2013 / 6月
Sam Ju /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Scott Williams
In recent years, many Taiwanese Aboriginal villages have begun promoting the cultivation of millet, long a staple in the traditional Aboriginal diet, in an effort to establish a new balance between economic efficiency and cultural revitalization. A real “millet revival” is underway in tribal communities.
A-Ping is a 73-year-old Bunun grandmother who lives in the mountains of Taitung County. Her family jokes that she’s “the boss of millet.”
A-Ping is a resident of Lidao Village in Taitung’s Haiduan Township, a Bunun community located 1,068 meters above sea level—higher than any other community in the township—along the Southern Cross-Island Highway.
Surrounded by mountains, the village was an important supply station for hikers until flooding associated with 2009’s Typhoon Morakot made the remote village even more difficult to reach. Nowadays, fewer travelers pass through and the village’s hospitality industry has shrunk, forcing residents to once again make their living from agriculture.
When a Rukai man named Rungudru Pacekele brought A-Ping a few bags of seed from Taipei three years ago, he told her it was millet, a grain once widely grown in Lidao but now rarely seen.
Rungudru is a PhD student in agronomy at National Taiwan University. A mature student who worked for many years before returning to graduate school, he hopes eventually to use his degree to help Taiwan’s Aboriginal farmers. His PhD supervisor happens to be Warren H.J. Kuo, a seed expert who has helped bring nearly 100 varieties of millet back from abroad.
The story goes back to the 1970s, when a young American scholar named Wayne Fogg came to Taiwan to study Aboriginal lifestyles. Fogg went on to publish an article noting that prior to Japan’s introduction of paddy rice into Taiwan during its colonial rule, millet comprised 50% of the staple crops of Taiwan’s Aborigines. In fact, it was far more important to their diet than even taro, sweet potatoes, upland rice, or corn.
In the course of his studies, Fogg visited Pingtung, Nantou, Taitung and Orchid Island, bringing samples of 96 varieties of millet with him back to the United States. The samples, which came from 12 villages belonging to the Bunun, Paiwan, Atayal, Rukai, and Tao peoples, were then cultivated and preserved at a research station.
Professor Kuo, long a student of traditional agricultural knowledge and practices, learned about the Taiwanese millet preserved in the US several years ago, and began talking to the Americans in the hope of bringing those varieties back to Taiwan’s Aboriginal villages.
While waiting for the US side to agree, Rungudru travelled to those original 12 villages carrying information on millet cultivation and looking for candidates to grow it. Disappointed to find that young people had no experience growing millet, he turned to the older generation.
In spite of its place in the traditional Aboriginal diet, millet has never been systematically studied in Taiwan. Huang Shu-min, an academician with the Academia Sinica and director of its Institute of Ethnology, notes that the tradition of growing millet goes back four or five thousand years among Taiwan’s Aborigines.
The Americans soon sent Kuo 96 varieties of the Aboriginal millet. Once it arrived in Taiwan in January 2011, Rungudru immediately began distributing it to the villages. A-Ping was among those receiving seed, and was very curious to see what her 13 varieties would grow into.
A-Ping’s field is located on a sloped piece of land near the entrance to Lidao. Planted in millet and Formosan lambsquarters (Chenopodium formosanum), it has never been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. This year is the third in which A-Ping has planted her repatriated millet, now down to 12 varieties, in her field. Her daughter-in-law Saminagz has eight varieties growing on another plot.
Lidao’s farmers plant their millet in January and February, then harvest it in July. Both endeavors are entirely human-powered, and A-Ping has abandoned one of her original 13 varieties because it yielded too little for the labor required.
Asked about the secret to growing millet, Saminagz smiles in the midst of weeding her field and replies, “Just do whatever.”
She says you just plant some of the grain from the previous year’s harvest; thinning out young plants that are growing too close together is the more labor-intensive task.
Saminagz has already decided to move on to another crop after harvesting this year’s millet in July.
In fact, crop rotation is standard practice in traditional Aboriginal agriculture. A typical rotation might involve growing millet one year, upland rice the next, corn in the third year, and sweet potatoes in the fourth, then letting the field lie fallow for 10 years. Millet isn’t well suited to repeated cultivation on the same plot, and crop rotations and years of lying fallow are essential to keeping the land fecund.
Saminagz notes that paddy rice has long since replaced millet as the staple of the Aboriginal diet, and even Western baked goods are more popular, so there isn’t enough of a market to support growing the grain in quantity.
That said, there is still a base level of demand for it in Aboriginal cuisine, especially for things like millet wine and millet niangao (“New Year’s cake”—a steamed cake usually made from glutinous rice flour). The Ishilumav millet Saminagz is growing this year, for example, is well suited to both wine and niangao. Hanovaluvale millet, on the other hand, is easily cracked, making it good for dishes like porridge.
Saminagz notes that the varieties differ in their appearance, too. “There are red, white, and yellow ones, and the ears can resemble breaking waves, or even explosions.”
Unlike the varieties improved and patented by agricultural agencies, the millets grown by Aboriginal households are strictly local products. A study by the Council of Agriculture’s Taitung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (TDARES) found that at least 160 locally grown millet varieties had been recorded throughout Taiwan, indicating that they were popular among a broad swath of Aboriginal communities.
But Rungudru notes that the only items in the traditional Aboriginal diet that still use millet as a primary ingredient are the a-bai of the Rukai and the cinavu of the Paiwan, both of which resemble the zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings) of Chinese cuisine. The simple fact is that decline of millet cultivation is a direct result of the shift away from the use of millet as a staple.
Japan’s introduction of paddy rice into Taiwan during its period of rule initiated a decline in millet cultivation. Nonetheless, data from the Agriculture and Food Agency shows that Taiwan still had more than 5,000 hectares of land in millet in the 1960s. But by the 1990s this figure had plummeted to just over 200 hectares. As of 2011, it was just 188 hectares, largely in Taitung and Pingtung counties.
Millet’s decline hasn’t been limited to just Taiwan. Huang Shu-min says that the importation of foreign crops into East Asia impacted cultivation throughout the region. Yet despite its limited acreage, the tradition of millet cultivation in Taiwan has never wholly ceased, and in fact only Taiwan fully retains a rich cultural heritage around millet. Almost all Aboriginal religious ceremonies involve making offerings of millet, and the grain has symbolic and ceremonial significance. Rungudru believes that this is what has kept millet cultivation alive in the villages.
For all that paddy rice has become a dietary staple, it isn’t used in any important ceremonies and thus hasn’t yet become an integral part of Aboriginal culture.
Rungudru stresses that the purpose of having the preserved varieties of millet sent back from the US wasn’t to make tribespeople wealthy, but in hopes that a “millet comes home” movement would encourage them to reflect anew on the relationship between millet and Aboriginal culture.
Huang Shu-min says that the promotion of millet cultivation in the villages and the performance of ceremonies involving millet offer an opportunity to revitalize Aboriginal traditions.
In fact, promotional efforts by villages, local governments and agricultural agencies have led to a gradual resurgence in millet cultivation in the Hualien–Taitung area in recent years. Taitung No. 8, a variety actively promoted by the TDARES, has been well received by the villages, which are growing it at elevations of around 200 meters.
Chen Zhenyi, an associate researcher at the Taitung station, says that proper sowing and fertilizing can increase Taitung No. 8 millet yields to 2,500 kilograms per hectare, versus the 1,200 obtained from naturally grown local varieties.
While modern methods can bring much improved yields, many villages prefer to stick to their more casual, natural approach. Lidao is a case in point here, too.
In 2013, the Lidao Community Development Association implemented a program aimed at promoting millet cultivation. The program is growing a dozen-odd varieties of the grain, nine of which were varieties brought back from the US, on eight parcels of land.
Tahai, the organization’s executive director, says that when village farmers began cultivating alpine vegetables 20-some years ago, they ruined the soil with their applications of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Tahai’s group is bringing back millet in an effort to encourage traditional farming practices and restore the local ecology.
He says that the plan is to grow millet this year, and plant adzuki beans on the plots next year. Their eventual goal, however, is to bring back the traditional practice of alternating between farming a field one year and letting it lie fallow the next.
But cultivation of cherry tomatoes in net houses has taken off in the mountain community over the last couple of years, where the attractions of high-value crops and high-tech agriculture are testing the village in new ways. Clearly, the move to revive millet is just the first of Lidao’s challenges. Many others remain in the effort to bring back Aboriginal agricultural practices and values.