Experiencing Indigenous Culture in Yilan: The Atayal Bulau Bulau Tribe
Among the Atayal people's numerous tribes, one, the Bulau Bulau, sits peacefully nested in the Yilan mountains, where its elders are developing a pioneering take on sustainable indigenous culture experiences.
Within Taiwan’s rich cultural tapestry, the Atayal people stand out among the island’s 16 indigenous ethnic groups as both one of the largest and one of the most distinct. Among their numerous tribes, one, the Bulau Bulau, sits peacefully nested in the Yilan mountains, where its elders are developing a pioneering take on sustainable indigenous culture experiences.
Today, the Atayal are well known among Taiwan’s many indigenous tribes, most notably for their distinctive facial tattoos, their mastery of weaving and hunting, and the 2011 cinematic portrayal of a related tribe’s (the Seediq’s) struggles.
The profound significance of facial tattoos in Atayal culture cannot be overstated. Woven into their spiritual belief system, known as ‘gaga,’ these tattoos symbolize a deep connection to ancestral spirits who safeguard the tribe’s prosperity. In days past, men earned their tattoos by proving their prowess as skilled hunters, while women mastered the intricate art of weaving. These tattoos held the key to marital unions and, in the afterlife, granted passage across the ‘hongu utux’—the spirit bridge to the next world. However, during the era of Japanese colonial rule, this sacred practice was brutally suppressed, contributing to the erosion of Atayal culture. This poignant history is vividly depicted in the film ‘Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,’ which chronicles the tragic Wushe Incident—an uprising against colonial Japanese forces initiated by the Seediq tribe (closely associated with the Atayal). This film marks a poignant chapter in Taiwanese indigenous history, highlighting the interconnectedness and the shared struggles of indigenous tribes on the island.
It wasn’t until 1994, when the tribal community successfully amended their constitutional designation from “Mountain Compatriots” to “Indigenous Peoples,” that the younger generation truly began to appreciate and reconnect with their ancestral roots. Within this evolving cultural narrative, the story of the Atayal Bulau Bulau Indigenous Village, established atop an Yilan mountain in 2004, opened a new page on which to write its own remarkable chapter.
A New Approach to Sustainable Tribal Tourism
The Bulau Bulau Indigenous Village was founded by seven Atayal elders and their families pursuing a vision of revitalizing ancestral heritage while embracing economic development. The village’s economy draws upon the diverse expertise of the founding elders, who are experts in everything from architectural design to weaving – to create a self-supported economy which eschews government assistance. The village focused their economy around farming, rekindled handicraft skills, and the establishment of a restaurant.
To ensure the economic well-being of the tribe members, the community is organized into four specialized teams: agriculture/farming, construction, crafting, and catering. This arrangement guarantees that everyone has a meaningful role and an opportunity to generate income. Over the last two decades, the tribe has orchestrated a profound transformation, reinvigorating what was once deemed a path to obsolescence and transforming it into a flourishing, self-sustaining tribal community.
Within the tribe, a harmonious synergy unfolds as elders and youth collaborate on diverse works, ranging from weaving to warehouse construction and land maintenance. This intergenerational partnership owes its success in large part to the visionary founding elders and the second-generation leadership team, notably Kwali, the current chief. Kwali’s unique role as a bridge between the elder and young generations, tribal life, and the business model is pivotal. He came to the tribe in 2005 after completing his studies at Griffith University in Australia, bringing a fresh perspective and facilitating communication between generations.
Alongside other young villagers, he actively contributes to the development of a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing Atayal village while addressing challenges like protecting their harvests from wildlife. His background in hotel management and indigenous education has led to the continuation of the farm-to-table fine-dining restaurant, seamlessly blending Atayal traditional architecture with an indigenous omakase dining experience. Moreover, he has initiated an experiential school without walls, fostering a living and dynamic heritage for the Atayal people in the surrounding region.
A day in the tribe
While the Bulau Bulau tribe extends a warm welcome to visitors, they maintain a strict limit of 30 per day to guarantee an uninterrupted tribal experience while maintaining authentic village life and industry. Visits are thoughtfully scheduled from Tuesday to Saturday, exclusively between 10:00 am and 4:30 pm, to provide essential rest periods for villagers. During the stay, visitors are fed lavishly with beautifully plated meals coupled with locally-sourced and distilled millet wine. Thy are also able to visit different workshops within the tribe, all while enjoying the area’s breathtaking scenery.
From the farm
The road to Bulau Bulau remains somewhat primitive, and guests are transported to the village by way of four-wheel drive vehicles. En route, fields of wild mushrooms, ginger and millet come into view, showcasing the Atayal philosophy of working with nature. The villagers use this philosophy to find solutions to the agricultural challenges imposed by the mountain’s conditions. Ginger, for example, can only be grown in the same soil once every four years, so in order to maximize the land’s potential during ginger’s rest period, the villagers have learnt to use the plot to skillfully cultivate mushrooms on locally sourced wood trunks instead. If the weather is favorable, guests are invited to take a walk through hunting trails, where the villagers set traps to catch wild bamboo partridge, offering a glimpse of the Atayal’s traditional hunting practices.
To fine dining
At the end of the hunting trail lies a vast grass meadow with three striking Atayal huts, their sloping roofs designed to deflect the strong northeasterly winds. This central area serves multiple purposes – a gathering spot for villagers’ meetings and meals, a learning space for students, and a cozy place for visitors to huddle and savor delectable local dishes. Greeted with a warm lo-kah-su, the fine-dining experience begins with millet wine, wild boar meat, and a grass tea made from a concoction of ginger, cinnamon and sugarcane.
The culinary journey then unfolds with traditional Atayal dishes like radish soup, ginger-infused sweet potato, marinated fish paired with steamed millet rice and barbecued wild boar, thoughtfully prepared with locally sourced seasonal ingredients. The chefs, with their mastery of traditional cooking techniques such as salting and smoking, infuse every dish with the essence of the land. Home-brewed millet wine flows freely, bringing cheer to both villagers and their visitors alike. When the mood is right and enough wine imbibed, these new bonds of friendship are celebrated with traditional song and dance.
From the workshops
Before the feast, visitors are invited to stroll through the tribal grounds, taking in the dormitories, agricultural buildings and four workshops for bamboo weaving, textiles, baking and brewing. While these kinds of traditional workshops are common to many tribes, those at Bulau Bulau are unique in their style and execution. Grassy rooftops pay homage to Atayal tradition, yet conceal modern elements inside like sculpted wood pillars, elegant stonework and a lavish use of glass. The trades conducted within might be timeless, but the architecture without speaks to a new generation of villagers and visitors.
Stepping inside, those working in the workshops are surprisingly young, with most aged between 20 and 30. Having been guided and mentored by the tribe’s elders, they now spearhead the production and sale of tribal produce. In a pioneering move, they are in the process of launching a brand called Bulaudongdong (不老東東) to promote handicrafts created by the tribe’s younger generations. In addition to making products, they also offer in-depth courses to other indigenous people and tourists wishing to learn these age-old skills.
To the schoolhouse
Some of the staff members in the workshops are also students, the tribe having been recognized as an “experimental high school” by the education bureau in 2015, employing a vision that goes beyond conventional academics such as Mandarin and math. In their first year, students explore diverse topics, nurturing a genuine love for learning. In the second year, they delve into specialized courses like tattooing, bicycle repair, brewing and baking, and, by the third year, they take up industry internships to equip them for the future.
Upon graduation, students receive accredited high school diplomas, providing them with diverse academic options as well as practical skills. Until now, 20 students have graduated from the tribe, equipped with solid academic knowledge and real-world experience that is already making waves in Taiwan’s industries: the Michelin-star-awarded Taipei restaurant RAW offers alïh on its menu, a millet champagne created by Bulau Bulau students.
From dream to reality, the Bulau Bulau Aboriginal Village has tirelessly pursued a delicate balance between preserving cherished Atayal identity and fostering economic opportunity for its inhabitants. They have faced challenges along this path, but the villagers’ indomitable spirit and unwavering optimism have prevailed. A day spent at the village is nothing short of magical — a joyful immersion where laughter and engagement abound. As the sun bids farewell to the horizon, visitors depart with hearts and bellies full, enriched both spiritually and physically.
How to Visit the Bulau Bulau Tribe
To visit the Bulau Bulau tribe yourself, the best way to start planning is to get in touch with us! As mentioned, the visitor numbers are limited, and as such, advanced bookings are required (we recommend six months in advance, if not more). For those in Yilan, the drive is about 30 minutes each way (from central Yilan). For those in Taipei, the drive is about one hour each way.
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