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Updated: August 24, 2022 @ 11:26 am
The melody echoes throughout Margaret Tu’s apartment, recounting the history and struggles of the Pangcah, or Amis, people with her two infant daughters nearby. The song, in the Amis Indigenous tongue, continues to remind Tu why she is undertaking her ambitious journey to a Ph.D. at the UW School of Law.
The communalism of the Pangcah (which roughly translates to “person”) in the face of these struggles influenced Tu’s academic journey spanning Taiwan and the United States as she acted on her vision of protecting and preserving Indigenous Taiwanese culture through the study of intellectual property law.
Tu, a second-year student in the School of Law’s Ph.D. program, also goes by Yun-Pu, her Chinese name, and Nikal Kabala’an, her Indigenous Pangcah name that translates to “woman who wakes up early to work”— a name that resonates well with Tu, who often wakes up at 3 a.m. to participate in virtual workshops hosted in Taiwan.
“For me, there are many levels of underrepresentation,” Tu said. “The bigger issue is under international affairs where people do not recognize Taiwan. The second layer is because I am an Indigenous person in Taiwan. We only take 2% of the population and statistics show we have lower social or economic status in Taiwan, kind of like a similar situation for Indigenous people around the world. And I’m a woman.”
Tu obtained her bachelor’s degree in law from National Taiwan University, where she met her husband.
“We actually formed a rock band,” Tu said. “I was the vocalist and he played the drums. So that’s how we met.”
Tu initially joined the UW School of Law in 2015 to complete a master’s of laws following her graduation from National Taiwan University. During her studies, Tu worked as a student assistant, reviewing applications to the Ph.D. program to afford expenses while living in Seattle.
“Because I got this chance to collect all the information and to keep track of all of the application forms, I can see how people have their background to apply to the Ph.D. program,” Tu said. “I can see they are all awesome people and I really want to be one of them.”
Tu was unable to afford tuition for the Ph.D. program and decided to return to Taiwan in 2016, reuniting with her partner who had stayed behind. Later that year, they got married.
“We got married right after graduation,” Tu said. “Then we went on our honeymoon and we had our first child.”
Tu found work with Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous People (CIP), leveraging her background in law to support Indigenous tribes in Taiwan who, similar to many Indigenous tribes in the United States, are not recognized by the national government. Only 16 tribes, including Amis, are legally recognized — excluding over 10 tribes in the Pingpu ethnic group alone, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. There are over 200 Indigenous tribes in Taiwan, according to Tu.
“CIP is the highest administrative government body in Taiwan,” Tu said. “So most of the government officials there have the Indigenous people here.”
Despite disparities between Han Chinese and Indigenous groups, the Legislative Yuan allocates six seats (of 113 total) for Indigenous voters to determine through proportional representation, according to Freedom House. Tu remains hopeful that her work will further empower Indigenous tribes in Taiwan.
While balancing her academic interests and obligations as a mother, Tu remained hard at work searching for scholarships and funding opportunities. In 2018, she landed a Government Sponsorship for Overseas Study scholarship from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education that would support three years of study. After giving birth to her second daughter in 2019, Tu took the leap of faith and enrolled in the UW School of Law’s Ph.D. program in 2020 amid the pandemic.
“September 2020 I enrolled, but I studied in Taiwan,” Tu said. “This year I traveled and finally returned to Seattle to do my doctorate studies.”
Tu’s husband, who is now working as a software engineer, moved with Tu and her two daughters to Seattle. Despite leaving Taiwan, Tu and her family continued to engage with any events and workshops relevant to Indigenous tribes across Taiwan. Tu’s dedication extends beyond the classroom and online as she represented her tribe at the United Nations.
Tu, who holds her identity as Amis as steadfast as her Taiwanese identity, traveled to New York to attend the United Nations on behalf of her Indigenous tribe in the face of the inevitable obstacle facing Tu at the mere mention of “Taiwan.”
“The United Nations do not recognize [Taiwan], they only recognize [China],” Tu said, adding that that lack of recognition prevented them from participating in workshops and events hosted by the UN. “Eventually we asked an NGO in Latin America called Cultural Survival. In that NGO, most of the people are from Latin America but they are really friendly and when they heard our situation they were happy to register for us.”
Ultimately, Tu and her colleagues were able to attend the UN as “Indigenous Americans.”
Unfortunately, Tu and her colleagues were eventually forced to leave the event — even after cautiously tailoring language so as to not use the name “Taiwan.” Tu did not let this obstacle deter her from promoting her dual identities as Indigenous and Taiwanese.
While students at UW may not have the opportunity to directly stand before the United Nations, they can engage with and learn about Taiwanese history and culture— including the history of its Indigenous tribes — through several initiatives unique to UW. Tu encouraged students interested in Taiwanese culture and history to join organizations, such as iTaiwan, and attend events from the Taiwan Studies Program.
“It’s like a treasure land for me when I first joined this community because they are wonderful, wonderful people contributing their research about Taiwan,” Tu said. “So you can always check up on the Taiwan Studies Program.”
The program, funded partially by Taiwan’s Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs, hosts all of its events live, with recordings posted afterwards on its YouTube channel. Guests include government officials and internationally recognized scholars in the field of Taiwan Studies. The talks included a recorded lecture introducing students at UW to several of the Indigenous tribes of Taiwan.
“I think it’s really important because it’s not only closely related to my research interests in my Ph.D. studies, but it is part of my mission to pass along those skills of my traditional culture,” Tu said.
Reach reporter Julie Emory at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JulieEmory2
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