (Tao) welcome the crew with spears in a traditional way. Although Yami (Tao) people came to their rescue, miscommunication and language barrier led the crew to mistake their rescuing intention as robbery, so the crew fired to the shores and wounded Yami rescuers. Afterwards, the government of the United States protested to the government of Japan. Japanese police came and surrounded the villages of Yeyin, Yuren and Dongqing, and arrested some villagers. This incident became a significant event in modern history.
In the twentieth century, modern western medicine, education, and capitalism were introduced to Lanyu Island. After concepts of hygiene and medical care became popular among the people, there was an obvious population growth in the second half of the twentieth century.
In 1967, the government of the Republic of China lifted the ban on mountain control. Lanyu Island was officially open to the public, and visitors started to arrive at the island as a tourist destination. At this time, more and more hotels, shops, advertisements and all sorts of products appeared on the island; and the people started to work in the service industry. Many young people also left the island for work in Taiwan. At the same time, Taiwan Power Company started to build power plants and nuclear waste dumpsite on the island. This caused serious protests from the Yami (Tao) people, who often took the issue in petition to the government. In recent years, based on the homology between language and culture, Yami (Tao) started cultural exchanges and visits with the Batan Islands of the Philippines.
Yami (Tao) people live in the following six villages of Lanyu Township: Hongtou (Imowrod), Yuren (Iratay), Yeyou (Yayo), Langdao (Iraraley), Dongqing (Iranmeylek) and Yeyin (Ivalino). In recent years, due to the need of human power in Taiwan, Yami (Tao) people also move to cities of Taitung, Kaohsiung, Taichung and Taipei in Taiwan to work and settle therein.
The Yami (Tao) live on agriculture and fishing. Women are agriculturalists, growing water taro (soli), dry-land taro (keytan), sweet potato (wakey), millet (kadayi) and so on. Taro is one of the important crops and gifts to give away to friends and family at festivals. There are different kinds of taro and different ways of cultivation. Taro is daily food for Yami (Tao); it is also offering to gods or present for friends and families at important rituals and a new house opening ceremony.
Women are the famers; they have a lot of experiences and techniques. Fishing is mainly a male business; their main job is to catch migrating flying fishes. Besides, Yami (Tao) people also keep mountain goats, pigs and chicken. At a new house opening ceremony or every festival, they slaughter these farm livestock and share the meat with others.
The Yami (Tao) take taro and sweet potato as their staples, complemented by fish, crab, spiral snail and algae. Yami (Tao) people are attached to the ocean and fishing, and they develop taboos in eating fish. Among the taboos, there are principles for separating ‘real fish’ (oyod a among) from ‘bad fish’ (ra’et a among). ‘Real fish’ (oyod a among) are given to women first, whereas ‘bad fish’ (ra’et a among) are given to men. Besides on different occasions, there are different limitations about eating fish. Fish-eating taboos reflects their close relations with the society The Yami (Tao) chew betel nuts a lot. Besides enjoying betel nuts daily, they also share them with guests.
Yami (Tao) costumes are made of natural plant fibers like hemp and banana leaves. Daily wear is plain with one color. In the past, Yami (Tao) men wore T-thong for better ventilation and convenience in fishing. Women wore chest covering or a jacket in the upper body and square-cloth skirt tightened by a belt. On important weddings and occasions, both men and women wore ceremonial costumes that were white with blue stripes. Men wore silver or rattan helmet, and women wore coconut leaf hat or octagon ceremonial hat, adorned by accessories of gold and silver. Nowadays, these costumes are only worn at festivals in order to show the cultural characteristics of Yami (Tao) people.
◎Gold and Silver Craftsmanship
Gold and silver are not available on Lanyu Island. Minerals and forging techniques are introduced from the Batan Islands. Gold possesses supernatural power and is used by traditional healers on their patients. It is also the adornment on the breastplate for men. Silver is procured through exchange. It is turned into bracelets for men and women, the silver helmet for men and the bracelet, earring and breastplate for women. Silverwares are important accessories on important occasions.
Yami (Tao) people live by the sea, so a boat or canoe is indispensable for their fishing industry. Boats can be divided into a small boat (tatala) for one to three passengers and a big boat (cinedkeran) for six to ten passengers. When the boat becomes too old and a new one needs to be built, or when the fishing team has new members and they need a bigger boat, such as that an eight-man fishing team has grown to a ten-man fishing team, people will have a new boat building plan.
The time for building a new boat starts around November and December at the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. It takes about three to five months to build an uncarved board. The carving period starts in July and August in summer and finishes in September and October. A boat launching ceremony is held usually after the boat is completed.
A big boat takes about 15 to 27 wood planks to make, carve and paint. Colors of the boat are mainly red, black and white. The carving patterns are usually concentric circles, human figures, waves and crosses. The concentric circle is also called ‘the eye of the boat’ (mata-no-tatara). It appears on the head and tail of the boats. They are like the eyes of the boat, keeping the boat away from evil, guiding direction and offering protection. Human figures represent the first man in the legends Mamooka, who has long limbs and dives deep in the sea to fish. Waves are triangular patterns that represent waves. Crosses are influences from Catholicism; they also provide protection and keep evil powers away.
Traditional Yami (Tao) buildings (asa ka vahay) refer to a family house (vahay), a work hut (makarang) and a veranda (tagakal). Building materials include wood, stone, bamboo and thatch.
The family house (vahay) is a subterranean building, built along the hill with stairs. The dug-out dirt is placed around the house and only the roof rises above the ground. It is a semi-underground house. In the earliest stage, the family house was only a hut with an entrance. It was built by a single man or by young couple who left their family when the wife became pregnant. The house will be gradually renovated. As the residents’ economy improves, people look for another piece of land to build a three-door or four-door main house. A working house (makarang) is also called a tall house. It is divided into upper and lower level; the upper level is for work during the day while the lower level is for storing wood and fishing gears. A veranda (tagakal) is a fenced construction above the ground. It is rectangular in shape with a thatched-roof. Here people rest, relax, make fishing nets and plait rattan baskets. In summer, they also spend the nights here. Between the family house, the work hut and the veranda, there is a front yard. Three pieces of large stone are piled there. It is not only the place where people watch the sea and socialize, but also a place for people to exchange their opinions.
In order to improve the living conditions of the people, the government of the Republic of China started to build new Public Housing Apartments for Yami (Tao) people. The need for traditional space was also adjusted. The roof replaced the veranda and became the place where people watch the sea, and the corridor before the house became the space for family and neighbors to socialize.
1. Bilateral Kinship
In tradition, Yami (Tao) people called family zipus. The members of zipus take care of each other’s children and help each other in marriage, funerals, house construction, boat building, cultivation, logging, political alliances and war. Zipus is formed mainly by members equally from both sides of the parents, of which the closest are one’s siblings and spouse, and followed by the children and spouse of partents’ siblings.
2. Marriage System and Family
The Yami (Tao) family follows patriarchal system. Parents live with their single children. Marriage is monogamy. After falling in love, the girl moves into the house of the boy until the relationship becomes stable after some adjustment. In the past, marriage partners were usually found within the village. Nowadays, the number of inter-village marriage increases, so does the number of intermarriages with other indigenous peoples or Han Chinese.
3. Co-work Group
The co-work group means to help each other in work and share resources. It is an important part in Yami (Tao) culture. In the Yami (Tao) society, there are fishing, cultivation and irrigation co-work groups. As time passes by, the traditional cultivation co-work group no longer exists; fishing and irrigation co-work groups also gradually dissolve. What comes after is the fishing net co-work group.
The standard unit for the fishing boat group (kakavay) is a big boat for ten passengers, but there are also groups of eight-man boat and six-man boat. Members of the fishing boat group come from the same clan. They build the boat, make the nets, host the ritual together at the flying fish ritual and share their game. Nowadays, few people catch flying fish on the traditional big boat, but the fishing boat group still exists and is still valued.
The standard unit for a cultivation group (tsitsipunan) is a grain farm. Every grain cultivation group has all male adults on the father’s side. Members of the grain group cultivate and host rituals together; they also share crops evenly among all members. Currently, farms are tilled by each household independently, so cultivation groups start to fall out of use.
The irrigation group is comprised of members of the owners of the land that needs irrigation. Members only work together when they need to dig and fix the waterways. Nowadays, irrigation ditches are made of durable materials such as concrete and plastic water pipes. The opportunities to fix the waterway decrease, so does the time for members to come and work together.
In recent years, Yami (Tao) form new groups with the owners of fishing nets. Members can use the fishing nets together and share the harvest later.
Yami (Tao) people call the village ili. Interwined geographical vinicity and blood relations constitute the scope of living. There is no particular chief or political leader. Public issues are discussed among elders of every family and decisions are made after people’s opinions are given. Nowadays, as required by the modern administration system, there is a head in each village; people call him panikudan.
In the traditional belief of Yami (Tao) people, there are three scopes of gods, ghosts and human beings. Gods bless the families and the people, and blesses them with rich harvests. Ghosts make people sick, die and suffer. Yami (Tao) people are very apprehensive of ghosts (anito) in order to avoid any possible bad influence. Traditional rituals such as the launching ceremony for a new boat are mostly about driving evil spirits and ghosts away. Traditional beliefs are closely tied with life and are still very much valued now. In the 1960s, Christian and Catholic missionaries came to Lanyu, churches and congregations started to appear in every village. Western faiths gradually become the mainstream religion for Yami (Tao) people.
Yami (Tao) annual rituals are rich and held according to calendar and climate. Important rituals include Flying Fish Ritual, Harvest Ritual and Annual Ritual. Besides in life-cycle customs of Yami (Tao) people, the opening and launching ceremony of a boat or a house is an embodiment of personal achievements. It means a lot to the culture of the society.
1. Rituals related to Flying Fishes
The Flying Fish Ritual is related to the legend about a black-winged flying fish. Legend has it when Yami (Tao) people were searching for food on the seashore, they cooked flying fish with shellfish and crabs and became sick with blisters without knowing why. Later, the ancestors of Yami (Tao) people met the black-winged flying fish (mayaeng so panid). The black-winged flying fish taught them not to cook flying fish with other fish and food. So their health gradually recovered. Besides teaching Yami (Tao) people how to eat flying fish, the black-winged flying fish also taught they must treat flying fish with respect and follow taboos according to the calendar, so they could attract and catch more fishes. Rituals related to flying fish include Fish-Summoning Ritual (meyvanwa), Fish Storing Ritual (mamoka) and Final Eat Ritual (manoyotoyon).
◎Fish-Summoning Ritual (meyvanwa)
To pray for a rich harvest, every boat group hosts the Fish-Summoning Ritual between February and March. The captain of the boat holds a chicken on the seashore. Every man of the village dips the blood of the chicken or pig with index finger, chants to invite flying fishes, smears the chicken blood on the black pebble stone and makes the fish-summoning gesture. After that, the members of the boat also host Blood-Smearing Ritual to the big boat that they use to catch the fish. This ritual is a prayer for a rich harvest. After the Ritual, elders will remind members of the taboos of catching flying fish. After that, they eat at the house of the captain or a member.
◎Fish-Storing Ritual (mamoka)
The Fish-Storing Ritual is conducted at the last month of the fishing season. Before the Ritual starts, people cook dried flying fish and taros for the entire family to eat together as a ceremony. Before the family start eating, they sing and pray that each fish is healthy and the family enjoy healthy life forever. After the Ritual, they take away the tail fins of the dried flying fish before they store them in the urn.
◎Final-Eating Ritual (manoyotoyon)
The Final-Eating Ritual is held around mid-autumn festival. It is the last ritual related to flying fish. On that day, the entire family reunites and prays for blessings. They also taste dried flying fish for the last time in the year. After they eat the fish, the rest of the dried flying fish must be discarded.
2. Harvest Ritual (meypiyavean)
The Harvest Ritual takes place after the reaping of millet and the ending of flying fish season. Every family slaughters chicken, pig or goat as extra food on the table. Millet is pounded and dried fish meat prepared. Young couples that separate themselves from the family return to reunite with their parents and siblings, bringing with them dried flying fishes. Then, every family gives dried taros and fish to families and friends as gifts. After each family has its reunion lunch, the millet-pounding activity takes place in the afternoon. Previously, it was organized by the cultivation group; nowadays, the households that cultivate millet make the call and invite people to join.
For the millet-pounding activity, each participant comes forward to the pestle and the wood mortar and performs exaggerating moves like holding the pestles over their head, pounding hard, laying their head low and finally leaving the site. When the number of participants is large, participants are formed in groups. In the afternoon, every fishing boat group pushes their big boat back to the boathouse. This marks the end of flying fish season. In the evening, families visit each other to sing and socialize until late night.
◎Year-Praying Ritual (meypazos)
The Year-Praying Ritual is one of the few times when Yami (Tao) people can talk about gods. Besides, only in the evening of a launching ceremony will some young people have the opportunity to listen to the knowledgeable elders of the village singing in the song session of the Year-Praying Ritual.
The Year-Praying Ritual (meypazos) at Langdao Village falls usually in early October (kapitowan). The exact time is decided by several families responsible for hosting the Ritual. It usually takes place in the afternoon at Langdaom while most of other villages in the morning.
On the day of the Ritual, some families slaughter pigs and goats as offerings. They exchange gifts with families and friends in the morning. In addition to sweet potato, taro, pork and lamb, they also prepare other offerings for families that cannot spare any livestock. In the afternoon, the father of the family in charge of the Ritual leads three boys to the seashore with taro, yam, sweet potato, betel nut, betel pepper, millet and black pebble. The chief priest will join the team with offerings as the train of people goes by. When they reach the sea, everyone faces the sea and the chief priest starts to say his prayers, which go like this, “Our ancestors in heaven (akey do langarahen), we offer these food to you. We hope to have an abundant harvest and live healthily and long on earth.” Afterwards, the boys lift the basins of offerings high above their heads and leave them on the ground before they turn back towards the village.
When the families in the village see the Ritual being done by the chief priest, they also immediately put their offerings on the roof for gods. Afterwards, they can leave the offerings on the seashore or on the rooftop. Within five days from the end of the ritual, no one shall log in the forest, sing ceremonial song, or hold any launching ritual.
3. Launching Ritual (meyvazey)
An opening or launching ritual is the official inauguration of a new house or a new boat. Since this ritual requires a large amount of taro, pork and mutton, it is an opportunity for family members to show their capabilities. A few years before the launching ceremony,