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Sharing spaces in ‘God’s tribe’

A communal mountain tribe in Taiwan is attracting tourists while showcasing its indigenous heritage and Christian faith

Sharing spaces in ‘God’s tribe’

Tourists visit the Smangus tribe’s village. (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

As a child growing up in the Smangus tribe 5,000 feet high in the verdant mountains of northern Taiwan, Yuraw Icyang remembers life being extremely difficult, yet filled with evidences of God’s grace. Lacking electricity, phone lines, or a road, the Smangus tribespeople during the 1970s lived a simple agrarian life growing mushrooms, millet, and sweet potatoes.

After dinner, Yuraw and his eight siblings would gather to listen to their father tell traditional tribal stories before tucking into a large bamboo bed. On frigid winter nights, as wind blew through the cracks of the family’s one-room bamboo house, Yuraw’s father would get up to tend to the stove, gather coals in a metal bed warmer, and slip it beneath the children’s raised bed to fend off the cold. 

At 3:30 a.m. each day, the elderly pastor of the Presbyterian church in the center of the village would yell, “Get up! Get up! God is waiting for us!” Yuraw’s parents and their groggy children would stumble out of bed and head to church, where the entire village started the day with prayer and devotions. They prayed for a successful mushroom harvest, for health, for the tribe’s faith to stay strong, and for God to provide a paved road to the village to end their isolation.

After breakfast, they headed out to work in the fields or hunt for wild boars in the forest.

Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography

Yuraw (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

After 20 years of prayer, the Smangus people finally got their road in 1995. Since then, Taiwan’s most remote tribe has become a popular ecotourist destination, a getaway where city dwellers drive up to breathe the fresh mountain air and hike trails leading to 2,500-year-old cypress trees. Restaurants, cabins, and guesthouses outfitted with hot water and toilets have sprung up to accommodate the crowds.

To fend off developers vying for their land, and to prevent business rivalries between tribal members (many of whom are related), the Smangus tribespeople have developed an unusual commune system to share their land and profits while caring for its 130 members. Unlike government-run socialistic schemes, the unique circumstances of the tribe allow it to thrive: Tribe members may leave at will, they vote on how to use the land, and workers who slack off or drink on the job are docked pay. Most importantly, the foundation of the commune is their shared Christian faith. The Smangus say it works well for their small community: While other aboriginal tribes are losing their young people to the cities, Smangus youth are returning to the tribe after graduation, finding in the commune good jobs and a tight-knit community.

Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography

The “Welcome to God’s Tribe, Smangus” sign and the cherry blossom trees at the entrance to the village. (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

Today, Yuraw’s five children live in a world very different from the one their father grew up in: Cell phone reception is strong in the mountain village, the tribe pays for children’s education up through graduate school, and the kids wear the same Nike shoes as their counterparts in the cities.

Still, Yuraw, now 46 and a church elder, believes the changes the tribe has seen in just a single generation are a testament to God’s grace, not merely the results of any system. “I know that no matter how much our situation has improved, if the Smangus walks away from God, we will walk the path towards extinction.”

Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography

Tourists take photos of children performing at the village’s church. (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

TO REACH THE SMANGUS VILLAGE, tourists drive three hours up a twisting mountain road in Hsinchu County, with its tadpole-filled creeks, chirping birds, and tree-covered mountains. At the end of the mountain road, visitors encounter rows of cherry blossom trees and a wooden entrance gate with a hand-carved sign that reads, “Welcome to God’s Tribe, Smangus.”

On Saturday evenings, tourists gather at the village’s red-roofed church for a cultural show: Children in traditional aboriginal attire dance to upbeat songs in the Atayal language, tribal youth lead the visitors in worship songs, and the village chief, Masay Sulung, recounts the tribe’s history. The show closes with the mellifluous voice of the village pastor’s wife filling the sanctuary as she sings a Chinese worship song. Afterward, tourists step onstage to take selfies with Masay and Yuraw.

Masay has the air of a chief, wise and calm, his hands rough from a lifetime of manual labor. At the age of 58, he still hikes seven hours into the forest to check his traps for wild boars. One minute he describes how the dreams of Smangus hunters can signal that an animal has been ensnared, and the next minute he comments on foreign affairs, noting that he understands President Donald Trump’s desire to build a wall: “I’m the leader of my people, so I know the importance of protecting our land.”

Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography

Masay, the village chief. (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

The Smangus tribe is part of the Atayal people group, one of 16 government-recognized Austronesian indigenous groups that have lived in Taiwan for several millennia. Today there are 86,000 Atayal people living in northern and central Taiwan. Han people from mainland China came to Taiwan in the 17th century, and aborigines have had adversarial relationships with other groups that have ruled the island since: the Dutch, the Qing dynasty, the Japanese, and the Kuomintang. 

The Japanese especially viewed the aborigines as “vicious, violent, and cruel,” leading to bloody battles and forced assimilation. While occupying Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, the Japanese forced the Smangus and other tribes to move down the mountain in order to better control them. Fights broke out between tribes, and some lost their ancestral land. After the Japanese left, the Smangus returned to their perch in the mountains.

About 70 percent of aborigines are professed Christians, thanks to the work of Western Protestant and Catholic missionaries. In 1951, members of another Atayal tribe who had converted to Christianity trekked for days to the Smangus village to tell them the Good News. The village quickly converted, finding that the God of the Bible fit with their traditional beliefs: In the past when a chief couldn’t resolve a dispute, he would turn to a god in heaven to judge the evil. Yuraw noted that the Smangus previously didn’t know the name of the god they worshipped, but “now we know that the God who created earth is named Jehovah.”

Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography

A Bible in the Atayal language. (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

AS TAIWAN BEGAN TO DEVELOP rapidly in the 1980s, many aborigines left their villages to seek higher-paying construction and manufacturing jobs in the cities. In the Smangus village, which received electricity in 1979, 20 families decided to leave after the price of mushrooms fell. Only eight families, including Yuraw’s, stayed behind. They continued their agrarian lifestyle but began to hear of another revenue source for aboriginal tribes: tourism.

In 1991, then-chief Icyeh Sulung had a dream in which, according to Icyeh, God promised to bring a multitude of visitors to Smangus. Icyeh sent villagers to search for tourist attractions on their land, and they found a grove of ancient, 115-foot-tall cypress trees 3 miles from the village. By 1993, the Smangus were inviting media to write about the isolated tribe and its giant trees, and soon tourists started coming up the mountain on foot.

Once a government-built road opened in 1995, tourists flooded the village, overwhelming its feeble infrastructure. Most residents had never dealt with tourists before, and the village didn’t have enough toilets or trash cans. Those who owned larger plots of land opened guesthouses, and the families—including relatives—competed over tourists.

Wealthy developers also showed up with suitcases of cash and offered to buy a plot of land for $1.6 million. Icyeh turned them down: “This is the land God gave us to steward, so we need to pass it down to the next generation.” Members of Taiwan’s triads, or mob networks, also tried to buy the land, even threatening to kidnap the tribespeople’s children if they refused to sell.

Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography

Villagers meet for prayer and devotions at the village coffee shop. (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

With external threats and internal divisions, the villagers realized they needed to band together in order to survive. Yuraw remembers all-night meetings where they discussed creating a communal system based on the early church in Acts 2. Traditionally the Smangus also lived communally: When one man caught a boar, he’d split it with other members of the tribe. So in 2001, the eight families created a common kitchen and combined their guesthouses.

In 2003, nine tribe members traveled to Israel to visit several kibbutzim and adapted many of their communal policies. After they returned, the Smangus voted to combine ownership of their land, livestock, and agriculture and to share work responsibilities. The transition was difficult: Those with much land struggled to share it with those who had little. Some complained that each member would receive the same salary regardless of his abilities.

“We had many rough patches, and there were disagreements and discussions,” said Masay’s son, Benux. “We had to go back to the Bible’s teaching about sharing with one another and giving to those in need. I believe our faith is the reason we can sustain this system until today.”

As the tribe became a profitable tourist destination, former members who had moved to the cities decided to return, and the number of families in the village grew to 35. Today, each member of the commune receives $650 a month plus benefits: healthcare, retirement benefits at 60, education, and stipends for each baby. While Taiwan has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world—1.13 children per woman as of 2017—most Smangus families have at least three kids, and last year the tribe welcomed 13 new babies.

In the village, the day begins at 8 a.m. with a time of prayer and devotions at the village coffee shop. Speaking a mix of Mandarin and Atayal, the leader assigns each person a job for the day—during busy holiday seasons, it’s all hands on deck at the guesthouses and restaurants. Before the group breaks up for the day’s work, a member of the tribe shares thoughts on a passage of Scripture, and then the pastor leads a prayer.

The Smangus have fought for years to keep their land out of the hands of Taiwan’s forestry bureau, believing the tribe is best suited to care for the land. The Smangus cap the number of visitors at 250 a day. Villagers plant trees and flowers, prevent illegal logging, maintain trails, and educate tourists about local plants and animals. At the village’s elementary school, children learn the tribe’s history, language, and traditional skills like wood carving, weaving, and planting millet.

Commune members follow strict rules: Drinking or smoking on the job, illegally cutting trees, taking too many days off, or skipping church results in docked pay. The tribe will also suspend a student’s funding if he skips classes or earns low grades. Not all tribe members have opted to join the commune: About 20 percent have held on to their own land in order to run private guesthouses and campsites. Students who graduate from college and want to work in the cities are allowed to leave, but they must work for a year to pay back their education costs, and men lose their rights to the land.

Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography

One of the 2,500-year-old cypress trees. (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

CAN THE SMANGUS HOLD ON to their way of life? The world has changed drastically in recent years, even in the village: Instead of after-dinner storytelling, now Yuraw’s kids go to their room to watch movies or scroll through Facebook. Younger children are no longer able to speak the Atayal language, as most of the media they consume is in Chinese. 

Without having experienced the same hardships in life as their parents, will the younger tribe members be willing to do the difficult work of maintaining the commune, the land, and the culture?

Benux, 24, thinks so. Growing up, he said, he always saw himself as part of the commune, and now he feels ownership of it and wants to improve its future. Benux studied hospitality in college and then returned to the tribe, where he works at the guesthouse service desk.

Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography

Benux (Kenneth Hu/Ken8 Photography)

While most other aboriginal tribes in Taiwan are largely emptied of all but the elderly, Smangus is filled with young people serving food to visitors, playing electric guitar in the church worship band, and cleaning guest rooms. Under a starry night sky, Masay’s family and friends gather in his front yard for a barbecue during the Chinese New Year holiday, grilling fresh-caught fish and wild boar. The elders relax on cushioned chairs, other adults perch on plastic chairs around the grill, and a gaggle of girls dances to the music of a boom box.

Tribe members hope to pass on not just their way of life to the next generation, but their Christian faith as well. Benux admits he struggled to take ownership of his own faith: As a child, he regularly went to church because his parents required it, but it wasn’t until college that his faith became his own. Growing up, he always wondered why the sign at the front gate said, “God’s Tribe, Smangus.” Some of the elders would joke to visitors that it was because Smangus is high up in the mountains and thus closer to heaven.

But now Benux finally understands. Through singing worship songs with tourists each week, telling them what God has done in the tribe, “we are testifying about God and we are glorifying Him,” Benux said. “This is why we are called God’s tribe, because we are spreading His name.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a reporter for WORLD Magazine who lives and works in Taiwan. She enjoys cooking, reading, and storytelling. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela818.

Comments

  • Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Tue, 05/14/2019 07:39 pm

    Thank you for this glimpse into a culture and tribe I knew nothing about. Heaven really will be gloriously filled with every tribe, every tongue and every nation!