usually, when people talk about sovereignty in anthropology, it sounds so heavy.
in this conceptual space where domination takes all of the bandwidth–so much that many Indigenous critics do not think that sovereignty is the best language to talk about the goals of Indigenous political movements–can we talk about music and festivity?

you will probably already know that my answer is a resounding yes. although i share some reservations about baggage associated with the term, “sovereignty” is still a useful way of talking about issues of self-determination and control over one’s future. Because the ‘Amis Music Festival asserts that the ‘Atolan ‘Amis Nation should have control over representation of the community in mass media, attempts to manage tourism to ‘Atolan, and opens onto a horizon of other Indigenous communities, the ‘Amis Music Festival already lends itself to talk of sovereignty.

this year, as the festival will be held at Pacifalan, a contested site in ‘Atolan’s traditional territories, sovereignty seems even more one of the event’s key features.

‘Atolan ‘Amis singer-songwriter Suming Rupi founded the ‘Amis Music Festival in 2013 both through inspiration from performances at international music festivals and in response to a sense that mass tourism during his community’s annual ritual (held every July) degraded a sacred event. Suming planned the event as a means for the community to take more control over the influx of tourists and to promote small inns and restaurants owned and managed by community members, mostly women and youth. ‘Atolan, which had become popular as a beach and surfing destination, has a tourist economy dominated by settler businesspeople from urban Taiwan, Europe, and South Africa. Like many young people in ‘Atolan, Suming worried that unless the ‘Amis community wrested control over how ‘Atolan was represented in tourist literature and mass media, ‘Amis people would be marginalized culturally even in their own nation on Taiwan’s Pacific Coast. Thus, he and others sought to fortify ‘Amis culture as the subject (jhuti 主體) of ‘Atolan’s representation. Otherwise, ‘Atolan could easily become a second Kenting. In addition to discussions within the community, these fears emerged in a widely publicized dispute concerning bikinis in public spaces, such as breakfast places, in ‘Atolan. See, for example, this news report:

One way that the music festival has maintained ‘Atolan ‘Amis subjectivity is its organization, which takes the age set system as its model. Although the event does require a number of outside vendors to construct stages and sound systems, much of the work for the event happens through the mobilization of the community’s age grades. Many of the performances, moreover, come from age sets as well as professional groups. In this fashion, the age set system creates new values in response to contemporary concerns. It is not merely an antiquated system of cultural interest, but a means for the ‘Atolan ‘Amis Nation to govern itself and engage in diplomacy–both with the settler community and with other Indigenous groups.

This year, the ‘Amis Music Festival adds to these features through its choice of venue. Formerly, the festival was held at “The Dulan Arena”–or Dulan Middle School. This year, hoping to expand and also in response to problems that made it impossible to continue on the grounds of the middle school, festival organizers have prepared festival grounds at Pacifalan.

Pacifalan is a multiply occupied and contested place that is one of the founding sites of the ‘Atolan ‘Amis Nation and an important ritual site. It has over the past hundred years also been common grazing land, the site of a fishing industry, a coastal defence zone, and a garbage dump. The ocean around the site is one of the most important fishing grounds of the ‘Amis community. Currently, a division of the settler government, the East Coast Scenic Area Management Committee, claims Pacifalan as its own, in violation of the Indigenous Basic Law. The Management Committee has long desired to develop the land in a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) scheme, in which the land would be leased to a developer to build a resort. Over the past dozen years, a coalition of community elders and politically aware youth have coordinated resistance to the BOT project and similar attempts to wrest control of Pacifalan from the ‘Atolan ‘Amis Nation through “joint management” schemes. One of the largest political movements in ‘Atolan and its urban diaspora was “Dancing for Our Land,” a protest concerning Pacifalan in 2011:

Because there is no real consensus within the community concerning Pacifalan, it remains contested within the community as well as in relationship to settler agencies and businesses. Perhaps the music festival might be a way to negotiate a consensus, at least within the ‘Amis community.

Holding the ‘Amis Music Festival at Pacifalan did require negotiation with the Management Committee. Although it is not yet clear what the outcomes of the festival will be for the community, mobilization to prepare the site for the music festival have already allowed people in the community to (re)discover Pacifalan. That the community remains centered in realizing the festival may also build community capacity; it is a way for the ‘Atolan ‘Amis Nation to demonstrate that it can and will manage Pacifalan and other sites on its own terms. In that regard, the ‘Amis Music Festival is about sovereignty. Yet, it is also sovereignty in a festive key. We may think of sovereignty in heavy terms and associate with images of domination and protest. But if, as Ojibwe hip hop artist Tall Paul says “decolonization feels like love,” sovereign assertion can feel like the joy of shared musical participation. At least that’s what I’m looking forward to in this year’s ‘Amis Music Festival.