Eagle eye on fate of the tribes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 January, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 January, 1997, 12:00am

There is something about meeting an almost two-metre Mohawk Indian in full battle-dress in a lift in Taipei. Maybe it is the fact that his headdress takes up so much space, forcing you to stand close to the breast-plate on his otherwise naked torso. Maybe it is the beady eyes of the bird's head peering down at you from his shaven pate. But it is not what you expect.

But then Flint Eagle is not what you expect even when you meet him later in city dress. It is the very ordinary brown suit with the long black and red ribbons dangling down the back that gives him away. Flint Eagle, you see, when he is not dancing in hotel coffee-shops to promote Canadian foods, or playing in movies, is an ambassador for the Mohawk Nation. He has come to establish relations, not with Taiwan, (something Canada would not thank him for), but with the aboriginal peoples of the island.

And he is doing it, he says, because these are the brothers and sisters the Mohawk Nation has believed existed on the other side of the world for the past 1,000 years.

' We hear their drums,' he says.

In fact, the Mohawk Nation has a mission. It has been spreading the word to other native North Americans for years that there is a way to win financial autonomy and regain their self-respect even while they preserve their identity as peoples. It is the 'Great Law', and the code of ethics known as the Turo Wampum - of 'working side by side, travelling side by side and living side-by-side, assisting each other, sharing with each other but not interfering with each other which absolves selfishness and greed,' he explains in his loud but highly polished and rehearsed patter.

Now 'the spirit' has brought Flint Eagle to Taiwan to give the same gift to the 12 indigenous peoples there. He is setting about it as only a modern salesman can.

'We're marketing North American aboriginal goods throughout the world,' he says. But far from trying to make the Taiwanese peoples into Mohawks, all he is trying to do is to 'show them instantly how to market their own. They've got something and it is highly marketable.' They have music and wonderful clothes and art. Those are things they can sell while living their lives and speaking their languages. They can find 'strength and beauty' in their own cultures.

OK, hold it. We know this is not the kind of thing you expect from Week Ending. You are thinking we have bought into some kind of New Age snake oil. Blown our hard-earned street-cred on letting ourselves be talked into a job-lot of tourist trinkets.

We put that to Flint Eagle as he straightens his headdress and checks his make-up for the evening performance.

He is having none of it. He's not 'some New Age peace and love freak', but a warrior and a hunter. But the world has changed. Instead of hunting for buffalo and deer he hunts for the dollar bill, and the enemy is ignorance.

What the Taiwanese aboriginal peoples have to sell is high fashion, music and contemporary art - and they can find it within their own culture.

It is a better deal than they ever got from the Chinese majority who have always tried to impose their culture and values on them at the expense of traditional ways.

Such self-help is a novel idea for many of the indigenous peoples, who share the problems of marginalised aboriginal groups the world over. But they seem to be listening. Watch out for a new trend in fashionable arts and crafts from Taiwan soon. It could be the start of something for other aboriginal peoples in Asia too. It is the Taiwanese peoples who will be spreading the word next.