TAIWAN — When Djupelang Qrudu was growing up in her tribal village, her grandmothers saw something special in her and recommended an alternative to attending high school: becoming a witch.
Djupelang, a member of the Paiwan indigenous tribe in southern Taiwan's Pingtung County, respectfully declined and became a nurse instead. But now the 51-year-old, her three children grown, is enrolled in a special class offered by the tribe to train people in the traditional skills of communicating with spirits.
Once highly respected in the community, Paiwan witches, or spirit mediums, treated illnesses, led the community in important ceremonies and protected their villages from evil. They also provided comfort in times of trouble.
"It's like being a psychiatrist," says Djupelang, a cheerful woman who left her nursing career after being diagnosed with uterine cancer.
But in the last 50 years, the number of mediums in the Paiwan tribe -- at 86,000 members, Taiwan's third largest -- has dropped to fewer than 20 from more than 100. The introduction of Christianity, as well as modernization and assimilation into mainstream culture, has led to a near disappearance of the tradition.
"The missionaries told us mediums were like devils," Djupelang said. "They said we were Satan's family because we had mediums in our family. I felt so ashamed."
Taiwan's indigenous people number about 490,000 -- 2% of the population. They have lived on the island for thousands of years, long before the majority Han Chinese arrived.
In the old days, witchcraft was an important part of village life for the Paiwan, who lived mainly in southern Taiwan, near Dawu Mountain. Mediums, who were mostly women, would communicate with spirits. During ceremonies, the mediums called on the spirits to help the village.
"Our type of witchcraft is not wild like the media have imagined it to be. It's based on life," Djupelang said. "For instance, if we are about to plant seedlings, the mediums conduct a prayer chant for planting. Before a harvest, we have a chant to pray for a good harvest. During funerals, we have a chant for mourning."
No instruments, drugs or dance are used, just mesmerizing chants and songs. There are different chants or songs, depending on the occasion.
Nowadays, only villages that have a medium hold the traditional ceremonies. Most of the Paiwan are Christians, and many young people have moved to the cities for work.
Since the Paiwan lack a written language, community leader Weng Yu-hua and others believe it is especially important to pass the witches' skills to the next generation.
"Elder witches learned the chants by memorization, but we are now trying to record them," said Weng, who organized the class after obtaining funding from the Council of Indigenous Peoples within Taiwan's central government.
Last year, the tribe began creating a writing system based on Romanization. Previous government efforts to record the tribe's culture failed because they used a bidding system, which brought in scholars. Tribal members were reluctant to pass their traditions to outsiders, Weng said.
The women attend the classes, which cost $18 for 36 hours of lessons, with the understanding that teachers cannot instill psychic power in the students, but simply help them try to discover it within themselves. Students also must have witches or shamans in their bloodline or be the offspring of village chiefs.
Djupelang said her grandmothers were witches who noticed she was special from the moment she was born. She seemed a lucky charm; everywhere they took her, people helped, good things happened.
For Djupelang, it took years of setbacks and frustration for her to recognize her true calling. She sought guidance from a medium in her village after experiencing personal problems, including a divorce and the cancer, which she beat.
"The medium told me I should've been a witch," she said.
Djupelang said that in the aftermath of the recent Typhoon Morakot, which brought severe flooding and mudslides, killing more than 600 people, she and a witch from her village used traditional chants to comfort villagers whose homes had been washed away.
The compensation for her efforts, she said, is not expected to amount to much as it will depend on what people can afford. But Djupelang, who also makes and embroiders traditional Paiwan clothes and subsists mainly on a traditional diet of taro, yams and millet, remains devoted to maintaining cultural traditions.
"I'm very happy to be learning this," she said. "If my ancestors knew, they would be very happy too."
Sui is a special correspondent.