There are three origins accounting for the demonym of Rukai (abbreviation for Ngudradrekai), but so far none conclusive. First, it is believed that “Rukai” is what they called themselves: people living in high and cold mountains. Second, “Rukai” is a transformation from the Paiwan language, suggesting the east, upstream, and deep mountains, where the Rukai people settled. Third, “Rukai” is a transformation from the Puyuma language, referring to a tribe at the foot of the neighboring mountain. In the Rukai legend, there are three origins of the ethnic group. First, the descendants of the Eastern Rukai: it is said after landing on the east coast, ancestors settled in the east and west of the Central Mountain Range. Second, the descendants of the sun, pottery pot, or stone according to the Western Rukai. Third, the descendants from the Greater Ghost Lake and Lesser Ghose Lake areas in Maolin according to the oral history of the lower three branches in Maolin District, Kaohsiung City. The Rukai people are distributed on both sides of the south of the Central Mountain Range, belonging to three administrative regions: Kaohsiung City, Pingtung County, and Taitung County.
The Rukai fall into three sub-groups by living environment and by cultural identification: The Eastern Rukai, Western Rukai, and the lower three branches. The language, social system, and cultural features of these three sub-groups are different at different levels, and the biggest difference is found between the Eastern Rukai, Western Rukai, and the lower three branches, including vocabulary and accent.
The Eastern Rukai settled in the upstream Danan (Taromak) River in Dongxin (Taromak) Village, Beinan (Pinang) Township, Taitung County. The Western Rukai settled in the Ailiao River drainage basin, Wutai (Vedai) Township, Pingtung County. There are eight villages in Wutai: Kucapungane, Adiri, Jilu (Kinulane), Wutai (Vudai), Shenshan (Kabalelradhane), Dawu (Labuwan), Jiamu (Karamemedesane), and Guchuan (Kudrengere). Some migrated to Sandimen (Santji) Township,Qingye (Talamakau) and Dewen (Tjukuvulj), Majia (Makazayazaya) Township,Sanhe (lziuci laulauzang) and Meiyuan, and Jinfeng (Kinzang) Township in Taitung County. The lower three branches settled in the Zuokou River drainage basin in Maolin (Teldreka) District, Kaohsiung City, those communities include Dona (Kungadavane), Wanshan (Mandaulan), and Maolin (Teldreka).
Due to work and study, only half of the Rukai people still live in their native places in recent years, while the other half of the population have left their homelands to make a living in Pingtung County, Pingtung City, and Kaohsiung City that are closer to the Kaohsiung and Pingtung urban areas, some have even gone further to Taichung City and New Taipei City, living together by kinship or by geographic relationship.