Immersion in Amis: Tamorak and Pinanaman Community Schools

Tamorak pupils begin their day with laughter as they sing and play games.

Tamorak pupils begin their day with laughter as they sing and play games.

The different ethnic communities living throughout the island of Taiwan once spoke their various tongues and practiced their diverse cultures. Gradually, no matter where they hailed from, by learning from the same textbooks and speaking the same language, they shed their local color. Fortunately, some people realized that language loss is accompanied by a cultural disconnect. By mastering your mother tongue and knowing your origins, you gain the confidence to stand proudly in the world.


ati wawa kayaten ko kamay
(Children, come and join hands)

kimolmol kita kayaten ko kamay
(Gather round and join hands)

taliyok sakero kita mapolong
(Let’s dance together in a circle!)

Merry singing can be heard. A harmonious ambience permeates as pupils, jumping and bouncing, join hands, gather round their teacher and loudly sing folk songs in Amis. We are in Tamorak, a community school located in the Amis indigenous village of Makotaay in Hualien’s Fengbin Township.

Native language: Not just a class, but a lifestyle

Upon entering the school, the language mode switches instantly. The main language is Amis.

Here, the mother tongue is a natural part of daily life. Speaking Amis, kindergarten instructors teach children how to make woolen blankets and create “wet-on-wet” paintings with watercolors. Using planting-song lyrics composed by the staff, they lead their pupils in turning soil and planting seeds while chanting rhymes in Amis.

The children eat, play and even squabble in their mother tongue. It’s total immersion. “If they enter in kinder­garten, the quicker ones can understand, speak and sing within two months,” explains school founder Lin Shuzhao, “while slower ones take four months.”

Mothers make the best teachers

Lin, who founded Tamorak as the first Amis-language community school in Taiwan, is actually a Han Chinese and a renowned documentary filmmaker. In 1998 she was invited to Makotaay to shoot a documentary about the 90-year-old tribal chief. Not knowing a word of Amis, Lin followed wherever he went, up to the mountains or down to the sea. She recorded his speech using Bopomofo, the Mandarin phonetic symbols widely used in Taiwan, and asked friends about vocabulary she didn’t understand. The chief became her first teacher of this indigen­ous language.

Eager to learn more about the story of this land, she remained there—for more than two decades—and gained an Amis name: Nakaw. This is where she met the love of her life, and became a daughter-in-law and mother within the Amis community.

After the birth of her first daughter, Nakaw consciously chose to communicate with her in Amis. Although she didn’t speak it well, as a determined mother she led her children in learning simple words like those for colors and animals. Her husband and mother-in-law, who had been speaking Chinese with her, were also moved to give the children an Amis-speaking environment.

At the village elementary school where Nakaw formerly taught, virtually all the pupils were Amis. In its Chinese-­language-­based education, use of Amis was limited to a few hours weekly. Tribal children gradually ceased identifying with their own culture, and acquired a sense of inferiority. “They didn’t even know themselves, so how could they love themselves and then love society as a whole?” she recalls with compassion.

Oceanside Tamorak

Nakaw’s doubts and sense of helplessness about education were resolved when she came into contact with the Waldorf Method. Textbooks are not used in class. “Whatever the local culture is, that’s what we teach,” she explains.

A training course at Ci-Xin Waldorf School in Yilan inspired her to use this methodology to teach her own children at home, and this gradually influenced other parents to introduce the world to their children via Amis. Thus was born the prototype for Tamorak community school.

Drawing on everyday life, the adults in the village all become teachers. In Life Studies, children collect local plants and make brooms by hand. For Farming class, the school looks to a local Amis farmer who practices sustainable agriculture. As she plants luffa with the children, a toad hops by. The teacher instructs them on what distinguishes a toad from a frog, and reminds them that this means there may be snakes nearby. And she introduces the concept of the food chain by adding that a crested serpent eagle may swoop down and snare the snake for a meal.

The village is near the ocean, and residents go to the inter­tidal zone to forage for food. The school arranges for field trips there where pupils can learn about the zone. In the evening they light a bonfire and picnic. What the children hear, see and taste is the essence of the local culture.

Pinanaman helps children live and learn via their mother tongue, internalize their tribal culture and so stride confidently into their future.

Pinanaman helps children live and learn via their mother tongue, internalize their tribal culture and so stride confidently into their future.

An all-Amis riverside classroom

Another community school teaching entirely in Amis is the Pinanaman Riverside Classroom, located near the Xiu­gu­luan River, which has evolved into a unique form of its own.

Next to a creek, teachers and parents lead a bunch of children in greeting the spirits of the river and of the tribal ancestors with millet wine, then take the children river tracing. Adults and children stand on the river­bed holding hands and sing Amis ballads; pupils who don’t want to join in frolic in the mud instead. They aren’t forced to get in the water, because Pinanaman respects the mindset of each student.

Pinanaman’s classes are merry and thought-provoking. The children sing, dance, plant vegetables, make cookies, and learn to negotiate slippery stones, using their bodies so they don’t slip and fall. Children go to the river all year round to learn about different seasonal plants and animals; Nature hosts learning materials everywhere.

The teachers take the children to collect wild vegetables along the river and learn about the plants, while community mothers build a fire to cook up a delicious wild vege­table soup. With fresh local ingredients and flowers plucked from the riverbank placed on the picnic mat, lunch is a feast featuring aesthetically pleasing everyday edibles.

Mayaw Biho, whom pupils call Principal Mayaw, chuckles loudly and reveals that he’s often asked: How does one master Amis? How many hours of classes weekly? “We don’t have ‘mother-tongue classes,’” he always replies mischievously. “We learn everything in our mother tongue.”

Imagining children’s future together

Mayaw, a frequent guest speaker at schools throughout Taiwan, talks to children about restoring names and drawing maps of indigenous communities. The discrimination and ridicule suffered by Aboriginal children is never ending, but they must reach adulthood despite those wounds. The only way to grow up with confidence is to know one’s own roots, and Mayaw uses his talks to prompt them to consider who they really are. Providing schooling in Amis is another of his long­standing efforts in the Aboriginal rights movement.

Inspired by Tamorak, two years ago Mayaw gathered together a group of young people to discuss how they imagined the education and future of their communities: “How do you personally imagine your situation a decade from now? What are your hopes for your children a decade from now? And what do you hope your community will be like two decades from now?” He threw out these three questions to guide the audience in visualizing a blueprint for the future.

A series of discussions brought forth ideas about what kind of school Pinanaman Riverside Classroom should be. Some participants were keen for children to master swimming, while others hoped that pupils could learn to recognize 50 different plant species.

Teaching materials are discussed among teachers and parents, and aim to broaden pupils’ vision of their own futures. As difficult as it is to raise funds, the school does not charge tuition; parents need only take turns preparing meals for the pupils, and cannot pay to have others substitute for them. “This is so that parents can visit with the children and increase their interaction with teachers while delivering food,” explains the principal.

Pinanaman parents are a busy bunch, says Mayaw, as they also take turns assisting teachers in class, attend parent meetings every two weeks, and rotate monthly in presenting their local version of a TED Talk. One parent shared the experience of helping her child get over a period of bully­ing, and this proved very encouraging to other parents.

Embracing the world with confidence

Pinanaman also has a Han Chinese pupil who comes from Taitung. His parents have been involved in experimental education for more than ten years, and were searching for a kindergarten that would allow youngsters to develop freely. Eventually, they chose Pinanaman because “Aboriginal people have an intimate link with Nature that allows a child to firmly connect with the land,” they explained.

When an elder member of the tribe passes away, Pinanaman’s students intone songs of condolence at the funeral. If a classmate is absent for a few days, they take the initiative to bake cookies and visit him or her. It is simple actions like that, which reflect the Amis tribal spirit of mutual help, care and sharing, that are emphasized at Pinanaman.

Mayaw imagines a future in which all Aboriginal children can say who they are, can recount the history of their people, and know where they want to go.

The impact of education is far-reaching and long-lasting, and no one knows what the children who undergo total immersion in Amis at these community schools will become, but Nakaw believes that they will be happy adults.

Atomo, her eldest daughter, has been using Amis to study on her own since fifth grade and has traveled extensively to acquire the traditional skills of various indigen­ous peoples. She graduated from high school this year and is networking with friends to organize a camp for her age group that seeks to instill “pride of culture” among Taiwan’s Aborigines. It will be open to all ethnic groups, because a harmonious society is inclusive and tolerant.

“Let’s understand one another, discuss what we can do together for the future and make tomorrow’s world a better one,” says Atomo with a bright, confident look in her eyes.