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Taiwan’s indigenous wonder woman runs in election

A young Indigenous activist who has adopted a 34-character-long name shouting her demand is ready to shake Taiwan’s January 13 Legislative Election.

Savungaz Valincinan recently changed her official name to ‘Lee I want to exclusively list my tribal name, my Bunun tribal name is Savungaz Valincinan (李我要單列族名我的布農族名字是Savungaz Valincinan)’. She is now running for Mountain Indigenous People Legislator (山地原住民立委) as an unaffiliated candidate.

The 36-year-old Bunun woman is known for her decade-long participation and leadership in various Indigenous rights movements, including the Lan Yu Island Anti-nuclear Waste Storage movement (蘭嶼反核廢), Indigenous name rectification movement, and the pardoning of Tama Talum Indigenous Hunter (王光祿狩獵案釋憲).

Currently, Indigenous people cannot exclusively use tribal names on government IDs. Instead, they must use a Mandarin version.

Savungaz’s ID after changing her name demanding exclusive listing of tribal names on government IDs
Photo: Team Savungaz

As a candidate, Savungaz said she will propose “Land, name rectification, self-regulation (土地、正名、自治)”, a proposal named after a prominent slogan in past Indigenous rights initiatives.

“I am pushing for our right to have exclusively our tribal name on government issued IDs. It’s a continuation of our name rectification movement,” she said.

The Taiwan electoral system categorizes Indigenous legislators as ‘mountain’ or ‘lowland’. Unchanged since the Japanese colonial-era, this system also neglects the diverse tribes and urban migration of Taiwan’s Indigenous population and limits Indigenous people to run for and vote in Indigenous legislator elections. This excludes them from regional legislator elections, which fails to represent true public opinion.

Since Indigenous legislators must address national Indigenous issues and campaign nationwide, it also limits their resources compared to other legislators who can focus on regional concerns.

Government regulations and structures in Taiwan, primarily shaped by the Han Chinese majority, often overlook Indigenous cultures and traditions. This leads to convictions of Indigenous people for practicing their customs.

Decisions such as the construction of infrastructures in tribe-dominant areas also fail to properly consult Indigenous people.

In October, Savungaz held a press conference in front of the Executive Yuan calling for the passing of anti-discrimination law.

Team Savungaz holding their slogan in front of the Xinyi District Administration Center after registering and announcing Savungaz’s candidacy at a press conference. Photo: Team Savungaz

During our interview Savungaz identified the entrenched Indigenous discrimination in Taiwan, where Indigenous people are labelled “alcoholic, lazy, and lascivious” as one of her main concerns. She said the perception of Indigenous people receiving unfair benefits through government aid and affirmative action in exams has further fuelled resentment.

Savungaz also aims to push for the delineation of “traditional territory” (傳統領域) to recognise ancestral lands historically inhabited and utilised by Indigenous people, including tribal settlements, agricultural lands, hunting grounds, fishing areas, sacred sites, seas and rivers.

She is advocating for self-regulation in these areas: “Self-regulation means being able to manage our own space, our tradition, our economy in our way.”

The longtime activist is also calling for education reform as a means to tackle Indigenous discrimination.

“Currently, our curriculum’s history course is still very Han Chinese-centric, and it fails to address the discrimination and violence directed towards Indigenous people,” she said.

“We need to have some critical history education in our mainstream curriculum. We need to collectively shoulder a ‘history’ we both can agree on, without ignoring the historical trauma that has caused my people so much pain, and only recounting the history you find glorious.”

Savungaz on the campaign trail with assistant Yuli Li. Photo: Team Savungaz

Asked what inspired her to run for legislator, she said she wants to “change some things”.

“When we were engaged in social movements as activists we were faced with a difficulty,” she said. “It was like those in the government will say ‘we hear your demands’. But because we couldn’t participate in discussions or shape regulations, policies end up straying away from our demands or how we picture them to be.”

Savungaz is not the first to strive for the improvement of Indigenous rights within the political system. She pointed to Mayaw Biho, an Amis tribe Indigenous film director who ran for Indigenous legislator in 2016.

“Mayaw Biho once said that we, the Indigenous movement, have never asked for extra points [for Indigenous students] or subsidies,” she said.

“We demand many rights, like the right to our names and land, but these rights remain unfulfilled. Instead, extra points increase, subsidies increase, yet the fundamental rights we discussed are not addressed.

“I think this is an important statement showing how the government’s actions do not meet the needs of Indigenous people. Whenever they can’t solve an Indigenous issue, they resort to a ‘pandering’ approach.”

Savungaz visits Hudas Bukun, a tribe elder who offered to help her campaign by driving around her poster and using a loudspeaker. Photo: Team Savungaz

Despite such systemic flaws, Savungaz is “hopeful” about bringing about change.

“If I get elected, so will many other young legislators. I won’t be alone on this journey,” she said. “This generation, the understanding of cross-topic issues has never been better. Now legislators specialising in environmental issues can understand Indigenous rights issues. Elders who tend to be more conservative can also understand gender issues.”

Savungaz reaffirmed her belief that cross-topic discussions and gaining support from other legislators can lead to cross-ethnic collaboration and mutual support that will drive change.

While looking forward to the election, she is uncertain about her performance due to Taiwan’s absence of public opinion polls for Indigenous legislative elections.

As an unaffiliated candidate with only a three-member team, Valincinan acknowledges the financial and logistical difficulty of running nationwide campaigns.

But she is “determined to be elected”.

“I want to prove that the younger generation has unique ways of communication and engagement different from traditional elections. Not having money will not make us weak.”

A young Indigenous activist who has adopted a 34-character-long name shouting her demand is ready to shake Taiwan’s January 13 Legislative Election.


Sharon Wongosari and Ying-Tsen Chen
Sharon Wongosari and Ying-Tsen Chen
Sharon Wongosari is a first-year student at the University of Sydney studying Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Media and Communications), majoring in Media and Communications and Project Management. With large enthusiasm for writing and video production, she hopes to pursue a career in journalism. Ying-Tsen Chen, a student studying sociology and anthropology in National Taiwan University.

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