Text: Cheryl Robbins
Photos: Vision Int’l
Once a year the Amis tribe, in vivid fashion, celebrates the annual harvest. The harvest festival’s events, staged in many indigenous villages of Hualien and Taitung, are characterized by singing, dancing, and feasting on indigenous specialties.
There are currently 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes in Taiwan. Among them, the largest is the Amis (阿美族). According to statistics published by the Council of Indigenous Peoples, the population of this tribe is nearly 190,000, mainly distributed in Hualien and Taitung counties in eastern Taiwan.
Similar to many of Taiwan’s other indigenous tribes, millet was once a staple grain of the Amis, and many rites and ceremonies were held in association with millet-growing activities. For example, after the millet was harvested the crop was placed in granaries for storage, and following this the Harvest Festival (豐年祭) was held. The festival is a celebration of the year’s harvest and an opportunity to express gratitude to tribal ancestors for their blessings and protection. It also marks the start of a new year. The celebrations traditionally lasted for more than a week, but since in modern times it is difficult for those working outside villages to leave their jobs and return home for such a long period, the length of the festival has been reduced to between one and seven days, with the average being three to five days.
Harvest Festival events take place in the individual Amis villages. The first of these events is staged around the middle of July, in Taitung, and the last is staged in Hualien at the end of August or early September. The exact dates and duration of the festival are decided by the elders in each of the villages.
There are many parts to the Harvest Festival ceremonies. Just before the start of the ceremonies, the young males of the tribe may spend the night along a river catching fish in preparation for the festival’s banquet. After they return, there is singing and dancing to welcome and entertain the ancestral spirits. Traditionally, it was the duty of the males of the tribe to welcome the ancestral spirits, and of the females to end the festivities and give the ancestral spirits a grand sendoff. However, in modern times such gender restrictions have been lifted. Usually the dancing is done in a circle, with dancers holding hands and following a specific pattern of steps. Onlookers are often invited to join in, and for this reason this event has become popular among tourists.
The Harvest Festival is a good opportunity to observe an important cultural characteristic of this tribe, which is its age organization. Males of the tribe are divided into groups according to age, and each group has distinct responsibilities. In certain villages, coming-of-age rites are sometimes carried out for the young males during the festival.
The Harvest Festival is an important social event. Residents of each of the villages participate in various games and competitions. It is also a chance for younger members to search for potential marriage partners. During the dancing, the males wear a brightly decorated bag over the shoulder, which is referred to as a lover’s bag. It is so called because single women of the village can show their preference for a suitor by placing a betel nut in this bag. A young man shows that this interest is mutual by accepting the gift.
Amis villages can vary greatly in size. In some of the larger villages for which Harvest Festival activities are well publicized, tourists sometimes outnumber the locals. In smaller villages, the activities may be on a smaller scale, but visitors will more likely experience the cultural aspects of the festival.
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This article was published in Travel in Taiwan magazine (July/Aug. 2013)