I visited Taiwan for the first time in November 2012 as part of a contingent of Pacific academic and community speakers invited to present papers at the 2012 International Austronesian Conference. This conference was organised by the Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies (TSPS) and the Taipei Ricci Institute and sponsored by The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP), Taiwan (ROC).
This conference was exceptional for a number of important reasons which signal welcome and promising trends in Pacific scholarship and community-academic collaboration. These trends give me immense hope for the future of Pacific Studies and are worthy of emulation. The conference also opened a window on the incredibly enriching experience that awaits participants in the Pacific History Association conference in Taiwan in 2014.
First and foremost, our Taiwanese hosts were, without exception, friendly and accommodating while still being extremely well organized and efficient. The conference organisers had given a great deal of thought to key themes and to the issue of inclusiveness. While an overriding theme of indigenous spirituality and environmental affinity characterized many of the papers presented, the approach of conference organisers was one of ongoing partnership and dialogue between all participants.
The conference opened with an intelligent and articulate speech by the President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou on Taiwan’s place in the Pacific and the importance of Taiwan’s Austronesian-speaking, indigenous peoples to national interests. President Ma wore an indigenous robe over his suit during the speech, and perhaps more importantly, looked relaxed and at ease in it. Representatives from every nation with diplomatic relations with Taiwan attended the opening ceremony and many stayed on for the remainder of the conference, actively participating and asking astute questions. These included Lewis Moeau, Maori protocol officer for the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Department. Senior Taiwanese government staff did likewise. [Ed: Dr D’Arcy also gave a keynote to this conference. You may watch a video interview with D’Arcy during the conference, or read a copy of his paper on the TSPS conference website. An extended version of his paper will be published in the 2012 conference proceedings.]
An image from the opening of the conference (photo 1), shows the President in a red robe (front, centre) alongside diplomatic heads of mission, with keynote speakers behind them. Paelabang danapan, Minister of the Council of Indigenous Peoples Executive Yuan (of the CIP) was particularly impressive in his comments on a number of sessions (he is pictured to President Ma’s immediate right in photo 1). Academics shared the stage with community activists and keepers of traditional knowledge, and keynotes were divided among these groups. Student presentations figured prominently and I was struck by the confidence and mastery these students brought to their subject matter in front of a very large audience (around 300 people filled the hall for the majority of the conference). Every session was well attended by a diverse audience. More than any conference I have attended as an academic, I felt part of a conversation which was shared with community and government groups and where what was discussed had implications for more than a few academic specialists. Songs, chants and visual media dominated presentations.
The highlight of the conference for me was the awarding of two Life Sustainability Awards to distinguished community activists who had spent a lifetime working to preserve their culture and environment: Lifok Oteng from Taiwan and Papa Mape from Moorea in the eastern Pacific (Papa Mape is the man wearing glasses in the centre of photo 2). I had nominated Papa Mape for the award and was delighted to see his work on marine conservation using traditional lore internationally recognized. A truly humble man, this was his first time out of French Polynesia, and it was fitting that this trip should be to the ancestral homeland of Pacific peoples. Both men gave modest, but engrossing speeches and were flooded with young people coming up to ask questions and have their photos taken with them. Seeing young people treating keepers of traditional knowledge like rock stars left all of us confident about the future.
After the conference the foreign speakers were treated to a tour of tribal homelands in the more tropic south of Taiwan which left us even more enamoured with this stunningly beautiful island and its diverse peoples.