The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/Folk-Lore of Aboriginal Formosa

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AMONG the aborigines of Formosa will be found individuals who plume themselves on their success as story-tellers. When the weary hunters, after satisfying appetites whetted by an arduous chase, stretch their limbs under the shadow of the trees, on the borders of some grassy glade, some member of the party is sure to seize the opportunity to draw on an inexhaustible repertory; while even those who at other times might consider story-telling an infliction become now pleased listeners, until, soothed by the deep, slow monotones of the narrator, one after the other gradually succumbs to the influences of the drowsy god. In the dreary days of the rainy season, too, when few venture out of doors, the story-teller becomes in great request. The recital of one tale sometimes extends over several days, the teller breaking off, as our own magazine writers do, just when some grand denouement is impending, thus ensuring an audience for his next appearance. As his circle of listeners extends, so does his pride increase, while to recruit a congregation at the expense of a rival is the zenith of the reciter's ambition.

Their folk-tales are those of a simple people, not destitute of admiration for a measure of probity, applauding the retribution which follows a disregard of their ideal. The following anecdote fairly illustrates this:

Two beautiful girls, scolded by their parents for giving more time to the adornment of their persons than to the necessary requirements of the household, felt aggrieved, and ran away into the forest. Two young men hearing of this decided to go in search, thinking their exertions, if successful, might induce the parents to look favourably on the suit they intended pressing in future. Coming on the girls near the sea shore, and running towards them, they shouted joyfully, "We have found you, we have found you!" The damsels, mistaking their intentions, jumped into the sea, and were drowned. The pursuers considering they had precipitated the catastrophe felt such remorse that, by mutual arrangement, they stabbed each other to death.

As with nearly all uncivilised peoples, to avenge the death of a relation is a sacred duty, and its neglect would entail all manner of misfortune and odium. The following, however, shows that even this strong prejudice may be overruled by the feelings of contempt and scorn cowardice evokes:—

Two youths, fast friends, and well matched as regards age and personal appearance, had the misfortune to fall in love with the same girl. After due consideration, they decided that the only way out of the difficulty was for one of them to die, and they agreed to submit the selection to the arbitrament of a duel. The weapon chosen was the bow and arrow. Several shots were exchanged, both receiving severe wounds; finally, one lost courage and fled; the other's blood being up, he drew a bow on the fugitive, killing him. So chagrined were the relations of the coward that they refrained from even claiming blood-money!

Another anecdote shows they have a due sense of the depravity of procrastination; while at the same time the low value set on human life is lamentably depicted:—

A couple of warriors from a certain village laid a wager with two of another tribe that, on a day named, they would come and kill several of their people in spite of any efforts the challenged might make to prevent them. The bet was accepted, and, on the day appointed, the takers kept watch and watch. Very soon the one on guard came and told the other that their adversaries were in sight; but the latter, feeling drowsy, remarked that as they came so openly they could hardly mean mischief, and, closing his eyes, asked his comrade to rouse him up if anything happened. Very soon a sound of loud lamentation awoke him, and, rushing out, he found that, while his friend had been attacked by one warrior and had had enough to do to hold his own, the other, unopposed, had killed ten women and children in the outskirts of the village!

A favourite theme with story-tellers is the adventures of a certain individual who fell down from the sky. Drawing on their imagination they embellish the original, and bring the hero through all kinds of complications, finding full scope for a lavish introduction of well-pointed satire, of which frail woman and certain callings receive a full share. The story, as it is supposed to have been originally related, runs somewhat as follows:—

A young man, living beyond the sky, was playing with a ball, which unfortunately rolled into a rather deep crevice. The player took a spear and poked about for it; in trying to push the spear-point into the ball, he pressed rather heavily on his weapon, drove the ball through the sky, and, losing his own balance, came tumbling down after. Two girls were spreading millet at the time to dry in the sun; hearing a rushing noise they thought it was about to rain, and ran to house the seed; looking up, however, they saw the man and his ball descending. On reaching the earth the stranger approached the ladies, asking if they could show where his ball had dropped; the girls gave a negative answer, referring him to some masons who were building a house; these sent him to some rattan-cutters, who passed him on to the gamesters, who in turn advised him to ask the fishermen. The latter honestly told him to go back to where he had begun, and explained how silly it was to ask people so distant from where he had seen the ball fall. Back, therefore, went the man to the girls, and again asked them. The two giggled for a bit, and then preferred the mild request that the stranger should agree to serve them by carrying water, pounding rice, and gathering wood, before they would give the information sought. The young fellow consented, whereupon the girls, curious to see the utility of an article on which such store seemed to be set, importuned him to show them how to play at ball. He at once began tossing it, and such was the wonderful feats he performed that people came from all parts to witness his dexterity. For five days he continued to display his skill, when he was ordered to desist and join in the labour of the day, and aid in clearing forest for barley culture. While the other men were hacking and tearing at the trees the stranger occupied himself in skipping among the tree-tops and tying the branches together, all the time singing merrily to himself. This excited the great anger of the others, and, on their return, they reported him as a lazy good-for-nothing, who had played while they wrought; whereupon his mistresses gave him a severe scolding. He merely remarked that a little patience would show that his plot would be the first cleared. Early next morning he went and tied a rope to one of the trees, dragging and swaying on it in such a manner as loosened that tree and all connected to it at their roots; he then raised a great wind which swept the ground clear. Afterwards he borrowed 100 mattocks, which were wielded by invisible hands, gourd-seeds being sown also by the same agency. The gourds as they ripened detached themselves, and, rolling into the barn, were found to be full of barley, each gourd having, in addition, the faculty of evading the grasp of any except the rightful owner. In hunting expeditions the stranger, although posted at the worst passes, always made the biggest bag, the house being rapidly filled with the horns of the deer that fell to his bow. By a word he could change water into wine; and he liberally invited all to partake freely of the good things he provided in such plenty. Still he was hated by his neighbours, who sought a pretext on which to kill him. He knew this, and thought it about time to leave such ungrateful people, for, among them all, only one old man had ever treated him kindly. He was loth, however, to break the promise made to the girls before open hostility had been shown. One day he gave a feast, and invited all to attend. Having eaten and drunk to their hearts' content, his guests began playing at games. Their host laid a path of deer-skins about 500 yards long, on which he spread peas, and challenged any one to run the whole length without slipping. Several tried and failed, but the challenger ran to the end quite easily, which so enraged the spectators that they openly threatened there and then to make an end of him. On hearing this he carried out all the deer-horns, and made them erect themselves into a ladder, the upper end of which was lost in the clouds. On this he jumped, and began to ascend. His enemies, seeing him escaping, cut at the horns with their axes, but at every blow the axe glanced off and inflicted a wound on the wielder, which soon caused his assailants to desist. When this celestial being got back to his home he was not recognised, and had many hairbreadth escapes from those who pursued him as an interloper; but it would be tedious to continue the relation further; it may suffice to say, that, in common with all romances, everything eventually ended well.

The foregoing may be taken as showing that the aborigines have a notion of some other world inhabited by a superior people, and it is interesting to note that, in keeping with the almost universal belief, they consider the fitting habitation for the good to be above the world, while the bad and mischievous are relegated to the dark caverns under the earth.

Our next tale, besides showing that the dusky maiden need have little to fear from uncongenial attentions, also establishes the fact of a belief in fairies or something akin to these:—

A young Botan[1] became too ardent in his devotion to a young lady of the tribe, and was slain by her relatives; while, as a warning as to the necessity for love's fervour being kept within due bounds, his seven brothers were banished by the chief.

The exiles went forth into the depths of the forest, and in their wanderings after a new land they crossed a small clearing, in which a little girl, about a span in height, was seated peeling potatoes. "Little sister," they queried, "how come you here? where is your home?" "I am not of homes, nor parents," she replied. Her surprised questioners then asked if she could direct them to a pathway; and she answered after the following enigmatical manner: "If you find your swords girded on the right you are on the proper road; if you find them on the left you are going astray." The puzzled brothers shook their heads, and again entered the thick forest. After them came the voice of the pigmy singing—

"Yon think I am fatherless, motherless, small,
Devoid of that wisdom which parents instal;
Yet I was when fathers and mothers were not,
And will be when mankind as such is forgot."

They had not gone far when they saw a little man cutting canes and farther on to the right a curious-looking house, in front of which Bat two diminutive women combing their hair. Things looked so queer that the travellers hesitated about approaching nearer, but, eager to find a way out of the forest, they determined in their extremity to question the strange people. The two women, when interrogated, turned sharply round, showing eyes of a flashing red; then looking upward their eyes became dull and white, and they immediately ran into the house, the doors and windows of which at once vanished, the whole taking the form and appearance of an isolated boulder. The startled observers made all haste away, and next day coming to the edge of the forest they entered a fertile valley, inhabited by a gentle people, among whom they eventually settled.

Tales of mighty hunters are common, but these do not pourtray heroes in the true sense of the word. Their greatest chiefs were those whose powers of witchcraft surpassed that of all contemporaries. The supreme chief is the great medicine-man of the tribe,—the high-priest on whom, as a consequence, supernatural power descends: still as another tale will illustrate, the chief indulges in the miraculous only as a last resource; no doubt considering wisely that the sorer the straits the more esteemed will be both means and deliverance. Apropos of this, we have the following:—

The tribe of the supreme chief went hunting without inviting a neighbouring sub-tribe, to the great chagrin of the latter, who, waiting until the hunters were in deep sleep induced by the fatigues of the day, went and mutilated the venison and other products of the chase (a most deadly insult). The identity of the spoilers, however, leaked out ere long, and one day when the latter, on returning from a hunt, were presenting some venison to their own chief, two young warriors of the aggrieved tribe appeared on the scene, and mutilated the carcases under their eyes, remarking that they did not require to come sneaking in the dark when they wanted to do such things. The very audacity of the action acted as a spell, and before pursuit was thought of the two had got safe away. Next day a couple of young braves came and challenged the heroes of the exploit to fight, but the supreme chief would not allow them to go out. Day after day defiance, coupled with many insults, was repeated, until at last the old chief permitted the challenge to be accepted; whereupon two warriors hid themselves near the spot where the others always appeared, and when the challenge was given jumped out, killing the utterers before they had time to guard themselves. Of course war between the tribes immediately followed. The warriors of the supreme chief got beaten three times, and were in great distress; then the chief bethought himself of his occult powers, and after due sacrifice invoked a curse on the enemies' water, that it might breed worms, and on the produce of their fields, that it might be blighted. When the victorious tribe found their water undrinkable, and their fruits diseased, there was great tribulation and general abnegation before the gods, beseeching the latter to remove the marks of their displeasure. The supreme chief, when his opponents were sorely subdued by thirst and hunger, asked some one to volunteer to go and set fire to their village, offering as a reward the reversal of a sub-chieftainship, but for some time no one offered. At last a man with an ulcerated leg, who was almost tired of life, undertook the task, and successfully evaded pursuit by hiding in a heap of sweet potatoe-vines. The whole village was destroyed, the rebels sued for peace, and never afterwards presumed to rise against their ruler.

The cruelty and cowardice above depicted places the actors almost on a level with the famed "Yaller-bellies." Still, does not the proverb, "All is fair in love and war," hold good even with more cultivated peoples than those under notice?

The great success of another chief as a hunter was attributed to his power at staying the burning of the long grass when the fire approached near where he crouched, so that naturally the deer, fleeing before the conflagration, ran for shelter to the very spot where he was posted.

An anecdote is related which is no doubt intended as a sly hit at the genus "fop": —

Two young warriors of goodly appearance paid more attention to their personal adornment than was compatible with the due performance of duties obligatory on them as members of a community, and this of course gave great annoyance to those less favoured by nature. Our heroes, however, were too lost in self-admiration to notice this. One day they were walking along the road in all the glory of feathers and tasselled belts, when two snakes, observing their swagger, determined to humble them somewhat. Assuming the shape of beautiful girls, they accosted the gallants, describing themselves as daughters of the chief of a distant tribe, who, finding none of their own young men handsome enough for husbands, had determined to travel round until they met with two who came up to their ideal of manly beauty. They professed to have now succeeded beyond their expectations, and asked the young gentlemen to sit down with them for a little, with a view of discovering whether mutual arrangements could be made. The delighted beaux gladly assented, and, as the ladies appeared nowise averse to a flirtation, became most pressing in their attentions. Matters progressed so favourably that they at last attempted to snatch a kiss from lips invitingly pouted, when they suddenly found themselves embracing two slimy twisting serpents, which soon wriggled away into a cleft in the rocks. The disgusted and disappointed swains spat after them, but the incident had been noted, and was made so much of that the subjects of the hoax renounced personal adornment, retiring into the ranks of the daily toilers.

Yet another story, which this time has frail woman for its object.

A pair of young girls, considering no man good enough for them, decided to remain spinsters, and had a house built for themselves somewhat apart from the village. Near this habitation an old man possessed a small garden, and the ladies annoyed him much by continually helping themselves to his fruit unasked; he repeatedly cautioned them, but they proved incorrigible; and, in his wrath, he sacrificed and prayed to the gods to cause these women to become pregnant. To their great shame and astonishment in due time each gave birth to a son. They concealed the fact for some time, but at last decided to notify the village elders, and call all the young men together to see if any would admit being the father, but all denied even a bowing acquaintance with the mothers. At last a half-witted fellow advised the women to tell the children to go to their father and borrow some betel-nut, when, to the humiliation of the erstwhile proud beauties, the two boys straightway went to the old man, who thus became possessed of a brace of handsome young wives.

There is a tradition that long ago, at a certain place, an immense buffalo could be seen, about sundown, roaming round as if in search of food. The beholder would feel his head gradually swelHng and his abdomen distending; naturally the afflicted beholders never failed to get away from the place as quickly as possible.

Another legend relates how at full moon, when the members of a certain tribe went down by moonlight to visit an adjacent village, a gigantic man, with pheasant tail-feathers in his hair, could be seen squatting in the middle of the road. Any one seeing this apparition was so startled that he trembled and fell, the spectre vanishing before he recovered.

Among local customs there is one peculiar to the more southern aboriginals. Every fifth year the tribes composing a confederation gather in the house of the head chief, each man bringing with him a tube about seventy feet long, made of the thicker parts of bamboos jointed together. Around a small circle, in which the chief stands, over a thousand men will pack themselves, each erecting his tube, one end of which they fix in the ground. The chief shouts and throws up a ball. Towards this, as it descends, all incline their rods, into one of which it must enter, and to the owner of this tube the particular fortune represented by that throw will attach itself for the next five years. Each ball has an independent signification, e.g. to the first belongs luck in fishing; to the next, the best fortune in hunting; the next, the best rice-fields; the next, success in buffalo breeding, &c. &c. One fortunate individual may perhaps secure several balls, and be considered as especially favoured by the gods. After the last ball has been thrown, the chief places on his head a circlet of bones, and grasps a spear, to which is also attached a bone; the men place inside small houses—which they have previously built—suits of clothes, purses, &c.; the women retire into the dwellings, the apertures of which are carefully closed. The chief then begins a low chant of intimation and invitation to the spirits. At once a cloud obscures the sun (no matter how clear the day may be), everything darkens, a gentle shower falls, and from the houses comes a faint sound of women weeping and murmuring the names of departed relatives; a rustling noise strikes the ears of the hushed and kneeling warriors; the chief pauses, then breaks into a song lauding the virtues of those departed. With a shout the warriors spring up, the women rush out, and all join together in extolling the deeds of those who have vanished from the ranks of the living.

When a young novice is to be initiated into the mysteries of priest-craft many elaborate ceremonies are gone through, as also before a war or other great undertaking.

The tail-feathers of a cock pheasant are in great request, and, when an individual becomes the possessor of one, it is only after due ceremony that he can wear it. A young warrior dons his feather on all festive occasions, but woe betide him if he dreams with the feather in his hair, for then he will meet with much misfortune; on the other hand, if his sleep be undisturbed he may consider that his undertakings will prosper.

Young savagedom have many games wherewith to while away an idle hour. A game which corresponds exactly with English "Prisoners' Base" is one of the most popular. Then they have "The Boar," a most diverting pastime, and "The Fish," which requires expert swimmers.

"The Boar" is played by one holding two bits of sharpened wood, about the size of boar's tusks, between his teeth; the other players in turn trying to clasp him around the ribs. If one can do so without being scratched, he takes his turn at "boar," which is consequently the part of the most expert player. Of course, the longer a "boar" can hold his own the more plaudits he receives, and he does not hesitate to give ugly scratches.

The game of "Fish" is played by two at a time. A creek is selected which widens inwards, and from each side of the entrance two players plunge in together; one has to make for a point in the centre of the beach, and the other must catch him. Those who avoid being caught stand aside until the remaining pairs have had their turn, then all the winners pair off, and so on, until only two are left; these in turn pursue each other until the championship is decided or the contest ends in a draw.

Trials of skill with the bow and arrow, spear, short sword, and matchlock, are common, bets are freely made, and much property lost and won. They also gamble with a kind of dice.

There is no limit to aboriginal superstition; they live in an atmosphere of omens, witchcraft, and goblins. Any inexplicable occurrence is put down as the work of some malicious spirit trying to entrap the unwary. Goblins emerge from dark caverns in the forests, and cause famine, sickness, and death: "For did not Bunkiet's wife's brother's cousin, when gathering turmeric, see grinning imps peeping out from the canebrake? and was it not that year the small-pox carried off two hundred men of the tribe?"

On hearing a sneeze one must at once return, no matter how near he may be to the end of his journey, as "of all things a sneeze is the most unlucky." Even inside a dwelling, if one happens to sneeze, the rest mumble a charm, with the unction of the old Highland woman who places the tongs in the fire before going to milk the cow. The call of a certain bird, if heard on the left, presages fatal misfortunes, and the hearer must turn back. If one sees an armadillo by daylight it is unlucky, but if one touches it, then prepare for a sudden death. Death also follows careless handling of the sacred bead "pulatsoo." The touching of a neighbour's meal "girnel" is followed by inflammation of the eyes; and total blindness is only averted by ceaseless sacrificing. A neighbour's corn is similarly protected. One who has unpleasant dreams must confine himself to his house for the day. If your dog howls at night, secure the services of a priestess else there will soon be a death in the family. The crowing of a cock just at sunset is an evil omen; the bird must at once be taken where roads cross and killed. The clucking of a hen at night is also unlucky. If an echo is raised, then great winds and heavy rains will follow; therefore high cliffs and hollowed precipices must be passed in silence, for there dwell the spirits of departed chiefs, and the grounds near are their fields and gardens, which must not be encroached upon. Beware of the bear, the leopard, and the bulong snake. "Did not a wounded bear jump out on a traveller, nearly squeeze him to death, and, when the man fell, poked him about, at every sign of life again biting at him, till the victim, happily recovering his presence of mind, kept perfectly still, when the brute left?" "Cannot a leopard carry off a buffalo by twisting his tail round it?" And "Does not the bulong snake bear an eternal enmity to man since the day when, at the instigation of a Bangsuit family, the gods deprived him of the power of assuming human shape?" Before liquor is partaken of a few drops must first be sprinkled on the ground, to refresh the spirits of departed ancestors. All are afraid of ghosts; women will on no account venture out after nightfall, while young men consider it a test of courage to pass a night in the woods alone.

Priestesses or witches are an institution. A future priestess is known by a small red nut being found in her swaddling-cloths a few days after birth. "When the time for initiation arrives, four more nuts will be received from invisible hands in presence of the assembled tribe. These witches have a peculiar jargon of their own, all their chants and incantations being quite unintelligible to the uninitiated. They are supposed to act as intermediaries, and are not considered to exert any malign influence; in fact, being a priestess makes little difference in the routine of life; they marry, and have all other liberties usually accorded to their sex.

A very general belief is that in ancient times all animals had the powers of speech, and some the faculty of assuming human shape. For instance, water buffaloes could speak until they ate bananas, and to this day buffaloes trample down banana-trees wherever they can reach them. A few of the more interesting little tales, illustrating the foregoing superstition, may not be out of place.

An armadillo and a hare went fishing, bringing potatoes to eat with their fish when caught. To save time they buried the potatoes in the sand, built a fire on top, and left them slowly roasting. The greedy dasypus, however, slipped back, picked out all the big ones, and ate them. When both returned with their fish, the hare made a great outcry over the loss of the potatoes, and taxed the ant-eater with the theft. He stoutly denied it, and in turn accused the hare: eventually the armadillo proposed that their innocence or guilt should be tested by the ordeal of fire, to which he would be the first to submit. This he proposed to carry out by entering a clump of grass, to be fired by the hare, and if he survived the hare must in turn undergo the same trial. The cunning armadillo, on entering the grass, immediately burrowed into the ground, and when he was safely ensconced under the soil he gave the word "ready": of course he escaped unharmed. When it came to the turn of the silly hare, he carefully wrapped himself around with dry grass, and was roasted to death. The armadillo was left to enjoy the fish and potatoes alone, and as he ate he moralized on the uncertainty of life in general.

Animals are supposed to be unable to assume the human form in the day-time. This belief coincides somewhat with that of western nations in their "witching hour of night."

A white land-crab and a monkey became sworn brothers. At night both assumed human shape. The crab was perfect, but the monkey could not rid himself of his tail, which he had always great difficulty in keeping hid. [The full-dress of a Formosa savage is a short apron before and behind]. Near where they abode in the day time, while in their natural shapes, a pretty girl carrying water was in the habit of passing. Both animals were smitten, and at night visited her as two sprightly young men. One day the crab proposed that in order to make themselves irresistible, they should go to a certain place and pluck enough of a particular berry to make circlets for their heads. The monkey assented. As the crab could not climb, the monkey went up and threw down the berries, which the crab was to gather up: instead of doing so, his greed overcame him, and he ate them as fast as they fell, until the monkey, astonished at the crab's still replying that the quantity was not yet sufficient, came down. He at once saw what his friend had been doing, and the two began mutual recriminations. The crab, at the same time, knowing he was no match for the monkey, kept carefully backing towards a small crevice; and when the monkey in a climax of rage made a dash at him, he quietly withdrew from reach, leaving his assailant to cool down as best he might. As it was getting dark the monkey hastened to assume the human form, and visit the fair maiden. When on their amorous visitations the monkey always sat down on the large rice mortar: the crab, remembering this, determined to revenge himself, and before the monkey arrived was snugly drawn together on the bottom of his companion's wonted seat. The pretended youth entered, took his usual seat, and began a flirtation, but the crab, crawling up, reached for the tail coiled up under the rear apron, and viciously nipped it. With a howl the impostor jumped up, displaying to the astonished gaze of the maiden and household fully a yard of hairy tail, with a crab dangling at its extremity. Of course he was driven away in scorn, and the crab, with a feeling of great contentment, sidled off to its nest.

The foregoing is no doubt intended to exemplify a triumph of mind over matter; our next, however, relates an encounter between the two, in which the victory is not so decided. The explanation given of the venom of serpents in general and the bulong snake in particular, with the punishment meted out to the species, causes one to ponder over a tale which, in its main points, strangely agrees with parts of the third chapter of Genesis:

A bulong snake fell in love with a young girl, to whom he appeared as a handsome young suitor, eluding the vigilance of her parents by not changing his form until he had got inside the house. It was the old tale of frail woman, and she gave birth to a child, which, to the astonishment of all, was human only to the waist, underneath that it took the shape of a serpent. The parents, knowing she had no lover among the young men of the village, naturally suspected something supernatural, and their thoughts reverted to the fact that they had often observed a snake crawling across the yard at a certain time, but had not interfered with the harmless reptile. Now, however, they kept watch, and, when the snake appeared, killed it, which action proved so unpropitious that it was resolved never again to kill a snake, but this was not the worst, for the act roused such a spirit of revenge among the serpents that they all swore an eternal enmity towards mankind. By the aid of the priestesses they were deprived of the faculty of assuming other than their natural shape, thus limiting their power of doing evil; ever since, however, the bite of the bulong has proved fatal, and that of many other snakes causes great suffering.

It may be here added that when a man is bit by a "bulong" snake the vicinity is searched, and the first specimen found is tied up near the sufferer. If the man dies—as is nearly always the case—the snake is roasted to death; if, however, the suction applied in such cases to the wound arrests the poison and he recovers, the snake is released.

Few proverbs are found among the aborigines, certainly none worth recording. The same may be said of riddles. Nicknames abound, but would lose all their significance in translation.

The wave of Chinese immigration has already rolled in among this people, but born traders as the Chinese are, they are matched by the east-coast aborigines. The trading instinct bequeathed to them by their Malay progenitors has slumbered for long yet readily responds to the call, and in the zest with which the vocation is pursued old traditions and customs are being quickly forgotten. Although for different reasons—for the Chinese officials are paternal in their dealings with the southern "savages"—to those who would wish to study the aborigines as such, South Cape must regretfully echo the call of North Cape, " Come quickly or you will be too late."

South Cape, Formosa,

September, 1886.

  1. Name of one of the aboriginal tribes.