Ima Ka Yaku? Brief Introduction of the Development of Taiwan’s Indigenous Theologies







On this Island, My dear ancestors,

Have never set fences or walls.

We believed the people who visited from afar were our guests.

So, Dutch came, and took a piece of land.

Spanish came, and took a piece of land.

Hoklo people came and Hakka people came.

My ancestors retreated inch by inch.

Japanese came and ancestors had to hide in the forests

to evade the life-capturing bullets and guns.  

Today it is 1998, 

This land has become a land without warfare anymore, 

but there are too many restrictions on us. 

It turns out that the hosts of this land

Lost the character of autonomy.

Walis Nokan[1]

Grasping a full picture of the development of the Taiwan’s Indigenous Theologies (hereafter, TITs) or Taiwan-yuan-chu-min’s theologies (hereafter, TYCM)[2] is a challenging task, given the fact that Taiwan has at least sixteen officially-recognized tribes[3] and other tribes that are striving for recognition, within which historical, political and economic experiences, stories and struggles abound. Therefore, this paper is neither exhaustive nor complete, for TITs are still evolving and waiting for further exploration. 

Speaking of TITs, an immediate impression comes first at two globally recognized Taiwanese theologies, Shoki Coe and C. S. Song. Shoki Coe’s proposal on contextualization over indigenization, methodological renewal and a new way of theologizing[4] as well as C. S. Song’s story theology, incorporation on Asian’s contextual materials and contextualization of theology[5] provide critical lens for our theological reflections. Their contextual proposals do also inspire the advent of TITs. However, by reflecting from TYCM diverse contexts, it is necessary to point out some of the observations. First, in terms of a genre, TYCM expresses experiences and contexts not only by rich story materials, but also by other resources, such as traditional oral laws, songs, spiritualities, dances, rituals, prayers, praises and proverbs. Second, in terms of methodology, one of the most crucial methodological elements for TYCM that have not been addressed is mother tongue. It is not exaggerated to emphasize the importance of mother tongue for indigenous peoples around the world and also TYCM.[6] It is necessary to reformulate contextualization and its associated perspectives within the lens of mother tongues, re-indigenizing[7] TYCM’s contextual reflection and critical appraisal. Thus, while globally recognized theologians, Coe and Song do contribute immensely to Taiwanese theologies, TITs’ specific issues, contexts and resources should not be subsumed and represented.

The title, Ima ka yaku, a Sediq expression, which can be literally translated as, ‘who am I?’, can be an epitome of TYCM’s self-pursue and hardship for its identities, cultures, self-expressions, voices and experiences. In this short paper, I will first briefly introduce from a broad perspective the TYCM’s colonial histories and experiences. Second, I will point out the most prevalent and rampant social, political and economic issues that some theologians, pastors and ministers are based on to contribute indigenous theological and methodological reflections, renewal and reformulations. Lastly, I will share some of the latest developments and proposals of the TITs. 

Taiwan’s Colonial Histories and TYCM’s Colonial Experiences

Owing to its strategic location, Taiwan has been colonized by different empires for about four-hundred-year.[8] Within this historical course, TYCM has been suppressed, sidelined and unvoiced. Each phase of the ruling, can be interpreted, according to Li Xiao-feng, a “history of colonial governing.”[9] What is worse, for TYCM, each phase has left tremendous after-effects over the identities, cultures, traditional lands and traditional customs. Generally speaking, the colonial leftover and contexts are lingering over numerous sectors of TYCM.      

First, TYCM’s mother tongues were forbidden and downtrodden by the Empires, especially since Japanese Empire and the authoritarian Chinese Nationalist regime. Having been forced to learn Japanese and Mandarin as our ‘mother-tongues,’ TYCM are gradually losing the ancestral wisdom, attachments, stories, experiences, and epistemologies behind the mother tongues, which result in aphasia for TYCM.[10] 

Second, the Empires had exploited TYCM’s ancestral sacred places and denied ancestral religions. For TYCM, they represent the sacredness, identities, relationship between ethics, taboos and rituals. Yet, the Empires had confiscated these places into their political infrastructures, forbidden TYCM’s rituals and religious festivals, plundered a great deal of artifacts into museums, as well as alienated TYCM’s connection with lands, communities and traditional rituals, which left TYCM alienated from the spiritual and religious worlds.[11]

Third, the Empires had imposed their naming system on the TYCM. Name, especially for TYCM, contains traditional and ancestral meanings. During the Japanese period, most of the TYCM (Taiwanese peoples as well) had been imposed with Japanese names to replace their traditional names which are seen as inferior and uncivilized. What is worse, the identities, meanings, memories and attachments behind TYCM’s names are brutally overwritten. During the authoritarian Chinese Nationalist regime, this naming policy had been adopted again. This time, TYCM have been forced to clothed with Mandarin names. TYCM’s devastated identities had been even more deteriorated. Furthermore, this naming system had been enforced over the names of TYCM’s villages, rivers, mountains, sacred places, plants, trees, forests and fields. Much of the cultural heritages, connections and stories had been replaced by non-TYCM’s notions and ideas.[12]

Fourth, the Empires had dominantly and cruelly confiscated, grabbed and stolen TYCM’s ancestral lands. During the Dutch, the Spanish, the Cheng and the Ching Dynasty periods, without implementing the modern and mass land-grabbing, the lands and territories of TYCM had not been exploited massively. However, during the Japanese and Kuomintang Authoritarian Government periods, with their enterprise of developing the modern states and solidifying the political, economic and societal power, they initiated a series of colonial policies and mobilized police systems into most of TYCM’s villages to exploit, confiscate and grab the lands, territories and sacred places. Without the lands for hunting, planting or farming, TYCM had to be a slavery or cheap labor for the Empires in order to sustain the families.[13]

It is evident that before the flourishing of democracy, Taiwan has experienced different political and colonial transitions for around four-hundred years. Even though scholarly debates contest what type of colonialism Taiwan experienced, it is highly noticeable how colonial experiences have influenced TYCM economics, politics, cultures, languages, and ancestral lands.

Most Prevalent Issues for Contemporary TYCM

Despite the fact that Taiwan has transitioned into a democratic country, TYCM are still facing a number of social, political and economic issues. 

First, the TYCM’s mother tongues have still been marginalized.[14] Having undergone colonial and suppressive colonial language policies for almost a hundred-year, TYCM’s people are losing their mother-tongues. Most of the younger generations cannot fluently speak in their mother-tongues, which means the TYCM are gradually deprived of speaking from our ancestral experiences, worldview, epistemologies and narratives. Therefore, how to revive our mother-tongues has become one of the concerns for the TYCM. 

Second, indigenous cultures such as dances, music, mother-tongues, sacred places, traditional wisdoms or philosophies, for TYCM, is a way of understanding, perceiving, interacting, livelihood, self-expression and identity. Yet, how to reconstruct and to reconnect TYCM cultures after the deeply-rooted colonial and postcolonial experiences is also a crucial issue. 

Third, TYCM’s traditional lands and territories are still under colonial control and exploitation.Even though different tribes hold various conceptions of the land, TYCM share common land ideas that are generally holistic, sacred and ancestral. Yet, due to the aggressive land systems along with the lingering “empty land mindsets,” the ancestral lands and territories are often grabbed, reorganized or sold in the names of “economic development”, tourist orientation or national projects.[15] Namely, while living in ancestral lands and territories, TYCM people are often deprived of agency and sovereignty. How to mobilize TYCM tribes and to fight again colonial power are the remaining tasks. 

These most prevalent issues are undeniably the social locations for the TYCM, which are carried on and reflected upon by the TYCM’s theologians.

The Development and Major Contributions of Taiwan’s Indigenous Theologies

As mentioned above, TYCM’s colonial and postcolonial experiences are the undeniable social location and context for the departure of TYCM’s theological reflection and development. How could these contexts inspire us to reformulate the TITs? I will provide some of the publications that can represent TITs efforts and developments.

Pusin Tali, a prominent Atayal’s systematic professor and current president of Yu-shan Theological Seminary and College, publishes over the theological reflections and re-interpretation copiously over the TYCM’s myths, stories, political, social and economic issues. In his Reflecting the Story of Canaanite Woman from the Experience of the TYCM,[16] Pusin[17] points out the experiences of Canaanite woman: identity-changing, outcast, denial, stigmatization, standing up for the rights and truth of faith. He then dialogues Canaanite woman’s experience with TYCM’s survival, suffering and suppression experiences and states that we are urgent to discover TYCM’s continuous suffering and to rediscover the TYCM’s uniqueness in the eyes of God’s creation. In his Reclaiming TYCM’s Full Self-autonomy,[18] he states that issues like long-term development, sustainable projects for the environments, cultures, languages and lands, TYCM’s self-determination and self-autonomy must be fulfilled. He thinks that human rights and freedom are the elements of TYCM’s self-autonomy. A viable self-autonomy, emancipation and liberation cannot be reached without them. Moreover, he reminds that our theological reflections should always ponder from this perspective in order to fulfill our incarnational faith. In his The Relationship between Story and Theology,[19] Pusin begins by seeing that Jesus has been devoted to speaking the story of God’s kingdom and incorporating as many people’s stories as possible. Pusin then argues that theology and stories should be mutually-formative and mutually-supportive. For Pusin, theology without stories or stories without theology are not valid and revelatory enough to express the stories of God’s kingdom. Finally, in his Listening to the Theologies of TYCM’s Crying,[20] Pusin first reviews the history of CWM’s establishment, which meant to encourage member churches to face, interpret a church vision of the time, respond to God’s calling and bring new missiological breakthroughs by transforming God’s calling into action. Then, he reminds again from the reflections over several TYCM incidents and social movements that our theological insights should help us to narrate TYCM’s church witness to God’s calling and prevalent suffering of TYCM.

Kapi, Ching, a well-known Paiwan New Testament scholar, contributes immensely from the New Testament field and incorporates the lenses of marginalization and TYCM’s suffering into his interpretive strategy. To illustrate some of his publications, in his Recovering God’s Reign for the Marginalized: Interpretation of the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Luke 13:18-19) in the Light of Jesus’ Ministry (Luke 13:1-17),[21] Kapi rereads the parable of Mustard Seed and Jesus’s implication toward the kingdom of God as well as demonstrates God’s reign and power to the marginalized people. He shows that Jesus identifies himself with the unclean, discloses the attitudes of the rulers and religious leaders as well as recovers the dignities of the innocent, excluded and outcasts. He concludes that the TYCM’s experiences of marginalization and retrieval of the dignities should be recognized. In his Reading of the Story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) Through the Eyes of the Story of Dilung,[22] Kapi implements narrative criticism, cultural studies and cross-textual interpretation to reread the story of Martha and Mary. He first discusses the interpretation from the early missionaries or what he terms as, traditional western perspective, as well as feminist perspective. Then he incorporates Paiwan’s traditional story, Dipung, a pot, to reread the story. He explores Paiwan’s valuable meanings, with which he cross-reads the story of Martha and Mary and argues that his interpretive approach can expand God’s revelation. He furthers that God’s care is accompanying the marginalized people and establishing the mutual relation. 

Walis Ukan, a Sediq pastor and Hebrew Bible scholar, contributes extensively to the relationship between TYCM as well as the Hebrew Bible and re-reads the Hebrew Bible from the perspective of TYCM. To name some of his publications, in his In Milisin and Pesah: Reconstruction of the Biblical Interpretation from the Experience of TYCM Tribal People, Walis compares Amis traditional festival,Milisin (harvest ritual), to Israelite Pesah, and proposes that the life experiences, religious traditions, cultural significance of both rituals can be mutually dialogued in order to address the tension between TYCM’s culture and Christianity; the texts of TYCM and the texts of Israelite; and Church of TYCM and Church natured by the western cultures[23]. In his Dance with Indigenous Steps and Tribal Rhythms: Reading Book of Jonah with the Sediq Traditional Danse Mbenowah,[24] Walis incorporates the ancestral and traditional experiences of Sediq’s dancing, Mbenowah, and to rereads the Book of Jonah. Mbenowah, etymologically speaking, according to Sediq’s oral traditions, represents exultation, rejoicing or encouraging each other and has related with Sediq cultures and life-experiences: ancestral ritual, unifying communities, spiritual and mental healing and reorganizing social and tribal social systems and institutions. Walis concludes by saying that Mbenowah’s dancing steps are coordinating with the Book of Jonah. The tribal experiences attached to Mbenowah can be revived and Sediq people will be encouraged to read the biblical texts with ancestral wisdom and experiences. In his Reading Promised Land in the Bible from the Perspective of TYCM’s Traditional Tribal Mapping: An Experiment on the TYCM Tribal Experience Biblical Hermeneutical Approach,[25] seeing Israelite account of going into the promised land as a “mapping”, Walis draws an analogy between Israelite mapping and TYCM’s traditional mapping and proposes TYCM Tribal Experience Biblical Hermeneutical Approach. Walis argues that Israelite promised land mapping can be seen as Israelite-identity building, responding to the crisis of genocide and declaration of the land rights. Then Israelite experiences can be mutually responded and dialogued with TYCM’s mapping and land struggling experiences. In his God Speaks in TYCM’s Mother-tongues: Reading the Bible from Tribal Mother-tongues and Tribal Traditions[26] reads the Garden of Eden from different tribal mother-tongues, discusses semantical, philological, philosophical and cultural discrepancies and similarities among them as well as studies the theological, religious and spiritual implications.

Yuhaw Piho, an Atayal’s scholar of Christian ethics, contributes immensely on TYCM’s ethics, theological ethics, contextual ethical issues and environmental ethics. In his Reflecting Taiwan Local Theologies in the Light of Taiwan Indigenous Theologies,[27] he reviews the development of Taiwan’s local theologies and points out the methodological advantages. Then, he reflects against the background that since TYCM and Han people hold different perspectives over the histories and cultures, it is more promising for Taiwan Local Theologies to be more sensitive toward the TYCM. In his Naboth’s Vineyard and TYCM Land Ethics,[28] Yuhaw discusses the history of indigenous social and political movements, with special attention to the land issues. He then rereads Naboth’s Vineyard as a basis to promote land theology. Naboth’s spiritual, theological and land ethics are worth dialoguing with TYCM’s land and colonial experiences. He argues this reading strategy encourages TYCM to redefine Christianity in TYCM’s tribes and church as well as fulfills God’s justice and mercy.

Yu Jin-fu, an Amis musician and scholar, dedicated himself to the TYCM music, lyrics and its religious, theological and social meanings. To name some of his publications, in his Polyphonic Improvisation and Social Restriction of Sediq group Tayal,[29] Yu demonstrates the structure, rhythm and melodies of Sediq’s polyphonic improvisation, its lyrical application and the way of singing. He observesthat Sediq’s polyphonic improvisation represents Sediq people’s life experiences. In his psSta’ay Sacrificial Song: Manifestation of Say-Siyat’s Musical and Cultural Phenomenon,[30] he focuses upon psSta’ay’s ritual musical notes, with reliable citation and musical point of view to explore its cultural legacies. And he finds the invaluable cultural mechanism, self-expression and identity-building power behind this ritual music.

By providing some of the examples, it is shown that TYCM scholars and theologians are contributing from different areas: biblical reading, biblical interpretative strategies, TYCM ethical concerns, political struggles, land issues, ancestral ritual music and dances. These efforts demonstrate that TITs are dedicated to responding to the TYCM’s urgent issues such as cultures, histories, ancestral philosophies and mother tongues. These are the urgent issues especially under the colonial and postcolonial contexts and needs for redefining TYCM. These can also help TYCM people to respond to the colonial and postcolonial issues in line with theological and Christian faith.


Nevertheless, with continuous social, political and economic struggles and concerns of TYCM, several Proposals for the TITs are included:

  • We need more younger generation and different indigenous theologians, scholars, pastors and students to participate in the projects of TITs;
  • We need to incorporate more extensively the TYCM social, economic and political concerns into our theological reflections;
  • We need to encourage TYCM to develop more theologies based on our mother-tongues, for mother-tongue is our repertoire of ancestral ideas, wisdoms and philosophies;
  • We need to reflect TITs on the TYCM ancestral lands and territories;
  • We need to cooperate, dialogue and share globally with other indigenous peoples, groups and communities around the world;
  • We need to affirm the uniqueness and specialties of the TYCM in God’s Creation.

To conclude, Ima Ka Yaku? I assume the answer is clear: I am and we are Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples and Taiwan-yuan-chu-min. However, could we keep locating our ancestral paths leading to our traditional territories, lands, rivers or hunting fields? Could TYCM’s ancestral philosophies, stories, experiences and stories be more readily accepted within TITs and churches? Could TYCM social and political concerns be addressed within TITs? Could TYCM stand up confidently without discrimination and othering? Through the contributions and dedications from innumerous theologians and pastors, TITs will be nourished and responsible for upholding a special task for answering these self-pursues and questions. 

Risaw Walis

[1]Translated by an author from Walis Nokan, Land: Re-exploration with Īno(in Mandarin) (Taichung: Chen Xing, 1999), 47-49.

[2]Taiwan-yuan-chu-min is a Mandarin transliteration for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, which is preferred in this presentation. 

[3]So far (June 22, 2020), there are sixteen officially-recognized TYCM tri, including Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Hla’alua, Kavalan, Kanakanavu, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Sediq, Tao, Thao, Tsou and Truku. Moreover, Taiwan also has Plain indigenous tribes that are striving for recognition, including Kavalan, Ketagalan, Taokas, Pazeh, Papora, Babuza, Hoanya, Siraya and Makatau.

[4]Shoki Coe, “Contextualizing Theology,” Mission Trends No. 3: Asian, African, and Latin American Contributions to a Radical, Theological Realignment in the Church, ed. Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky (New York, NY: Paulist, 1974), 21-22 and See also M. P Joseph, Po-ho Huang and Victor Hsu, et al, Wrestling with God in Context (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018).

[5]See, C. S. Song, Third-Eye Theology: Theology in Formation in Asian Settings (New York, NY: Orbis Book, 1979) and idem., Theology from the Womb of Asia (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 1986).

[6]For example, A Neyooext scholar Stephen Greymorning points out that “language did more than symbolize who a people were. It also played a significant role in defining nations”. A Cree scholar Verna Kirkness also points out that “If you take language away from the culture (a people’s way of life), its proverbs, its cures, its wisdom, its laws(…) You are losing those things that essentially are the way of life, the way of thought, the way of valuing, and a particular human reality”. Stephen Greymorning, “Culture and Language: The Political Realities to Keep Trickster at Bay,” in A Will to Survive: Indigenous Essays on the Politics of Culture, Language, and Identity, ed. Stephen Greymorning (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 190-191 and Verna Kirkness, “Sharing Through Language: Pipe Dream or Reality?” in Aboriginal Languages: A Collection of Talks and Papers, ed. Verna J. Kirkness (Vancouver: Verna J. Kirkness, 1998), 17-18.

[7]Here, re-indigenizing means thinking, understanding, speaking, listening and expressing in line with more indigenous ways.

[8] the Dutch and the Spanish Empire (1624-1662), the Cheng Family and Ching Dynasty (1662-1895), the Japanese Empire (1895-1945), Kuomintang Authoritarian Government (1945-1988) and Democratization of Taiwan (1988-now). See, Huang Xiu-zheng, Zhang Sheng-Yan and Wu Wen-xing, The History of Taiwan(in Mandarin) (Taipei: Wu Nan 

2002), 3-7 and see also J. Bruce Jacobs, “Whither Taiwanization? The Colonization, Democratization and Taiwanization of Taiwan,”Japanese Journal of Political Science14, no.4 (2013): 569.

[9]Li, Xiao-feng. “Which Stage of Taiwan’s History Is Not Being Colonized? (in Mandarin).” [accessed Oct 23, 2020].

[10]Kumu Tapas, “The Inheritance and Disinheritance of Indigenous Vernacular (in Mandarin),”

strCTID=CT0006&strASP=article_you [accessed on June 24, 2020].

[11]Tong Chun-fa, “The Religious and Spiritual World of the TYCM,” [accessed on 24 June, 2020] and Namoh Ising, “The Impacts of Christianity over the TYCM (in Mandarin),” [accessed on June 24, 2020].

[12]Zhan Ya-han, “Revival of the True-self and Restoring TYCM’s Traditional Names (in Mandarin),” https://chhuttaichi.weeblycom/28145386032281020803-32048304752140720303276652599121270/2 [accessed on June 24, 2020].

[13]See, Ruiping Ye, The Colonisation and Settlement of Taiwan, 1684-1945: Land Tenure, Land and Qing and Japanese Policies(New York, NY: Routledge, 2019) and Lin Shu-ya, “De-/Reconstructing the Land Policies for Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan (in Mandarin),” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, College of Law, National Taiwan University, 2006).

[14]Kumu Tapas, “The Inheritance and Disinheritance of Indigenous Vernacular (in Mandarin),” [accessed on October 23, 2020].

[15]See Shi-rong Xu, “The Agonizing Taiwan History of Land Grabbing (in Mandarin),” [accessed on 23 Oct. 2020].

[16]Pusin Tali, “Reflecting the Story of Canaanite Woman from the Experience of the TYCM (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 13 (2006): 39-56. 

[17]TYCM’s naming system puts a given name on the former place and father or mother’s name on the latter place.

[18]Pusin Tali, “Reclaiming TYCM’s Full Self-autonomy (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 19 (2012): 23-40.

[19]Pusin Tali, “The Relationship between Story and Theology (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 20 (2013): 1-15.

[20]Ibid., 1-18.

[21]Kapi Ching, “Recovering God’s Reign for the Marginalized: Interpretation of the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Luke 13:18-19) in the Light of Jesus’ Ministry (Luke 13:1-17),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 11 (2004): 59-72. 

[22]Kapi Ching, “Reading of the Story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) Through the Eyes of the Story of Dilung,” Yu-shan Theological Journal12 (2005): 1-17.

[23]Walis Ukan, “Milisin and Pesah: Reconstruction of the Biblical Interpretation from the Tribal Experience of TYCM People (in Mandarin),” Yu-Shan Theological Journal10 (2003): 17-36.

[24]Walis Ukan, “Dance with Indigenous Steps and Tribal Rhythms: Reading the Book of Jonah with the Sediq Traditional Dance Mbenowah (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 11 (2004): 73-101.

[25]Walis Ukan, “Reading Promised Land in the Bible from the Perspective of TYCM’s Traditional Tribal Mapping: An Experiment on the TYCM Tribal Experience Biblical Hermeneutic Approach (in Mandarin),” Yu-Shan Theological Journal12 (2005): 17-58.

[26]Walis Ukan, “God Speaks in TYCM’s Mother-tongues: Reading the Bible from the Tribal Mother-tongues and Tribal Traditions (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal13 (2006): 97-117.

[27]Yuhaw Piho, “Reflecting Taiwan Local Theologies in the Light of Taiwan Indigenous Theologies (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 12 (2005): 93-124.

[28]Yuhaw Piho, “Naboth’s Vineyard and TYCM Land Ethics (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 24 (2017): 153-166.

[29]Yu Jin-fu, “Polyphonic Improvisation and Social Restriction of Sediq group Tayal (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 11 (2004): 175-210.

[30]Yu Jin-fu, “psSta’ay SacrificialSong: Manifestation of Say-Siyat’s Musical and Cultural Phenomenon (in Mandarin),” Yu-shan Theological Journal 24 (2017): 39-56.

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