Interview: Valagas Gadeljeman
Valagas Gadeljeman is currently a Ph.D student at National Taiwan University and was a member of the Indigenous Youth Front. The following interview was conducted on October 25th, 2017.
Brian Hioe: The first thing I wanted to ask is, how did you begin participating in social movements? What kind of issues did you participate in and why?
Valagas Gadeljeman: I guess it would be after I came to Taipei to study. Because in college, I was at National Dong Hua University in Hualien. There are very few opportunities to learning Indigenous issues and participate tribe movements in Hualien.
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It was through student groups that I began. After I started graduate school at National Taiwan University (NTU), you sort of couldn’t help but participate in a number of issues. The first social movement I may have gotten involved in is the anti-nuclear movement. At the time, it was discussing how nuclear waste on Lanyu should be taken care of.
Otherwise, it was issues that had to do with indigenous, such as how indigenous history was being taught in schools. Or indigenous land issues. The indigenous issue drew me in, since I’m indigenous after all.
And because these were my friends in Taipei, that they participated in social movements, we had a Line group, Facebook, and they would ask if they needed help. It was usually because friends needed help and I saw the issue had to do with my own ideals, so I would participate. So the reasons why I would participate in social movements would be first, because of the environment in Taipei which made it easy to participate. Second would be friends, indigenous or otherwise, who called on me to pay attention to an issue.
Brian Hioe: What were you doing at the time of 318?
Valagas Gadeljeman: I was a part of a student group. An indigenous student group at NTU. Using weekends or holidays to go to neighborhoods and conducting public service. Such as holding workshops or going back to the village and providing some services.
Indigenous in Taipei tend to be very lonely. When we gather, we discuss issues. It was the same as with the Sunflower Movement, except it began with the movement. So everyone would discuss where indigenous were in such a large movement such as the Sunflower Movement.
When we began, we were discussing what kind of issues we could raise, and how indigenous young people living in Taiwan could start some form of movement. We set up in a park by the Shandao Temple MRT. It was a small space and became the first place where indigenous young people talked about shared issues.
We began to hold some workshops to discuss the CSSTA or how this movement would affect us indigenous. In the beginning, it was to try and understand this issue and to bring indigenous young people in Taipei into this topic. To let people know that we were here and they they could come discuss us with us. I remember that we divided into many different groups, some discussion land, education, the economy, and other aspect of the CSSTA. How it would influence us. We began with this sort of discussion.
Brian Hioe: What were your feelings on the movement, through your participation?
Valagas Gadeljeman: I think at the time, there were many groups, including indigenous from different communities, that began to participate. You would know their background from everyone’s sharing their experience, such as what school they were at, what they were studying, whether they were studying law or sociology. You would become curious that this person’s logic was very particular.
So you would also understand what had attracted them to participating. And it wasn’t just Taipei, some people came from Hualien, Taitung, Pingtung, central Taiwan, maybe chartering a bus or riding the train to Shandao Temple.
It started to feel that there was a new indigenous movement among this generation. Because in 1987, there were a wave of indigenous social movements. After that, there weren’t much concrete actions. In participating in the Sunflower Movement then, we would wonder if this was the start of a new indigenous movement.
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But connections grew faster. We indigenous would start to discuss issues with non-indigenous friends. And we would learn how to express our points of view as indigenous. And at that time, there was discussion of what indigenous perspectives were. Because then we would find that those indigenous who could talk very well about issues were urban indigenous.
Back then, internally there would be voices questioning whether you were urban indigenous or whether you were from our communities originally. Because these points of view were different. Next to Shandao Temple, you would wonder why urban indigenous controlled the discourse, regarding who was representative, or who served as a spokesman. What were the points of view of indigenous back in our communities?
Indigenous such ourselves were one of many groups gathered around the Shandao Temple area holding discussions. Our discourse, our discussion, our perspectives were led by those living in Taipei, such as Savungaz, Namoh, Jocelyn, Kawlo, and other indigenous studying in Taipei. So their way of talking was something that outsiders could understand right away.
And I wondered, where were the voices of our communities? Because who could represent indigenous? Does your way of talking about it reflect the thoughts and feelings of our communities?
So in participating in the movement, I would feel that in the beginning, we were quite fervent and that we moved quickly. But in the middle, we began to discuss whether we should bring out voices back to our hometowns and communities and allow more people allow about this in order to gather together. To allow the points of view we expressed to expand. They needed people to go over every day to help organize, because people would gather every night for a discussion.
The other interesting point is that because we were by the Shandao Temple MRT and everyone would pass by, I felt that we had found a good space, but it had some distance from the occupation. I feel quite sensitive towards searching for space, maybe because I study spatial planning. I think that we were there because of the people going back and forth.
People that didn’t understand indigenous would stop and listen to us. Because there would be talks every day and we would invite some people working on indigenous issues to come. The other feeling I had is that we could use the Sunflower Movement as an opportunity to express our voices, although our content may not have had any relation to the Sunflower Movement. But it was an opportunity to establish discourse.
Brian Hioe: Why do you think that you participated in this movement, then? Because many people may say that they participated because of Taiwanese identity, but of course, most people that say that are Han. What is your point of view?
Valagas Gadeljeman: Like you said. The leaders of the Sunflower Movement weren’t indigenous. And us indigenous had always been protesting. Because we had always been colonized continuously, from before the Japanese period during the Qing dynasty and there were other colonizers that entered, such as Japan and the KMT. Indigenous have existed under capitalism or economic developmentalism as those who were harmed the most and those whose historical hurt is largest.
For the people making these central decisions of the Sunflower Movement, indigenous issues were to them just one among many issues to make sure that their way of doing things was right. I think the deeper history behind the CSSTA was effaced. They only raised issues with regards to the process by which it was passed. What I opposed was that we didn’t discuss indigenous views from the point of view of a historical process. We discussed more surface level legislative issues.
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So I did oppose the core decision making group on this respect, regarding who could be a representative or speak for the movement. There wasn’t a complete sharing of views, in which it was discussed what positions people stood for and with regards to who inside had the ability to be spokesman.
Whoever had the attention of the media could be spokesman. So at that time, the media found a few people to represent the movement. These people served as spokesman and could arrange their understanding of the movement, so the media liked these people.
But the space we picked was marginal and outside of the occupation. How could we bring our voices into the movement? This is why we started to move from by Shandao Temple closer to the Legislative Yuan. We moved to the road in front of the Legislative Yuan, because we felt that we couldn’t just be off to the side. The young people leading the Indigenous Youth Front may have realized that our voices shouldn’t be there, but should move towards the central stage, to allow more young people to hear the voices of indigenous young people.
I remember then that I and others went onto the stage to speak what the views of Taiwanese indigenous towards the CSSTA were. It was sharing that why we should be seen because we were the people beneath the CSSTA and that we were like this, so we couldn’t accept the CSSTA. We tried to move from the marginal to the center. You would discover that a group of indigenous young people also tried to occupy the Executive Yuan during this time. At the time, they went to occupy it themselves.
Indigenous groups divided in two them, one which was more radical, and the other which decided to stay there and express their voices. When they went there, the first thing was that the media didn’t report on it. I remember it wasn’t very effective, it was blocked, and there were negative reactions. We wanted to be heard so we tried some actions to be heard. I remember that our core, shared value was for indigenous voices to be heard.
Brian Hioe: What kind of movement do you think this was? Many opposed the black box, while other people opposed the KMT or China, and some may have opposed free trade.
Valagas Gadeljeman: Thinking back on this, I wondered whether I opposed the improper process by which the bill was passed or whether I opposed economic trade or whether I opposed China or what? So the target of opposition was very much like capitalist power. Because capitalist power is present across the whole world. No matter what country, there are issues. Thinking back, I think most young people opposed China. Not wanting this country to disrupt our affairs.
I think it was less the economy, since we were capitalist from the beginning. We were capitalist from Japanese colonialism onwards. And I think that the improper process wasn’t so much cared of, but people grabbed onto this as a way of showing China that we were a very democratic country that cares very much about process. Definitely so. Yet I think that we wouldn’t look at it from such a small point of view, but would oppose China.
As for my own view, my view is that I don’t hope for China. For indigenous, let’s say, no matter who comes to colonize us, it’s just switching a government. We’ve been colonized by the Japanese, we’ve been colonized by the KMT, why not be colonized by the CCP? So I thought that for us indigenous, as to whoever colonizes us, we may be like, “Well, it might as well be whoever.”
But why would we oppose this? Is because we want to allow everyone to know that we’re a people that can’t have a country or that we can’t express our views, so we would have this place in society. Or that we always do not have a core place in society to express our views. Because we are always being led around by other people. So there was this kind of feeling.
My own Taiwanese identification may be that my ancestors are from Taiwan and my descent is on this piece of land. Behind my sense of Taiwanese identification is a very strong sense of ethnicity, which is that of being indigenous and Taiwanese. So during the Sunflower Movement, I didn’t feel opposed because of the improper process or the economic CSSTA, but not wanting another country to colonize us or disrupt our internal affairs.
Brian Hioe: Do you think that there is any political slant to Taiwanese social movements? Taiwanese social movement participants tend to claim that they lean left and are progressive on a number of issues ranging from support for same-sex marriage to opposition to the death penalty.
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Valagas Gadeljeman: Where the international world goes, we want to go as well. If the international world supports gay marriage, because many people who have studied law or politics have studied abroad, they are affected by these views and come back. That also affects how we look at issues. No matter what issue. My view is that we want to catch up with the international world, to get to the same place.
Brian Hioe: Three years later, how do you think that this movement has affected Taiwanese politics? For example, many people raise the election victories of Tsai Ing-Wen or Ko Wen-Je or the appearance of the Third Force. What effect do you think this has had on indigenous young people?
Valagas Gadeljeman: A few people will think about what took place three years later. But let me first talk about myself. When I began participating in social movements, an aspect that I noticed is that urban indigenous can’t always stay in urban areas if you want to speak for indigenous to express how indigenous look at certain issues. You have to maintain close ties with your community, to go back and live, or to work. You can’t not go back. Even if you like urban life, you need to maintain strong ties with your community.
Three years later, I continuously go back to my community. When we speak up, you discover that there is still class divisions among indigenous. For example, we are indigenous, but today we can study at NTU. Our class is very visibly differently from other indigenous. So do your views really reflect indigenous? Are you needs really the needs of the community? For example, what if the people of the community need economic development? If you oppose this, what will they eat? My feeling was that I should go back to my community and work, so I began to advocate for some plans or work in the community, to allow young people to know what shared issues are.
For example, regarding sexuality. Or the traditional territories issue. If you discuss this in Taipei, it is very easy, and it is very easy to mobilize. You are close to others and it is quick to organize. It’s very easy to gather, since it’s in Taipei. But the question is, for these people who can organize very quickly, can they represent everyone in the community? I think of course not. How to resolve this is to have a close relation between the community and the city. So I have tried to, on weekends or long holidays, to always go back.
My current work has changed, in order to bring what I learn in Taipei or the latest information back. Because although it is very convenient for information to spread in Taiwan, you will find that there is a big difference in how people understand issues. Such as old people. They may think that there’s no issue regarding traditional territories, and that our lives are okay.
But because there’s no ability to dialogue with people deciding policy at the top, those living in our communities will have issues, such as not being able to hunt or to open up land for development, having to apply with someone. You discover that there are these information disconnects.
What I think indigenous young people can do after the Sunflower Movement is to establish these connections. We very much like to do what is in our self-interest, but people don’t like to help what helps other people. But indigenous emphasize collectivity very much.
Living in the city, you can be on your own, buying a house, or riding the subway. But what indigenous confront is a very large neighborhood. So a way in which the Sunflower Movement has affected my future is that I may return to my community to learn and to do things and allow these voices to be able to engage in dialogue with those who want to work with indigenous.
Brian Hioe: What do you think indigenous young people who participated in the movement are doing now?
Valagas Gadeljeman: The people that led the movement are in Taipei now. Some people may have began to participate in the legislative process, such as working as the assistant to legislators, or to help research projects. Some people have gone into the media, such as Jocelyn, working for indigenous television. Everyone is looking for a way to connect with indigenous issues. I think that is everyone’s platform, hoping to find a suitable way to participate in indigenous issues.
However, my own view is that, “Why are they all still in Taipei?” I’m also in Taipei, I just feel I have to go back, to participate in local issues and work, in order to grab hold of what my community really wants to express. But you can also feel that many of these people in Taipei work with indigenous young people back in our communities. They will still go back. Some people may not be able to go back easily.
Brian Hioe: Do you have any views regarding how China looks at the Sunflower Movement? I almost wonder if they may not think about Taiwanese indigenous too much, since they are focused on Taiwanese Han.
Although you see strange things like supposed Taiwanese indigenous representatives in China sometimes. I saw a television program from China awhile ago in which there was supposedly a Taiwanese indigenous performer, but he was actually wearing Native American clothing. Or maybe you could talk about some of your experience at the UN.
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Valagas Gadeljeman: Before the Sunflower Movement, China conducted a lot of exchanges with Taiwanese indigenous. For example, cultural exchanges. Or economic and cultural exchanges. You find that local neighborhood groups would go to China together and conduct exchange. This is a way of brainwashing. They’ll take you see the buildings in China or the economic development of China or they’ll take you to see planning for ethnic minorities in China.
People in the community would think, “Wow! This is so great!” I think China doing that is hoping to allow people see what is good about China. This took place every year before the Sunflower Movement, with thousands of people going there. Not just ten or twenty.
I’ve done this five times myself. [Laughs] It’s a lot of times! Every time I would go, I would think that if I wasn’t careful, I would be brainwashed.
I think that China would see the Sunflower Movement just as an event. They would feel that before the movement, a lot of groups were working with China in participating in these exchanges. They may feel that after the incident passed, it may be over. And they treat Taiwanese indigenous as a Chinese ethnic minority.
For example, the people in my family urged me not to participate in opposing the CSSTA. “The CCP isn’t bad, right” There’s that voice. “The KMT is a party, the DPP is party, the CCP is a party too, maybe we’ll have our own reservations after being annexed by China.” You’d hear this when you go home.
So I think that this brainwashing may have been quite successful regarding some elders. I also think China may not have paid much the mobilization strength of Taiwanese young people, because young people aren’t so easily convinced by them. With this current generation of indigenous young people, we’d start to consider why we’re not so easily convinced by the KMT.
Because in the past, like the CCP, the KMT gave indigenous privileges and, because they were also a party-state, they would give people work. And if they didn’t give people work, they would be poor. So people would be like, “Oh! I have to be obedient. I have to listen.” Colonization became quite deeply rooted in our elders.
Brian Hioe: Do you think that there could be another social movement in Taiwan like the Sunflower Movement? If so, how do you think it would take place, and how would you affect the movement?
Valagas Gadeljeman: I think there will be another movement. And it won’t be too far off. Because I think after the Sunflower Movement, what Taiwan will confront is the strength of China. Looking at us, they believe that Taiwan is an invisible part of China. So in the future, what might lead to another a Sunflower Movement is direct political colonization. Not economic colonization or cultural colonization.
At that time, I think the movement could be stronger. For me, I would feel that at that time, our sense of collective identity must be very strong. What can represent that we have a sense of distance from Chinese history? But up to now, in education or the economy, or the ability of indigenous to represent Taiwan is quite weak. That’s reality. In discussing what our relation should be when discussing our relation with China, indigenous are not very well represented.
When we hold meetings in the UN, it’s very clear that indigenous are an irreplaceable part of a country. It’s the original point at which a nation began to form. So in the future, I would think that there would be another Sunflower Movement. But what way should resolve this? At that time, indigenous discourse, or indigenous groups, or those who want to work with indigenous to create discourse need to work hard to lead this. The leaders of the Sunflower Movement were very ordinary students, so this discourse is very clear. But as for the political discourse of future movements, what should we create?
Brian Hioe: Lastly, do you believe that the Sunflower Movement can influence international social movements or the international world? Indigenous or otherwise.
Valagas Gadeljeman: To raise an example, when we go to the UN to hold meetings, we would find that indigenous of other countries have started to emphasize that one must have strong connections to one’s community, or that one should be very aware of and identify very strongly with one’s culture. Such as South American indigenous. Their criticality is much more than in North America or these progressive countries. Because it’s this group of people working together with local communities.
The greatest takeaway I had from participating in the UN is that South American indigenous’ active participation may not seem so polite, but that’s how they are. And for us, who seek to be rationale and engage in dialogue, using western progressive means of communication, actually lag behind. But I think they it’s a way of expression very close to their communities.
What kind of influence do I think Taiwan can have on the international world? For me or other members of LIMA, how it has influenced me, is that we would want to strong connections with local views and our communities and to bring their voices into the international world. So our way of doing things is very similar to South American indigenous. The Sunflower Movement has influenced us young people to have connections to our local communities, so every year when we go to the UN to hold meetings, we bring this voice into the UN. This influence and this dialogue is different.
The second or third year I went to the UN to hold meetings, I started to discover that North American indigenous are very elite, with high levels of education, or having studied at high level schools. But they may know very little about indigenous culture. I think we’re also influencing these people. When we read our statements, we firmly emphasize culture and connections with our communities and local knowledge, to raise awareness of this.
When you raise awareness of this, you are also emphasizing your individuality regarding your place in the international world. Because when people from other countries, they realize you’re different from China. Such as Malaysia and the Philippines. They are considered representatives of East Asia. Because Taiwan isn’t considered a country, even Malaysia and the Philippines exclude us and look down on us.
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But if, say, we discuss the situation of Taiwanese indigenous and they realize it’s quite similar to the Philippines, they discover that we’re a group of people who aren’t exactly the same. I believe that this foundation is something that needs to be established in knowing these contents, whether cultural or neighborhood issues, you have to know very well. Otherwise, all we can talk about is what China talks about, or what westerners talk about. So apart from internal reflection, we’re also attempting to create connections with other indigenous internationally.
Up to now, it’s not so ideal. In East Asia, we have Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, but because they fear China, are not advantageous to our place in the international world. This will affect how we want to work harder in the international world to make our voices heard and to express ourselves and how for those of us—you know, I only realized that Taiwan is like this after I left the country to attend these meetings. How could it be like that? It was very different from what I had been taught.
After going out, you would discover that all this was just lies. You would go out and it’s like that. You would discover what you had been taught in Taiwan or how you imagined the nation, or that kind of local identification, we had all been tricked about that. And you wouldn’t really know what we could represent. For example, as indigenous, we can’t say that we are Taiwan, or that we are ROC. Can we say that we represent a non-profit? You can, but Taiwanese non-profits have the word “Taiwan” in their name. So we’re blocked.
When we go out, we have to use other people’s organizational names. For example, working together with North American indigenous, we may ask if we can use their organizational names to enter the UN. They’ll be fine with this. So you’ll discover that we can’t even enter the entrance of the UN. It’s all lies, claims that we’re growing in the world. So the Sunflower Movement’s influence on me was that young people of this new generation want to more firmly grasp our desire of what the nation’s future should be.
In fact, what I want to see most is that—because people will say that Taiwan is already independent and doesn’t need to be independent, much like the KMT—but for us young people, we don’t have a sense of what independence would look like ourselves or have the confidence to assert this. Because whenever we meet, what us Taiwanese young people say is quite progressive. Our points of view aren’t bad. But we’re always stuck in that we can’t represent the country, we can only depend on others. We can share this, but we’re stuck in a place where we can’t share this.
So I think the Sunflower Movement’s influence on the international world is that you can see that Taiwanese young people are invested in democracy, regarding what is democracy and what is democratic process. The steps for this or what is advantageous for Taiwanese people. That should be seen.
And we also want to work hard to establish some kind of connection with the international world. For us indigenous internally, because we have organizations such as the Council for Indigenous Affairs. The Indigenous Basic Law used by the Council for Indigenous Affairs was brought back from the UN. But these laws have encountered challenges. Why? I haven’t figured it out too clearly, but we want to improve our place to express our voices, and lead this.
When asked, “Who are you?”, compared to other Taiwanese, I think Taiwanese indigenous can quite confidently say, “We are Taiwanese indigenous.” But for non-indigenous, there’s some confusion, “I am…who am I again?” [Laughs] But we won’t. “We’re indigenous from Taiwan.” Like that. That confidence exists.
But I am very curious as to when other Taiwanese leave, how do they represent themselves? Because if you say you are Taiwanese, you may get hit, but if you say you “Indigenous from Taiwan,” they’re like, “Oh, yeah. Yeah. You’re indigenous.” It doesn’t feel the same.