The Story of Yuma
Yuma Taru is a legendary figure among the indigenous Atayal people of Taiwan.
The Atayal people are one of 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes of Taiwan. Among indigenous tribes, they control the largest territory. The Atayal homeland is in the northern one-third of Taiwan’s mountainous regions, including parts of Yilan, Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli, Taichung and Nantou.
In 2016, the 52-year-old Yuma was designated an important conserver of traditional art by the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture. The honour highlights the over two decades she dedicated to preserving, recreating and promoting traditional Atayal textile and fabric arts.
Sowing the Seeds
Yuma was born in 1963 in Tai’an Township, Miaoli County, Taiwan. Her father was a soldier, originally from China’s Hunan Province, who escaped in 1949 to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek’s regime when communism took hold in China. He would go on to marry an indigenous Atayal woman—Yuma’s mother.
The period from 1980 to 1990 in Taiwan was marked by movements against authoritarianism, toward democratization and the promotion of Taiwan’s native, multicultural heritage. It was a time of increasing self-consciousness for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and demands for more representation. Yuma was active in the indigenous revival movement. In 1997, she formed a cultural association for the Beishi Atayal sub-group in Miaoli with a group of Atayal colleagues. They provided cultural education to Atayal children and women—passing on invaluable cultural inheritances to a new generation of the Atayal people. Yuma was put in charge of researching the critically endangered Atayal tradition of weaving.
Taiwan, from 1895 to 1945, was a Japanese colony. The colonial regime imposed the kominka policy on Taiwan’s indigenous tribes in order to “modernize” Taiwan’s backward First Nations. Japan strictly banned traditional religions, facial tattoos, headhunting and weaving cultures, etc. With the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist regime in 1945, the sinicization policies instituted by that government equally oppressed Taiwan’s native heritage. Additionally, economic modernization since Taiwan’s Japanese era and modern international trade meant that traditional weaving techniques became increasingly irrelevant. Over time, this unique Atayal form of cultural expression became virtually lost even to the Atayal people themselves.
In 1989, Yuma was a civil servant in the Taichung County Cultural Centre, overseeing weaving arts. She became a teacher in 1992 at Dongshi Middle School. Both positions were considered stable public-sector jobs. However, at the age of 29, she resigned from her position to pursue a career in conserving Atayal weaving culture. Yuma began travelling across Taiwan, tracking down Atayal elders who may still remember the rapidly fading traditions of the Atayal people. She visited museums abroad to examine Atayal textile specimens in their collections. In 1995, Yuma began graduate studies at the College of Fashion and Textiles at Taipei’s Fu Jen Catholic University. Her thesis focused on Atayal clothing, materials, weaving equipment, dyeing technique, the unique differences between Atayal sub-groups in weaving and various other customs and traditions related to Atayal weaving.
Reaping the Harvest
Using modern recording methodologies, Yuma has recreated and documented traditional Atayal weaving techniques that were once lost. She has also reconstructed high-level overviews of Atayal weaving culture. From 2001 to 2006, Yuma successfully applied for funding from the Taiwanese government to establish the Lihang Workshop of Atayal Dyed Weaving Culture Park in her native Tai’an Township’s Xiangbi Indigenous Reserve. The workshop employs and trains indigenous women in the craft of weaving. They also replaced the labour-intensive traditional back-strap looms with modern mechanized equipment. Yuma’s workshop has been tasked by both domestic and international museums to recreate traditional textiles for exhibition and collection. Her deep knowledge of Atayal culture and weaving techniques even landed her in the movie industry. In 2011, Taiwanese director Wei Te-Sheng commissioned Yuma to recreate indigenous costumes for his critically acclaimed Taiwanese historical epic Seediq Bale.
In addition to conserving traditional Atayal culture, Yuma is also highly involved in pioneering new forms of Atayal cultural and artistic expressions. Since 2000, Yuma has led her workshop toward expanding its activities beyond conservation efforts. They have since branched into creating new Atayal art installations for public spaces and have also engaged in modern fashion design that incorporates traditional Atayal influences. Under Yuma’s leadership, the workshop’s creations include:
- In 2009 — the “Pursuit of Dreams” art installation for the Kaohsiung metro system.
- 2010–2015 — five Atayal-inspired “Heart of the Forest” fashion shows in collaboration with Shei-Pa National Park, with outdoor runways constructed in actual forest settings.
- In 2016 — the “Four seasons · Islands” art installation at TPE Int’l Airport Terminal 1.
Yuma draws deeply from her indigenous cultural roots and combines them with her keen knowledge of the Taiwanese mainstream. Her skillful navigation of Taiwanese society and government has enabled her to achieve many things for herself and her indigenous Atayal community. Her efforts in promoting the weaving culture of her ancestors have seen her become a major cultural figure in the Taiwanese social landscape. The indigenous workshop she created is now economically self-sufficient—offering invaluable opportunities for a marginalized group. But she has grander ambitions. Yuma hopes to one day establish an Atayal weaving and dyeing village, an indigenous textile museum and an indigenous school of arts. The road ahead will not be easy, but Yuma is unfazed. Recalling her first steps on this journey at the age of 29, she is encouraged by the progress she has made during all those years. Yuma has faith that so long as she continues to strive and refuses to give up, her ambitions and dreams for the future will one day surely be realized.
Taiwanese society today is one that respects its multicultural and multiethnic roots. Much of this movement toward tolerance and embrace is thanks to the efforts of individuals like Yuma. The flowering of Taiwan’s diverse cultures today is every bit a testament to the unique story of Yuma.