KEEP PADDLING! Indigenous Journeys Part 2


Last time, in Part 1: “The Man in the Atayal Hat”, I started by talking about the great long-distance sea voyages of the Pacific Islanders thousands of years ago and how they have always amazed me. How brave and skilled the sailors, but also how lonely and perilous the voyages: a bit of bad luck, like a rogue wave or unexpected storm, and you could be capsized, smashed up on a hidden reef, or blown off course. And when things do go seriously wrong, that’s when you need your buddies to haul you out of the water and help you get your canoe back in order. Then you take a deep breath, reset your course, and keep paddling!

When Tony Coolidge showed up in Taiwan in 2009 with his wife Shu-min and his first son Johan, he knew it was going to be a challenge to get things set in a country he had never lived in before. But he had his movie, Voices in the Clouds, made with filmmaker Aaron Hosé, under his belt. The film – in addition to the friends he had made in his two previous trips to Taiwan – opened a lot of doors. “I couldn’t ask for a better calling card to really let people know what I wanted to do in Taiwan,” Coolidge said.

After networking for a few years, he tried to set up a Taiwan-registered NGO that could do legal fund-raising. Registering an “association” is notoriously laborious and bureaucratic in Taiwan, and requires getting members with Taiwan ID cards from all over the island to agree to endorse the group. But after they had worked on it for months, misfortune struck: “One day we found that the copies of all the cards form members had been lost,” said Coolidge. Oops! Oh, well. Keep paddling!

Later that year he had some much better luck: “We were invited to show the film Voices in the Clouds in New Zealand in 2012.”

WELCOME TO AOTEAROA! (Photo credit Tobie Openshaw)

The event was the Wairoa Māori Film Festival, held annually on the east coast of North Island, in the country the Māori call Aotearoa. It is an amazing event, according to Taipei-based South African documentary filmmaker Tobie Openshaw, who made the trip along with Coolidge. Openshaw was blown away by the quality of the films, many of which were made by students from the Māori Development Department of Auckland University of Technology. The program is supervised by Māori “powerhouse” Professor Ella Henry. Māori artists “have really adopted filmmaking as part of their tradition of storytelling,” said Openshaw, something he says he would like to see promoted in Taiwan’s Indigenous community.

He was also impressed by the venue for the film festival, which was in a traditional wooden meeting house situated in a sacred communal space, known as a marae. “Entering it for the first time, there was a special ritual. The group had to wait outside and the leader would invite you in with a call-and response song.” Openshaw said. This hearkens back to days when visitors to the marae might not be friendly. Once inside, he admired the intricately-carved interior. It was only later that he realized what an honor it was to have been invited there.


Coolidge had a great time too: Voices in the Clouds won Best International Film. He also made an important discovery, although possibly a bit late in the game. “When I brought the film to New Zealand it was the first time I connected with other Austronesian groups. Seeing them watch the film, hearing them say: ‘Hey, she looks like my auntie. She looks like my grandmother. He looks like my uncle!’. So, the Austronesian connection became a big part of our organization,” said Coolidge.

Naturally, Coolidge and ATAYAL invited the AUT film kids to come to Taiwan, and this was announced officially at the festival. In an interview recorded by Openshaw, Prof. Henry said the trip would be in part about the Austronesian connection, but even more so about the “cosmological connection” that Indigenous people have, their common connection to “the gods of creation.”


 “So, in 2013 I was able to keep that promise,” said Coolidge. The event was called the Tap Root Cultural Exchange Program. “We had a delegation from the Auckland University of Technology, who were the people who I was with at the film festival. It happened. They came. It was our biggest culture exchange project ever,” said Coolidge. “Nine people from New Zealand for fourteen days. We had to fund everything. For a group of volunteers who didn’t have much of a budget, it wasn’t easy.”

As is common in many organizations relying on volunteers, people let them down, promised services failed to appear, and while some planned events went well, other things went very wrong.

“We were supposed to have a bus to pick up the delegation at the airport,” Openshaw said. “But that fell through, and instead there were 4 or 5 different cars.” There was also a van for the elders (chaperones) too, but the organizers had wanted a proper bus for everyone and their baggage. Throughout the trip, the accommodation was often at places like school dorms, and the elders weren’t very happy with that, recalls Openshaw. “The students didn’t care though,” he recalled.

Then came a “rogue wave” event. Coolidge explains: “One time we had to find emergency accommodation because they [the elders] weren’t happy with where we set them up. And those emergency accommodations turned out to be a love hotel with sex toys everywhere. That was unexpected. And it was not just any love hotel. I’ve seen some but this was definitely a special one. They had like dental chairs in the middle of the room,” lamented Tony Coolidge, with a chuckle. Oops!

There was also a controversy over the central purpose of the trip. Although Prof. Henry had acknowledged the Austronesian connection and had even shown a positive attitude toward the “Out of Taiwan” theory, which says that Taiwan was the beginning-place of the Austronesian Expansion, the idea that indigenous Taiwanese are the ancestors of the Māori is not something accepted by all Māori. Their own origin story is that they came from a Polynesian island or group of islands called Hawaiki, and that Aotearoa (New Zealand)wasdiscovered by Tupe, the master navigator. Later, the seven Māori iwis (tribal groups) voyaged to the islands, and thus the lands were populated by humans for the first time.

However, in his pure enthusiasm, Coolidge had touted the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis as the central context for the trip.  Although there is still some debate, the leading scientific theory is that Austronesian-speaking people first began their great migrations from pre-Han Taiwan about 3000 to 1500 BCE, spreading outward from there as far as Madagascar and Polynesia. Not only is it highly plausible, based on the evidence, it is also very popular with those who have some emotional connection with indigenous Taiwan. But perhaps it was not diplomatic to brand the trip accordingly, without okaying this with the visitors? Feathers were ruffled.

According to a December, 2013 Taipei Times article: “In bold lettering, the [Tap Root] Web site introduces the exchange program with a rhetorical question: ‘What if the great diaspora of 400 million Austronesian peoples from 38 countries strengthened their cultural bonds by uniting at the source of their cultural roots?’” The article also reports that one of the elders “said she had never heard of the theory that the Māori ancestral roots are in Taiwan. ‘It has been quite an experience meeting people from Taiwan but certainly we didn’t come here to look for where we came from,’ she added.’”

MAORI HAKA DANCE IN TAIWAN (Video by Tobie Openshaw)

The article’s author fails to point out that it is a bit odd that the elder hadn’t heard of the “Out of Taiwan” theory, given that it had been first proposed in 1983, and has become steadily established thereafter. The elder in question was highly educated and taught classes about Māori culture at AUT. The article goes on to say: “Indeed, the Māori group gave a performance [Haka dance – probably the first ever occurrence of this at an indigenous wedding in Taiwan, according to Openshaw] at every stop throughout the trip, though not completely voluntarily, said the elder. “In New Zealand, we don’t expect our guests to entertain; whereas we have been required to entertain,” she said.

So that’s probably the crux of the grievance, a combination of faulty planning made worse by a cross-cultural communication error. In 2012, the AUT group had shown great hospitality to the Taiwan delegation, indicating proper respect, letting them stay in the marae. No doubt the hosts also felt that giving them the best international film award was also a sign of respect. However, when the AUT delegation came over, the returned hospitality was underwhelming, causing the elders to be offended, and thus inciting one elder in particular to complain to the press.

Openshaw, however, believes that this was an overreaction, because the most important people on the trip, the students, had “a fantastic time.”  He also maintains that when Coolidge subsequently apologized for the problems with Tap Root, publicly taking full personal responsibility for everything that went wrong with the trip, that this was excessive. But the damage had been done. When Openshaw contacted AUT years later to discuss further projects, AUT declined any future cooperation. That bridge has been burnt.

What’s more, Coolidge had covered a lot of the costs out of his family funds, and had also spent many hundreds of hours preparing for Tap Root, instead of earning cash for his family. This strained his relationship with his wife to near the breaking point. Through a mix of bad luck and navigator error, the good canoe ATAYAL had been capsized. But as luck would have it, a buddy was there to help him out. “I couldn’t focus and I sort of gave the reins to Gary Smoke.”


American Gary Smoke has spent 31 years in Taiwan, making him quite the expat old-timer. The tall, aging man-boy with an actor’s face and voice lives in a rooftop pad in Tianmu filled with books and bedecked with beer signs. He’s friendly and laid-back, but there’s a note of sadness and tension to his voice when he talks about Vietnam.


“In 1971, I was in the US Air Force in the Vietnam War,” says Smoke. “I was in Ubon Airbase in Thailand. I worked on a computer system that was responsible for air navigation and weapons delivery for the AC-130 Spectre gunship.” These refitted Hercules transport planes are famous for delivering massive fire power from above that can take out enemy positions and vehicles, and often provide close air support for troops on the ground. Their fearsome array of cannons – abetted by sophisticated sensors and control systems – are mounted to fire from the port (left) side. The plane does a continuous circular “pylon” turn over the target, pounding the hell out of it for far longer than a conventional strafing run.


That sounds cool if you’re a gung-ho military type, but Smoke wasn’t.

“They flew around at night at around 1100 feet (335 meters) and shot up trucks and troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” said Smoke, referring to the nickname the US military gave to the shifting system of roads and trails that ran from North to South Vietnam, often through Laos, used by North Vietnamese forces to move men and materiel to support the Viet Cong.

“But the US government denied they did any missions in Laos, which shows you a lot about how they lie about what’s going on,” said Smoke.

And although Smoke never fired a shot at the enemy, figuratively, he had helped load the gun.

Does that still bother him, so many decades ago? “Yes of course,” he said, sharply. “258,000 people died and it was really for no reason whatsoever. Other than the fact that the people who made my weapon system needed some way to practice using it and developing it to its best capabilities in a real-world setting.”

“When I went back to the USA after my deployment, I thought I’d never come back to Asia,” Smoke said. Then his life followed a progression that will sound familiar to many expats. He met a Taiwanese woman in Washington State, fell in love, and sometime later ended up back in Taiwan, married to her and with a kid.

The marriage didn’t last, unfortunately, but he stayed in Taiwan while his son went through the Taipei American School. He did various jobs, working at a bar – the Wild Cherry – teaching English, TV acting, and started his own business, the English Library.

One day a guy from the US emailed him and asked if he was interested in getting some more books for his library. It was Tony Coolidge, preparing for his move to Taiwan. The deal with the books never actually happened, but Coolidge eventually came by just to meet Smoke, and the two became friends. Smoke then started to work with Coolidge at the ATAYAL Organization. “Because of my time in the military I had some remorse for some of the things that we did and I figured that this would be a good way to give back by joining up with Tony,” Smoke said.

One of his roles was being Santa Claus at ATAYAL’s annual “Christmas in Wulai” events, where they brought presents and a musical show to kids in Wulai, the Atayal community turned mixed-ethnicity tourist town where Coolidge’s mother had been born.


Later, when Coolidge hit the wall after the Tap Root Cultural Exchange visit from New Zealand, Smoke got the group involved in the Tribal Canoe Journeys, a big event for the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coast. Coming from Washington State, he had some friends in the indigenous community, and was able to make the connection.

These journeys are a big deal, with up to 30,000 people from communities from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington State, and Oregon paddling canoes to and converging on one community. Said Smoke: “It’s an opportunity for elders in the tribe to show the young people, to pass on that tradition of the ways of traveling over the water. People come from as far as Alaska and they’ll come to Vancouver Island and they’ll paddle down. If you’re from the south they’ll start on the Washington Coast. They’ll paddle around the coast, down the Straits of Juan de Fuca and then into Puget Sound. Everyone eventually ends up where the host canoe family is. You’ll go to wherever your canoe family starts from and you’ll paddle to the next destination on your way to the final powwow. At each stop you ask for permission to come ashore. They go through this ritual to show non-aggression. Then they take you to the campgrounds where you pitch your tent. They provide food for you: you don’t have to stay in a hotel. You don’t have to buy food.” He said that these coastal indigenous people are expert harvesters from the sea. “They bring out the crabs, the clams, mussels, salmon. Good food!” says Smoke. “And then you go on to the next destination and it’s the same thing over again.” At the end there’s a big gathering.


A delegation from Taiwan joined the Tribal Canoe Journeys in 2017, 2018, and 2019. They were hosted by the canoe family skippered by Hanford McCloud, a Nisqually Tribal Council Member, of the Coastal Salish people. In 2019, the destination was the Lummi Nation, (also known as Lhaq’temish or People of the Sea) a Native American tribe of the Coast Salish ethnolinguistic group near Bellingham, Washington State.

Although most of the participants were Native Americans and First Nations from the Pacific coast, McCloud said in an interview with Coolidge that he liked “this vision of bringing indigenous Taiwanese into the canoe family and paddling with them. We always have a seat in our canoe.” This is because another family had offered McCloud’s group a seat in a canoe back when they were just starting out in the journeys, and he likes to pass on the generosity.

Reaching out is a family tradition, he said. “My grandma did it for us, our grandchildren. She took in delegations from other countries”. Regarding indigenous people: “We are all the same. But we all need to work together.” McCloud has been working on this for almost 15 years, and he loves it: “It’s that feeling you get. You want everybody to experience this. I want that story to continue. So, my grandmother, myself, my son my kids. That’s what I’m looking at.”

He said that a lot of indigenous youth don’t focus on tradition because they get so caught up in mainstream society. But that when you get indigenous youth together from all over the world, “the atmosphere changes. Over time the kids have become more open, relaxed, and connect better.” They also identify more with their indigenous identify, while getting to know about the songs, games, and food from other indigenous groups, says McCloud. “They are also growing together, so they do have that connection, when they get older and bigger. They’ll thank you for it.”


McCloud wanted to bring a delegation over to Taiwan, and Coolidge and Smoke were ready to welcome them.  It seems like a lot of these indigenous connections are about returning the hospitality. But then along came Covid-19. Not only did it prevent the Nisqually delegation from coming over, it even caused the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 Tribal Canoe Journey events in the USA. Sadly, it also took the life of Tony Alton, the well-liked British musician who handled the music at the Christmas in Wulai events.

But regardless of setbacks, you’ve got to keep paddling! The ATAYAL Organization has. They’ve learned from past mistakes and have become much more professional in their planning and execution. Their current Indigenous Bridges Youth Ambassador program is pretty slick, incorporating local partnerships with Dong Hwa University in Hualien, the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung County, the Tao Foundation from Orchid Island, and also the Council of Indigenous Peoples – the Taiwanese government organization responsible for supporting and coordinating policy about Taiwan’s indigenous groups. Their main international partners are the Nisqually Indian Tribe, their host family for the Tribal Canoe Journeys, and the Lummi Nation, both of Washington State.

And while face-to-face has been put on hold by Covid-19, like everyone else they’ve migrated online.

“Our next step will be doing the virtual online conference,” said. This will include guest speakers on reviving indigenous tourism in post-pandemic times. But the real stars of the conference will be the students themselves. “We need more students in the USA and Taiwan,” said Coolidge. “Every tribe that participates will have some candidates who will write an essay and a video to introduce their culture. If chosen, they’ll get a scholarship and an opportunity to represent their tribe during these online conferences.”  They will also be invited to participate in the Tribal Canoe Journeys in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, having participated or intending to participate is a requirement of the program. This program will bring new people to the canoe events and keep the cultural exchanges happening for Taiwanese indigenous youth as well.

Their vision statement for the Indigenous Bridges Youth Ambassador program is: “The future of the Indigenous peoples is one where tribes of the world are connected and cooperating to develop sustainable solutions from their inherent knowledge and wisdom. It will take a future generation of empowered leaders to realize this vision.”


There’s still a long way to go, for all of us, so let’s keep paddling! There are so many different journeys in different “life canoes”: long journeys of healing for indigenous communities, dealing with multiple serious problems; a movement away from the War Machine and toward life and positivity for Gary Smoke; and the ongoing quest to promote awareness of indigenous culture for Tony Coolidge. These are all part of the new age of great indigenous journeys. And in a global society that seems increasingly divorced from nature, these voyages are important to all of us.

“Indigenous cultures are very important right now,” says Coolidge. “Because we’re in danger of losing a lot of what makes us human.”


About jaydeegroot

I am a Canadian writer, editor, researcher and trainer living in Taiwan. My primary areas of interest are cross-cultural relations and processes, in the context of global social change.
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