A Fresh Experience From Boat Building To Navigation, Offering A Glimpse Into The Profundity Of Taitung's Austronesian Culture

When discussing the unique charm of Orchid Island in Taitung, one can’t help but marvel at the iconic “Yami kayak.” This traditional vessel is not just a tool for survival but also a symbol of cultural heritage and ancestral wisdom, deeply rooted in the lives of the Tao people, the island’s indigenous community.

For generations, the Yami kayak has been essential to the Tao way of life, serving as a means of sustenance and a connection to the sea. Crafted from a diverse array of woods and assembled through a collaborative effort involving family members, this canoe represents more than just a mode of transportation; it embodies a shared cultural identity and a deep respect for nature.

The craftsmanship behind the Yami kayak is a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Tao people. Passed down from fathers to sons, this art form has evolved from individual skill to a communal tradition, highlighting the importance of cultural preservation and knowledge transmission in shaping the identity of Orchid Island.

In the words of elder Zhong Maxiong from the Fisherman’s Village, there are two types of Yami kayak: the large boat (cinedkeran, accommodating six to ten people) and the small boat (tatala, for one to three individuals). The large boats are typically owned by fishing groups formed by families, serving not only as a collective lifeline but also as a symbol of unity and familial pride.

Crafting a Yami kayak involves assembling 27 components to create a ten-person vessel. There are no blueprints or precise specifications; each kayak is tailored to meet the functional needs of its different parts, requiring the use of various tree species. This process ensures the sustainability of the local ecosystem while relying on the ancestral knowledge of using plants for daily life needs. The intricate balance between functionality, ecological sustainability, and cultural heritage is a testament to the ingenuity and wisdom of past generations.

The art of shipbuilding, harmonizing with nature, begins with sourcing materials from the mountains. The challenge in crafting large boats lies in acquiring appropriately sized timber, requiring a significant investment of manpower. For the hull (rapan), durable and abrasion-resistant Taitung bayberry wood (ciai) is used because it directly interacts with gravel beaches and reefs. The bow and stern (ipanwang) of the boat are made from sturdy olive nut wood (itap) to withstand collisions. The boat’s planks, chosen for buoyancy, are crafted from lightweight materials such as large-leafed bayberry (kolitan), breadfruit tree (cipoo), and Green Island banyan (anongo). The wooden nails (yoray) used to join all the planks together are made from small-leafed mulberry (pasek).

Under the division of labor between men and women, more than ten men work together to fell trees, split wood, assemble and shape it, and carve decorative elements, crafting a large boat with the perfect streamlined designs. Meanwhile, women tend to the fields, cultivating the taro needed for the launch ceremony of the boat.

Through rituals like manvazat (seeking good luck), manwaway (accumulating strength), and manhagnat (launching the boat), the new vessel sets sail laden with the labor and blessings of the community. This process not only passes down generations of experience but also develops unique maritime knowledge that is deeply rooted in tradition.

However, through the process of colonial societal changes and restrictions imposed by maritime policies, the once outstanding maritime abilities have gradually diminished, leading to a potential break in the cultural heritage. Today, following the resurgence of Austronesian culture, there is a need to revisit the reflection on “maritime culture” while tracing back to the cultural origins.

Regaining lost wisdom is indeed not an easy task. Hawaii began leading the revival of maritime culture nearly half a century ago, and Taiwan has also been making efforts in recent years towards cultural revival. In 2022, Amis woodcarving artist Lafin Sawmah collaborated with Bunun artist Akac Orat from the Nanwang Tribe to create a framework boat. Lafin was responsible for the woodworking, while Akac Orat handled the rattan weaving and binding. This collaborative effort represents a beacon of hope for revitalizing Taiwan’s Austronesian maritime culture.

In addition, in 2023, the Indigenous Tribes University in Taitung County initiated the “Indigenous Shipbuilding and Navigation Talent Training” program for the first time. They visited and documented tribes along the east coast and Orchid Island that are actively revitalizing traditional navigation practices, and they launched shipbuilding courses. For example, in the Amis Tribe Fudafudak, a traditional raft-making project was initiated with the cooperation of tribal leaders and elders, reviving a technology that had been lost for over 40 years.

The courses in Orchid Island are led by traditional shipbuilding artisans, starting from identifying shipbuilding tree species to woodcutting and sourcing materials. The aim is to involve young people in preserving and promoting the Tao Tribe’s traditional Yami kayak craftsmanship, culture, and practical skills, allowing more people to understand and appreciate them while gaining recognition and feedback from the tribe.

Elder Zhong Maxiong from the Fisherman’s Village, along with Dr. Syaman Mato and others gathered to lend their tools, expertise, and labor for the sake of shipbuilding, advancing the transmission of cultural knowledge. In the past, crafting a boat with a hand ax would take up to two days just to fell a tree. Now, with modern tools like chainsaws, efficiency has significantly improved. This utilization of contemporary resources to sustain traditional cultural values is part of the collective effort to revitalize the longstanding maritime culture of the Tao Tribe.