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Indigenous communities in Taiwan celebrate summer with the harvest festival

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now let's sample some summer in Taiwan. A defining moment of the season on the eastern side of the island is a three-day extravaganza celebrated by the Indigenous communities there. NPR's Emily Feng takes us along for a visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This is the sound of the fengnianji, or harvest festival, each July. Each of Taiwan's 16 recognised Indigenous groups has some version of the summer celebrations. And what's striking in recent years is the number of young Indigenous people who take time off work to join in.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL JINGLING)

FENG: Like Yacobayu, a member of the Amis people in Taiwan.

YACOBAYU: (Through interpreter) A lot of people forgot their Indigenous cultures. It's such a shame that many young Indigenous people don't really place importance on their tribal affiliations.

FENG: Which is why he made it a point to come. Taiwan's Indigenous people now only number about 2.5% of the total population. Their numbers and culture diluted as waves of ethnic Chinese immigration came to the island over the centuries. But as Taiwan democratized, the island's Indigenous communities have finally gotten more official recognition and public acceptance. And they have an outsized impact on mainstream culture, music and the arts here.

YACOBAYU: (Through interpreter) Every harvest festival is so important because it lets young Indigenous people return to their tribal lands and connect with their roots.

FENG: For Wujingru (ph), attending the fengnianji this year was special. She just moved back home to Taiwan after years of living abroad, and she was excited to take part in the malikoda - a dance that for younger Amis members would normally last overnight, for as long as three days.

WUJINGRU: (Through interpreter) Through dance, we express our happiness. We join hands to show our friendship, and we stomp the ground to show the connection between the heavens and the Earth and to ask the gods to come down to us.

FENG: And so on until, exhausted by dance and perhaps more than a little buzzed by rice wine, the individual melts into the collective, renewing strong group bonds among each age group in the tribe. And also, it's just a good time. Make you.

WUJINGRU: Make you happy. Make you crazy.

FENG: As the night goes on, the dancing circle gets bigger and bigger. Soon everyone is dancing, holding hands with strangers and kicking their feet in the malikoda. Among them is an Amis ama, or aunty, dancing away in the thick of the action.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "I'm so happy," she shouts. I ask her if this year's fengnianji is different than the celebrations she partook in as a child.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "They're so different," she says. "Now Indigenous people are back at the center of these holidays." She means this figuratively and literally.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She points to the center stage, where more Amis people in their red and white ceremonial clothes are performing. Taiwan's Indigenous people are no longer on the periphery, she says. "Now everyone is looking to us."

Emily Feng, NPR News, Hualien, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.