Yuraw Icyang remembers his youth being extremely difficult—but filled with evidences of God’s grace. As a child growing up in the Smangus tribe in the mountains of northern Taiwan, Yuraw had no experience with electricity or phones. His village didn’t even have a main road coming into it.
Yuraw’s family—which included eight more siblings—lived a very simple life in the 1970s. They grew mushrooms, millet, and sweet potatoes. They lived together in a one-room bamboo house. The children shared a large bed, and they arose early. Very early.
At 3:30 a.m. each day, the elderly pastor of the Presbyterian church in the village would yell, “Get up! God is waiting for us!” The entire village started the day with prayer. They asked for a successful harvest, for health, for the tribe’s faith to stay strong—and for God to provide a paved road to the village. They hoped for an end to their isolation.
Days were work-filled. Smangus people labored in fields or hunted wild boars in the forest. After 20 years of praying, the tribe finally got their road in 1995. Since then, Taiwan’s most remote tribe has become a popular tourist destination. City dwellers come to breathe fresh mountain air and hike trails that lead to 2,500-year-old cypress trees. The village has modernized to accommodate the tourists. Restaurants, cabins, and guest houses with hot water and toilets have sprung up.
To protect their resources, the 130-member Smangus tribe developed an unusual commune system. Unlike government-run socialistic models, the unique situation thrives. Tribe members may leave at will. They vote on how common property is used. Agricultural harvests and hunted game are shared—even prepared in a common kitchen. Restaurants and guest houses are staffed as assigned. And workers who slack off have their pay docked. But the most important foundation of the commune is their shared Christian faith. That faith guided the rules for the commune. The current chief’s son, Benux, says, “We had to go back to the Bible’s teaching about sharing with one another and giving to those in need. I believe our faith is the reason we can sustain this system.”
The Smangus say it works for their small community. While other aboriginal tribes are losing young people to the cities, Smangus youth usually return after graduation. They find in the commune both good jobs and a tight-knit community.
Yuraw’s five children live in a very different world than he did. Cell phone reception is strong. The tribe pays for the children’s education—through graduate school! The kids wear the same name-brand fashions as their city counterparts. Yuraw doesn’t consider modernization a negative. He believes the changes are a testament to God’s grace. And that grace is proclaimed to every tourist who comes for a getaway.
Those tourists drive three hours up a twisting mountain road to the wooden entrance gate. A hand-carved sign greets them: “Welcome to God’s Tribe, Smangus.”
Some elders joke that the nickname comes from the village altitude. High in the mountains means closer to heaven. As a child, Benux wondered if that was true.
Visitors are entertained in the village church building on Saturday evenings with performances showcasing tribal culture. Children dance, youth lead guests in worship songs, and the chief recounts the tribe’s history. The show closes with the village pastor’s wife singing a Chinese worship song.
About 70% of the mountain aborigines are professed Christians. Western Protestant and Catholic missionaries in particular reached out to these tribes. In 1951, members of another tribe who had accepted Christianity trekked for days to the Smangus village to share the gospel. The village quickly converted.
As the world continues to change, can the Smangus preserve their way of life? Benux, age 24, thinks so. He says he always saw himself as part of the commune. Now he feels ownership of it and wants to improve its future. Benux studied hospitality in college and then returned to the tribe. He works at the guest house service desk.
Unlike most other tribes in Taiwan, Smangus is filled with young people. They serve food to visitors, play electric guitar in the worship band, and clean guest rooms. Tribe members hope to pass on not just their way of life to the next generation, but their Christian faith as well.
Now Benux understands what it means to wear the title “God’s tribe.” Through singing worship songs with tourists and telling them what God has done in the tribe, “we are testifying about God and we are glorifying Him,” Benux says. “This is why we are called God’s tribe, because we are spreading His name.”