Written by Darryl Sterk

Like their counterparts at Indigenous language revitalization offices around Taiwan, my friends at the Seediq language revitalization office, which is located in the town of Puli near the island’s geographical centre, are ‘autoethnobotanists,’ people who study their culturally specific and linguistically inscribed knowledge of plants. Their term for this knowledge is knklaan sama Seediq, ‘knowledge of Seediq plants.’ Given that the ethnonym is the word for person, knklaan sama seediq would mean ‘human knowledge of plants.’ Knklaan sama seediq is an emic term, autoethnobotany an etic term I have coined to compare what my friends are doing to what ethnobotanists do. Ethnobotanists are specialists whose purview is global and who go into communities for weeks or months to do fieldwork; autoethnobotanists are generalists who can spend years recording knowledge that local planters, gatherers, and hunters have spent decades, acquiring.

Knowledge of Seediq plants has to some extent been passed down from a time when communities were relatively autarkic, like the communities the historian James C. Scott has discussed in terms of ‘Zomia.’ It was only in the 1900s and 1910s that the Japanese, who colonized Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, had the state capacity to force the Indigenous peoples who had lived in the island’s alpine interior for thousands of years to submit. Particularly after the Musha Incident in 1930, the Seediq were subjected to forced sedentism and national language policies. During martial law, from 1949 to 1987, the ROC approach to governing Indigenous peoples mirrored much of what had occurred under Japanese rule. Two policies in particular impeded the transmission of traditional knowledge. First, under shandi pingdihua 山地平地化, literally ‘flatlanding alpine land,’ villages were forced to move, amalgamate, and modernize building materials, sanitation, and agriculture. The Seediq were not supposed to hunt or gather or plant millet as they had done since time immemorial. Second, a monolingual guoyu zhengce 國語政策, ‘national language policy,’ suppressed the use of Taiwan’s Indigenous languages along with ‘dialects’ of Chinese like Southern Hokkien and Hakka in public, not to mention the Japanese that many Taiwanese people, including Indigenous people, had acquired in the 1930s and early 1940s. This attempted ‘linguicide,’ a term the linguistic anthropologist Kerim Friedman has applied to Amis, made it very difficult for my Seediq friends to pass down their language, and the traditional knowledge it was once used to express, to their children.

A lot of this traditional knowledge was of plants. As planters, the Seediq had to know how to plant two species of millet to keep themselves in food and wine; as gatherers, they had to know where to gather ramie and the dyeing yam (Dioscorea cirrhosa) to keep themselves clothed; and as hunters, they had to know the trees in the forest:

Kux-un riyung m-ekan pada ka hei qhuni nii.
like-pf very much af-eat muntjac nom fruit tree this
The fruit of this tree is liked very much by the muntjac.
Kii kes-un =daha baciq pada.
thus call-pf =3p.gen oak muntjac
That’s why it’s called the muntjac oak by them.

Just in case you go hunting muntjac someday, keep in mind that the tree whose fruits, or acorns, muntjac like to eat is Quercus longinux Hayata.

In studying this particular autoethnobotanical text, an example sentence from the online Seediq-Mandarin dictionary, I ask questions like: Would it be of practical benefit for a hunter to know? Does it reveal part of the hierarchical order of knklaan sama Seediq, where baciq would correspond to the genus Quercus? Does it express Seediq ecological knowledge, in that it comments on the relationship between a plant and an animal?

My friends have also been translating sentences like the one I analysed above from Seediq into Mandarin for the dictionary. They are translating from Mandarin to Seediq as well, particularly in the articles for the Seediq edition of Wikipidiya they are compiling. In doing so, they are including modern (meaning experimental, specialized, and dating originally to 17th c. institutions in England and France) scientific knowledge in their Seediq-language texts, for instance the information that the baciq pada relies on the pada to distribute its seeds, so that parent plants don’t have to compete with child plants for resources.

In addition to doing textual analysis of the contents of Seediq dictionary entries and Wikipedia articles, I ask my Seediq friends questions about the context of composition, questions like: How do they collect knklaan sama Seediq? By interviewing elders in the villages? By following hunters into the forest and collecting specimens? Or are they also drawing on Japanese or Chinese ethnographies? How do they balance the practical, the theoretical, and the ecological in their autoethnobotanies? Are they getting any guidance from, and are they sharing their results with, the Council of Indigenous Peoples or the Bureau of Forestry?

I also ask questions about the larger context, for example: How can Indigenous-language autoethnobotany be understood in terms of the Indigenous policy that the Kuomintang adopted in 1994, partly to distinguish Taiwan from China, which has had a national minority policy since about 1954, partly to pivot to democratic politics, and partly in response to Indigenous activists, who translated ‘Indigenous’ into Yuanzhumin 原住民, literally ‘Original Inhabitants,’ in 1984 and have been demanding that the government respect their sovereign rights as the original inhabitants of the island ever since? How can it be understood in the context of the passage of the Indigenous Languages Development Act in 2017, according to which languages like Seediq are national languages?

Officially monolingual under authoritarian rule, Taiwan has become emphatically multilingual as a democracy, at a time when minority languages, and even Southern Hokkien and Hakka, are spoken by fewer and fewer young people. If language revitalization fails, whether because the epic efforts my friends are making to promote the use of the language are not persuasive enough for ordinary Seediq people or because they do not get enough support from the government in the form, for instance, of Seediq-language immersion in elementary school and beyond and Seediq-language mass media, Seediq may no longer be spoken in three to four decades.

There are larger issues that suggest the wider significance of my case study of Seediq autoethnobotany. First, how can it be placed in productive dialogue with ethnobotany? Non-Indigenous scientists who have studied Seediq ethnobotany know more about evolution, structure, biochemistry, and statistics than my Seediq friends, but as outsiders they are at a severe linguistic and cultural disadvantage. I don’t imagine a month of fieldwork in Seediq villages was long enough to learn what a hunter has to know about pada or investigate a possible ecological relationship between prey animal and plant. Seediq autoethnobotanists have accepted science as knklaan, and they are learning about evolution, structure, biochemistry, and statistics. It’s time for ethnobotanists, and biologists, to accept Seediq knklaan as science.

Second, scholars have studied minority translation in the context of language and culture revitalization, but in the case I am studying the minority-language texts are partly translated, partly based on fieldwork with elderly speakers. As a result, the Seediq are not just recording their traditional knowledge, they are recreating it, including at a linguistic level: knklaan, a nominalization of the verb kela, once meant ‘what was known,’ but now it means ‘knowledge,’ which, similarly, is a nominalization of the verb ‘know’; sama once meant leafy crops like cabbage, but now it has been extended to mean ‘plant.’ Are people in other Austronesian cultures – like the Māori of New Zealand and the Malagasy of Madagascar – taking similar approaches to ‘translating’ their traditional knowledge, in similar institutional contexts and for similar personal reasons as my Seediq friends? Comparative study might yield cautionary tales, but it would also offer success stories and best practices, in Austronesia and beyond.

Third, and most generally, what does knklaan sama Seediq, and seediq, mean to the Seediq people and what might it mean outside their community? My Seediq friends want to share the ethnobotanical knowledge they are gathering and creating with the younger generation, because they don’t want their children and grandchildren to grow up consuming images on screens of distant things they’ve never seen and probably never will see in real life, including things that were concocted in some corporate boardroom. They don’t want to suffer from what Richard Louv called ‘nature-deficit disorder.’ Possessing practical knowledge of nature, to them, is part of what it means to be Seediq. To anthropologist Scott Simon, it is also part of what it means to be ‘truly human.’ I believe that we have much to learn from Indigenous peoples like the Seediq about raising children and relating to nature. The Seediq are already teaching ecotourists and ethnotourists in their villages and readers of Mandarin through print and online publications. Beyond answering the academic questions I raised above, I hope to work with my friends on an illustrated, trilingual Book of Seediq Plants that will offer readers of all ages a Seediq environmental education.


Darryl Sterk studies ‘Indigenous translation’ in Taiwan, which he has written about in Indigenous Language Translation: A Thick Description of Seediq Bale (Routledge, 2020), about Wei Te-sheng’s epic feature film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale. Featured image: Baciq pada, used with permission from oak specialist and photographer Béatrice Chassé.


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