This Indigenous School Teacher Requested the Return of an Ancestral Pillar—What Happened Next Will Astound You…


In the first of what I hope to be several reviews of ethnographic and documentary films, I want to write about Hu Tai-li’s excellent film Returning Souls. This film will be of interest to anyone teaching about museum anthropology, repatriation, and indigenous rights. Filmed over eight years, the story it covers goes back forty years to a typhoon in 1958 which destroyed an indigenous ancestral house in the Amis village of Tafalong, about forty minutes south of where I live in Taiwan.

While Amis are generally egalitarian, the owners of this house, the Kakita’an family, had a special place in the village, and their house “is the only recorded structure with carved pillars” among the Amis (from the study guide – PDF). While aristocratic families and carved pillars are common among the Paiwan, they are not otherwise known among the Amis.

From the study guide:

With carvings depicting dramatic tales of a big flood, a glowing girl, marriage between siblings, shaman’s descending to earth, patricide, and the origins of headhunting, the Kakita’an house became the most famous, most intriguing example of Amis architecture.

In the past, the Kakita’an family had rights to the land in Tafalong and was responsible for holding rituals to venerate heads they had hunted as well as their ancestors. …While the heir of the Kakita’an family of the matrilineal Ami tribe was a woman, her brother presided over the rituals performed in the house. The uniqueness of the Kakita’an house made it a focus of the Japanese colonial government (1895 – 1945), which was determined to stamp out all indigenous headhunting and related rituals. The government pushed the Kakita’an family out of the house and gave the rights to both house and land to a public foundation. In 1935, the house was named a historic site, provisions were made for its maintenance, and it was turned into an exhibit. The structure was the only traditional Amis ancestral house that had not been demolished, so to the Amis, it had unique cultural significance.

When the house was destroyed by typhoon the ancestral pillar was taken to the Institute of Ethnography (IOE) at Academia Sinica, where Dr. Hu now works. [Full disclosure: although I am not affiliated with IOE, I do work with her as a member of the Taiwan Association of Visual Ethnography, which she founded.] The pillars stayed at IOE without incident until 2003, when an elementary school teacher in Tafalong wrote a letter requesting that the pillar be returned to the village. As the film documents, however, that’s not what happened…

From a magazine article about the film (emphasis added):

With the help of the village shaman, Kating Hongay, they soon decided that the panels would be better protected at the institute, but also that the Kakita’an family would bring home the souls of their ancestors believed to be living in the panels by rebuilding the ancestral house on its original site and carving new panels.

This decision began the reconstruction project, and Hu’s documentary, which follows the steps of the restoration, intertwined with narratives of Amis legends and the history of the Kakita’an family.

As the project unfolded, the Amis specialty of communicating with their ancestors through a shaman was also resurrected.

This process of returning the souls living in the pillar, rather than the artifact itself, as well as the restoration project, constitute the bulk of the film. It would be interesting enough if it ended there, but there film also documents internal divisions within the village regarding land use, the role of the Kakita’an family, and the threat posted to the community by the dead souls of their ancestors. The film provides a rich and sensitive look at a long and messy process, doing exactly the kind of thing that ethnographic film does best.

4 thoughts on “This Indigenous School Teacher Requested the Return of an Ancestral Pillar—What Happened Next Will Astound You…

  1. Kerim, do tell us more about Hu Tai-li. When we talk about “native anthropologists,” she is someone very special. As I recall, her doctoral dissertation and first book was an ethnography of her mother-in-law’s village. Hu was a mainlander woman married to a Taiwanese husband (a very big deal in her generation). She then went on to become a major league advocate for visual anthropology and indigenous peoples in Taiwan. Do you know what she is up to now?

  2. @john. i’m not sure in this case that hu would consider herself a native anthropologist. at any rate, belonging to the dominant population, she would have no right to do so vis-a-vis the colonized people whom she studies. that’s not a criticism of hu; i appreciate her work, and in my personal acquaintance with her have found her a good colleague. but her relationship with ‘amis people is equivalent to that of british anthropologists in south africa or anglo anthropologists among native americans. while i might not argue that your description of hu as a native anthropologist comes from an unexamined position of white privilege and, by marking her as “native” diminishes her work in relationship to scholars from the periphery, i would point out that situating her as such renders it nearly impossible to wrestle with the complex problems of position that inform the film

  3. DJ, good points all. Your answer helps to clarify something I didn’t say very well. What is a “native anthropologist”? Hu is a mainlander, but she’s married to a Taiwanese and studies indigenous peoples in Taiwan. To the best of my knowledge, she grew up in and has always lived in Taiwan. She isn’t another foreign devil who has come to do research then left Taiwan. She is, in my view, an extraordinarily interesting character displaying a kind of betwixt-and-betweenness rarely even mentioned in debates over the relationship of anthropologists to the peoples whose lives they share and study. In what respect, if at all, is her relationship with the people in the film different from that of DJ Hatfield or Kerim Friedman to the people they work with in Taiwan? How, if at all, does it matter? I am genuinely curious about these things.

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