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March 30, 2017

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Mala-ta-ngia: Bunun coming of age festival

Taiwan has twelve remaining aboriginal groups of which the Bunun (布農) tribe ranks number four. Mala-ta-ngia or "shoot the ear festival"(打耳祭) is the Bunun tribe's largest and most important ceremony of the year. Similar to Chou (鄒) tribes well known Mayasafi, it is a coming of age ceremony that focuses on hunting.

Hunting was the Bunun's primary source of food but it was not seen solely as a source of food, to the Bunun, hunting also instilled life values and skills.

Every Bunun tribe celebrates mala-ta-ngia and observes the festival at the same general time and way. It was traditionally held when the moon begins to wane around April or May, a time of rest when the fieldwork is done.

Moreover, this is the time when deer antlers begin to grow and are highly prized for their healing qualities. Now the Bunun Ear Festival is a festival for Bunun to celebrate and display their culture to the outside world.

During the time of the Second World War, in order to accommodate outside influences (such as policies and regulations restricting hunting and protecting some animals), mala-ta-ngia rituals were not observed for a time. Then in 1984 in Kaohsiung's Taoyuan Township (桃園縣), for the first time since the war, a festival commemorating age old traditions was held for Bunun and Taiwanese alike to enjoy.

The festival has been held yearly since then both at the village level and the country level. This year the festival for all of the Bunun of Taiwan was held in San Ming Township, Kaohsiung. The festival has dancing, sporting events and performances which explain the significance of mala-ta-ngia and other Bunun festivals.

In more traditional times, all the adult males of the village would go into the mountains to hunt when the moon began to wane. In order to cleanse their spirits and observe the hunting taboos, rituals were held the night before the hunt. In preparation for the ceremony all the necessary gear, such as bones and young deer antlers, were readied for the rituals.

The village shaman presided over these ceremonies which began with bones and young deer antlers being hung above the doorway and everything needed for the hunt (rifles, sacks for carrying game, knives etc.) being laid on the ground in front of the congregated males as well as hunting dogs being rounded up and brought over.

The kadavus ceremonies began with the shaman chanting while sprinkling millet wine dregs to bless the hunt. The women who were left at home began to make rice wine and entreat the men's safe return through their nightly dreams.

When the actual mala-ta-ngia rites began all the deer and boar jaw bones from the hunt were hung up and the highest ranking village priest was invited to begin the ceremony to bless the hunt and give thanks.

During the rites, tribesmen wore black clothing and the warriors wore their traditional black skirts, black apron and a red decorated belt. The rituals were necessarily solemn affairs and the warriors sang sincerely (pasibutbut) in order to procure their gods blessings for a successful future hunts.

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