The 33-year-old woman who left Taipei to become a shaman

On a hot weekend in late August, two women slowly lay out shaved pig’s bone and mulberry leaves on a living room table in preparation for a seasonal blessing for the house’s occupants.

Harvest festival has come to a close, and the pair – from the Indigenous Paiwan – have had a busy weekend visiting houses near the last stop on Taiwan’s western rail line.

While now inhabited by a mix of ethnicities, the mountains and plains of central Pingtung county were once controlled by the Paiwan, one of Taiwan’s 16 recognised Indigenous groups.

Many managed to remain in the mountains until they were relocated by the government in the 1960s, but while their new villages now have Chinese names, everyone knows how they correspond to their original mountain hamlets and which neighbours come from once competing tribes or buluo.

It is here in southernmost Taiwan that the two women, Paping Tjamalja and Kereker Recevungan, serve the communities as pulingaw, a position similar to a shaman or spirit medium that allows them to communicate with the spirits of nature and their Paiwan ancestors, their vuvu.

While they recite spells and songs for individual blessings, pulingaw are important figures in the traditional Paiwan hierarchy and are present at major events like festivals, births, deaths, naming ceremonies and weddings.

The handful of pulingaw left in this part of southern Taiwan are mostly elderly, but Kereker is just 33.

She has taken the unusual path of training as the area’s youngest pulingaw after spending more than a decade away in Taipei. Teaching at the local school on the side, she now spends most of her free time learning from other pulingaw.

“I have to remember lyrics to songs, I have to remember rituals and their meanings. Some words in the songs are very difficult and I have to ask my mother and my father, but even they don’t know the meaning (sometimes) so I have to ask my aunt,” who is another pulingaw, Kereker said.

“I think it’s more difficult for me to know the meaning of the rituals because I have lived in the city for so many years so I am not familiar with the culture,” she admits.

Kereker’s career path took a major shift following a car accident in 2018, when she began to consult with her aunt and participated in some traditional ceremonies to treat her lingering health problems.

It was around this time that she says she was visited by zagu, the spirits of ancestors that appear as small black balls around potential pulingaw. When she lost her job a year later, she knew it was time to go home.

Assimilation abandoned

Passing down Paiwan culture and even taking pride in it has not always been easy.

The handful of pulingaw left in this part of southern Taiwan are mostly elderly, but Kereker is just 33.

She has taken the unusual path of training as the area’s youngest pulingaw after spending more than a decade away in Taipei. Teaching at the local school on the side, she now spends most of her free time learning from other pulingaw.

“I have to remember lyrics to songs, I have to remember rituals and their meanings. Some words in the songs are very difficult and I have to ask my mother and my father, but even they don’t know the meaning (sometimes) so I have to ask my aunt,” who is another pulingaw, Kereker said.

“I think it’s more difficult for me to know the meaning of the rituals because I have lived in the city for so many years so I am not familiar with the culture,” she admits.

Kereker’s career path took a major shift following a car accident in 2018, when she began to consult with her aunt and participated in some traditional ceremonies to treat her lingering health problems.

It was around this time that she says she was visited by zagu, the spirits of ancestors that appear as small black balls around potential pulingaw. When she lost her job a year later, she knew it was time to go home.

Assimilation abandoned

Passing down Paiwan culture and even taking pride in it has not always been easy.

The handful of pulingaw left in this part of southern Taiwan are mostly elderly, but Kereker is just 33.

She has taken the unusual path of training as the area’s youngest pulingaw after spending more than a decade away in Taipei. Teaching at the local school on the side, she now spends most of her free time learning from other pulingaw.

“I have to remember lyrics to songs, I have to remember rituals and their meanings. Some words in the songs are very difficult and I have to ask my mother and my father, but even they don’t know the meaning (sometimes) so I have to ask my aunt,” who is another pulingaw, Kereker said.

“I think it’s more difficult for me to know the meaning of the rituals because I have lived in the city for so many years so I am not familiar with the culture,” she admits.

Kereker’s career path took a major shift following a car accident in 2018, when she began to consult with her aunt and participated in some traditional ceremonies to treat her lingering health problems.

It was around this time that she says she was visited by zagu, the spirits of ancestors that appear as small black balls around potential pulingaw. When she lost her job a year later, she knew it was time to go home.

Assimilation abandoned

Passing down Paiwan culture and even taking pride in it has not always been easy.

Assimilation into Chinese culture has been part of the authorities’ policy towards Indigenous people starting from the Japanese colonial era and into the Republic of China martial law period.

Christianity, which arrived in Taiwan 400 years ago and permeated deep into Indigenous culture, has at times portrayed traditional religion as close to devil worship.

At a gathering of three pulingaw a day earlier at the house of Selep Curimudjuq, a local chief of the Tjuvecekadan village community in Qijia, an elder pulingaw recalled how she was forced to wear a sign around her neck when she spoke Paiwan in school.

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