Sometimes I like to contemplate great voyages, like those of the Pacific Islanders in legendary times as they spread across vast expanses of ocean. I imagine their thousands of journeys: maybe 20 people on large, outrigger canoes, the navigators way-finding by reading the signs of nature: the birds, the stars, the swell of the water, and even the color of the sky. Then, if they don’t get hit by a rogue wave or a fierce storm, everyone arriving grateful and stiff-legged at their destination, a pristine gem of an island where they could live as their own masters.
Fast forward to the present day: With very few exceptions, the Pacific Islanders – like indigenous people worldwide – have been colonized and subjugated. Navigation is done by GPS, and you can fly from Hawaii to Taipei in 13 hours, including the stopover in Tokyo. In places like Tahiti, rich Western and Asian guests stay in luxury hotels with indigenous art decorations, served by a staff of friendly brown locals. When many Pacific Islanders make long journeys now, it is often to the USA or New Zealand, where they live as a minority under a dominant culture, in a world rediscovered and reimagined by someone else.
But the age of great indigenous journeys isn’t over. In fact, a new phase has just begun. These are voyages of the heart, of discovery of heritage, of uncovering lost links to the past, and of friendship and family that are both very personal and also global in scale.
One interesting modern journey is that of Tony Coolidge, founder of the non-profit indigenous awareness group ATAYAL.
I spoke with Tony on a video call a few weeks ago to hear his story. A guy who is very comfortable with media, he was sitting in front of a neutral green back drop, wearing a somewhat formal black hat. I guess he does a lot of calls for various professional reasons, so I had to remind him that this was an interview about ATAYAL. “Oh!” he said. “Then I’ll have to put on my indigenous hat.” He disappeared for a second, and came back with literally a Taiwan Indigenous style hat. Interesting, I thought.
Then he told me his story, which explained the different hats.
“My biological father was an American soldier who left my mother before I was born. When I was three years old, my mother met and married my adopted father, David Coolidge, a military intelligence officer in Taiwan. We moved around a lot, Japan, Germany, and the United States.” Then they settled in the USA. Being a bi-racial child wasn’t easy. “I probably resented being Taiwanese at the time, so I had no interest in knowing more about it or embracing it. Because that’s what made me different from everyone else. It made it hard for me to fit in.” Tony remembers. “They didn’t know what I was.”
But neither did Tony. Even though he was always close to his mom (his adopted dad and she had separated by this time) she had never celebrated her Taiwanese cultural identity, or encouraged it in him or his brother and two sisters. Then, just after Tony graduated from college, tragedy struck: His mother found out that she had cancer, and had only had a few months left to live.
“Her life wish was to see her family that she hadn’t seen in 20 plus years. The only thing holding us back was a few hundred bucks.” So instead, Tony took her to a theme park called “Splendid China” for Mother’s Day. It was a lovely day together, but soon after that, she passed away. The next year, he decided that he had to visit Taiwan himself, for her, and to see where she came from.
“And that’s what changed my life.”
Arriving in Taiwan, his first thought was: “Whoa! What is this place?” There were tall buildings, signs in Mandarin, and thousands of motor scooters. Then the taxi took them into the mountains of Wulai, with its green hills, waterfalls, and butterflies.
He recalls nervously approaching the door where his mother’s side of the family was waiting for him. The door burst open and there were dozens of friendly people who had come to welcome back the returning son. There was food, drink, children, and laughter. Their love for his mother poured over him in a big friendly wave.
Later, as he walked around Wulai, he noticed not only that it was a tourist place, but also the tribal motifs in the decoration in the village, which reminded him of Native American culture. His Taiwan family told him that his mother was from a tribe called “Atayal,” an indigenous group. Because of the language barrier, they couldn’t tell him much about it. But it was the first time he realized that his mother was from this background.
Back in the US, he started to do research about the Atayal people and the other indigenous groups in Taiwan, and in 1997 he wrote an article called “Village in the Clouds” (link below) about his experiences and discoveries. And he kept going from there.
“I never realized how much people are interested in indigenous culture. We founded the ATAYAL organization in 2001,” said Tony, who had by this time met and married a Taiwanese woman named Shu-min who had been visiting Florida on a work exchange program. She helped him with the organization. “We started humbly, with no money, lots of volunteers, sharing information in any capacity. At schools or international culture fairs, we’d do our best to represent,” Tony said. “There was a gradual evolution. Then we got the opportunity to make some documentary films. We wanted to go to film in Taiwan, but lacked the budget.”
So instead, they found a group from Taiwan and invited them to come to Florida to join their first Indigenous Heritage Festival in 2004. Luckily, Tony also got a chance to go to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2004, shortly before his group’s planned festival.
“It’s a big forum of all indigenous nations that happens every year – so I was there with world leaders and tribal leaders, my mind was blown, and I had the chance to tell people there about this festival.” This helped promote his Indigenous Heritage Festival. What’s more, the Taiwanese group showed up too, among groups from all over the world.
“That experience was of reaching out, of touching and connecting. The way they accepted me into their group was like being part of their family.” Tony said. “Before that, I was all about the sharing information about culture. But when I saw the interactions between all these indigenous peoples, it changed my thinking. I saw these people who were separated by thousands of miles and who had never met but they were hugging each other as if they were long lost relatives. That showed me that bringing them together would create magic. And I wanted more opportunities to see what could be created from that magic. So, our organization changed from information sharing to culture exchange.”
The head of the Taiwanese delegation to his festival, Alice Takewatan, took a shine to Tony; she liked the fact that he wanted to discover his indigenous roots and share his discoveries with the world. She invited him to come to Taiwan, and promised to help facilitate the trip. She would arrange everything.
So, Tony, along with his brother Steve and filmmaker Aaron Hosé, flew to Taiwan the following year.
It turned out that Alice Takewatan was the best possible guide. “She gave me access to people, places, and experiences most westerners would never get to see, and wouldn’t even know how to look for,” Tony said. He saw artists and craftspeople, working hard to keep the legacy of indigenous culture alive, and attended events with song and dance, traveling down the east coast of the island.
Then he did a long difficult hike in Pingtung to an abandoned village, which was a sad experience. The people who had once lived there were compelled to come down and live in lowland settlements. This made Tony want to meet people who had one lived in similar villages. So, through his contacts, Tony was introduced to an Atayal woman called “Yaki Vinai” (Grandmother Vinai) who was more than 100-year-old, in the indigenous village of Wufeng in Hsinchu County. She was tiny and wrinkled, and still had her traditional face tattoos – given as a sign of respect and maturity for adult women – one of very few surviving women who did. She lived alone in a tiny house by the road. Somewhat frail but still feisty, she became quite animated and cheerful when she met Tony, touched at this man’s journey to find his roots, the journey back to being Atayal. “You are Dayan!” she said happily, using the group’s own word to describe itself.
The good old days were long gone for her. No one else around her had a face tattoo, and most of her family were long gone – the curse of living to a great age, perhaps. Although born and raised Atayal (Dayan), she had been ordered down from her carefree mountain home to an urban settlement by the Japanese.
“During her long life she had to adopt different identities,” said Tony. “First tribal, and then Japanese, language and name. And then Chinese and then Taiwanese. That’s really what her life was about. Not really knowing who she was.”
After meeting some other very elderly indigenous women who had been through a similar process of forced assimilation, he came to new understandings. Even later generations like his mother’s were stigmatized and had to deal with discrimination, on top of the social problems like hopelessness and alcoholism caused by being subjugated under a dominant, colonizing culture.
“I can really understand my mother wanting to fit it, wanting to get ahead, wanting to have a life without struggle, without harassment,” Tony said. “I could see her wanting to hide from it. I could see her running away from it. And that’s what led her to the United States. And how it led to her hiding it from her children.”
Back in the USA, Tony and his team, including producer and director Aaron Hosé, gradually edited the video footage from Taiwan with other stuff they had been shooting for years. Eventually, in 2008, they came out with the documentary film, “Voices in the Clouds”, which won many international awards. It is a beautiful story, and a must-see.
(LINK TO WATCH ‘VOICES IN THE CLOUDS”)
Inspired and captivated by his experiences in Taiwan, and with a Taiwanese wife and child, Tony decided to move back there and continue his work as an Indigenous culture advocate. In 2009, his journey would continue. He moved back to Taiwan, where his mother had come from, the great-granddaughter of someone like Yaki Vinai perhaps, who had started life high in the mountains, and had a facial tattoo she had earned as a sign of respect.
For many indigenous voyagers, the journey back is also the journey forward into a world where their identity is reclaimed. But how to define the journey of someone like Tony? According to a DNA test he did, he’s part White, part Han, and part Austronesian. He was raised around the world and educated in America. So, is he really Atayal, or is that just a hat he puts on for public events?
I asked Tony about his identity and the answer was complicated, naturally.
“The Taiwan identity is not clear. Some people say they’re Taiwanese and some people say they’re Chinese. It’s just a matter of how you feel about yourself. And it’s about what people in other countries recognize. So, say you’re Taiwanese: a lot of people don’t know what that means in America. So, I used to call myself Asian-American, but as a mixed-race person with a White father and an Asian mother. But the Asian part is also a little cloudy because of the indigenous heritage.”
Tony said: “When you’re a mixed-race person, I used to think that it put me at a disadvantage. A lot of mixed-race people have to go through a stigma of not being accepted from one race or the other because they are different. But as you get older and more mature, it’s either a disadvantage or an advantage depending on how you choose to see it for yourself. It can be a great opportunity itself. I’ve taken on the opportunity of being a bridge between two cultures.”
Some of these new indigenous voyages are voyages of the heart, so they should be measured in terms of the heart. Tony’s quest was to find the source of his mother’s life, in order to deepen and preserve his connection to her love. In that voyage, he found her Atayal origins, and received the love of her family. He is the returning son.
Then he met a tribal elder – passed away now, sadly – a real remnant of the ancient times. She had seen him as a member of her extended family, coming from a great distance, to connect with his Atayal roots, roots that she had never forgotten in all her long life despite all the efforts of society to convince her otherwise. I guess that tattoo on her face never let her forget. This was a deep and happy meeting of two hearts connected by one line of identity that has not yet been broken. If Yaki Vinai could accept Tony as a member of her Atayal family, that has to stand for something – whatever other hats he may wear.
THIS IS PART 1 OF OF INDIGENOUS JOURNEYS. STAY TUNED FOR PART 2.