Fifty years ago, the modern international Indigenous movement became energized thanks to the work of a B.C. grand chief. George Manuel, a residential-school survivor and member of the Neskonlith Indian Band, travelled to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm to rally support for a global Indigenous resurgence.
He held a meeting with the Sámi people, which generated a fair amount of media attention, and three years later he went on to spearhead the creation of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.
According to an article on Straight.com by his daughter Doreen and historian John Price, Manuel declared that the struggle of the past four centuries has been between two ideas of land. The Indigenous vision expounded by Manuel was that land could not be speculated with, bought, sold, or mortgaged by the state.
Those ideas resonated with Aboriginal people around the world, percolating up in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.
This year, a Taiwanese Indigenous band will be bringing its concerns about what’s happening to the land to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and the Mission Folk Music Festival. Hearing Kanatal’s founder—keyboardist and songwriter Suana Emuy Cilangasay—speak about the experiences of Indigenous people in his country, one can conclude that the philosophy of George Manuel resonates far and wide.
In an interview with the Straight with his bandmates through a Mandarin-language translator at Harbour Green Park, Cilangasay expresses his deep attachment to the land.
He’s of mixed Sakizayan and Amis Indigenous heritage in Taiwan—and the Amis, a.k.a. the People of the Ocean, are passionate about protecting the seas and beaches of their traditional territory in eastern Taiwan.
“They believe that there are spirits in the natural environment and you shouldn’t desert them,” Cilangasay says. “You have to protect them.”
The three other members of Kanatal are also of Indigenous heritage: guitarist Masaw Ali (born to an Atayal mother and Chinese father), drummer Vagacu Kalevuan (Paiwan), and singer Abus Tanapima (Bunun and Amis). The band’s name, Kanatal, means “island” in the Amis language.
“I write in the Indigenous language,” Tanapima says in a video with English subtitles on YouTube. “I used to sing English songs, then slowly, slowly started writing Indigenous language songs.”
This enabled her to feel more connected to her roots. Yet she has still retained a passion for Canadian music, citing the Weeknd, Céline Dion, Avril Lavigne, Drake, Shawn Mendes, and Inuk throat singer Shina Novalinga among her favourites.
Kalevuan points out in the same video that the Paiwan people have many ancient melodies. Even with the same song, he says, elders will sing it differently because they rely on their mood to interpret the lyrics.
Ali has Chinese features, so in Taiwan, people don't often think of him as being Indigenous. He cites the fingerwork of Japanese guitarist Yuki Matsui as one of his major inspirations/
"In Taiwan, music is more theory-based," Ali says. "You have to learn the music theory first. But in the west, it feels like people go more with their emotions or their impulses."
Indigenous history goes back farther than Chinese history
Everyone in Kanatal takes a turn on vocals; they all write their own songs and they sing in several Indigenous languages. On their tour of Canada, which has included stops at the Vancouver Island Music Festival and the Highway 19 concert series in Campbell River, they’ve also been playing their only English-language song, “Peace”, which was written by Cilangasay.
It’s an inspiring anthem to the environment, with Tanapima, the only female member, and Ali providing soaring vocals to augment Cilangasay’s passionate singing of lyrics linking greed to environmental destruction and bloodshed. “If we share the lands/if the air is not polluted/if the water is always clear/if we share the lands/if humans are not greedy/there would be no more war in the world,” they sing to Ali’s melodic guitar and Kalevuan’s pulsating rhythms.
“This world is very chaotic because of human greed,” Cilangasay says in the interview. “Human greed causes a lot of environmental issues and conflict around the world—international conflict but also localized conflict such as within your own families and interpersonal relationships.”
According to some estimates, there may be more than one million Indigenous people living in Taiwan. About 570,000, or nearly three percent of the population, are officially recognized by the government in 16 tribes.
The history of Taiwan's Indigenous peoples goes back 8,000 years, which is far longer than the 5,000-year narrative of Chinese history proclaimed by China.
The Straight asks Cilangasay what it's like living in Taiwan across the water from its much larger neighbour. He replies that the Indigenous people of Taiwan have separate cultures from people living on the mainland and, in fact, the Chinese nationalists disrupted their lives and made things more unfair for them when they migrated en masse to the island following the Chinese Civil War.
Cilangasay adds that it's very confusing for Indigenous people when their country is called "Chinese Taipei" in the Olympics at the insistence of the People's Republic of China.
"We don't come from Tapei," he says. "We come from Taitung."
Cilangasay made a music video with Kent Monkman
One thing that has touched Cilangasay’s heart is how Canadians are willing to offer acknowledgements about being guests on unceded Indigenous territories before performances.
“In that moment, you can almost forgive all the history of the world,” Cilangasay says, “because in that moment, you can see hope for a better future.”
At the same time, Cilangasay is well aware of Canada’s wretched mistreatment of Indigenous people, having been to several museums when he visited the country in 2019. He says he was profoundly moved when he saw children’s art about Canadian Indian residential schools and even made a music video with Cree visual artist Kent Monkman, whose art focuses on this national atrocity.
At TaiwanFest in Vancouver in 2019, Cilangasay shared a stage with two B.C. musicians: Vietnamese Canadian Vi An Diep and Dene member Tiffany Moses. He says that he could feel a strong connection to the two of them, even though they came from different parts of the world.
“Canada is very multicultural,” Cilangasay says. “So even though everyone comes from different places and has their own musical experiences, there’s still harmony because they are performing here on the same land in the same space.”