Rapa Nui. Not just a bunch of old stones
I recently traveled to Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island.
Prior to my journey I armed myself with enough archaeological papers to know that the current, enormously popular view regarding the disastrous ecological collapse of Rapa Nui was far more complex than Jared Diamond, and many, many others – including an otherwise photographically stunning documentary series by the Beeb – have led us to believe (mostly following the original dissemination of the “ecocide” theory by Bahn and Flenley in 1992).
However, I was quite unprepared for another discovery, which in itself is quite surprising – at least for the vast majority of us who have never actually been to Isla de Pascua. Namely, that contrary to the notion that the Rapanui people logged themselves to extinction by the end of the 17th century, or even that they were wiped out by Europeans during the 19th (even though, it must be said, they were the victims of what can only be described as a cruel, brutal and completely senseless genocidal process at the hands of Euroamericans), they actually continue to represent a thriving Polynesian community today.
This may not seem surprising, given the process of intercultural union that has taken place since the middle of the 19th century. But while I was prepared for the likelihood of running into a local community of pascuenses of mixed European, South American and islander ancestry, I was quite unprepared for the vibrant, renewed sense of Polynesian identity that I encountered.
The first clue, of course, was in the language. From the first day that I walked the few streets of Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui’s solitary township, I picked up people consistently speaking to each other in Rapanui. I even thought I detected various degrees of accented Spanish from some local folk; a sign, as I was eventually to realise, that they very much were brought up within primarily Rapanui speaking contexts and only picked up Spanish as a second language.
As they days went by, I gradually struck up enough conversations with different Rapanui and
“contis” (continentales, the local term for continental Chileans and other outlanders) to begin to form a rather more gripping picture of local life than the overwhelmingly popular view of a treeless island full of mysterious, ancient, abandoned stones; a view which has been firmly lodged in the global imaginary on Rapa Nui by a barrage of brochures, books, photographs and documentaries.
For instance, in the first episode of the South Pacific documentary by the BBC, titled “Ocean of Islands”, Easter Island is once again portrayed as a deserted monument to human ecocide. At no point are we shown the living, contemporary community of Polynesians who happen to be the direct descendants of those ecocidal primitives.
Among other things, in the 1990’s this living Rapa Nui community established a Council of Elders through which they have mediated a great deal of their recent cultural revival – most importantly, the formalisation and introduction of Rapanui language into the local primary school classrooms.
There is also a local library, the Rongorongo Public Library, at which the local librarian faithfully gathers and presides over a humble but symbolically important stash of publications relating to Rapa Nui (I promised I would send along a copy of the catalogue of our recent Moana exhibit, since it portrays a rei miro, a ceremonial staff, and a rapa, from the Field Museum and the Museo Nacional de las Culturas).
However, the clincher came in the form of a number of local protests that took shape over the week that I spent on the island. These gatherings took the form of small tent camps that were being held together by various groups of locals, many of them thirty and fortysomethings with few kids in sight (they are the largely dispossessed sons and daughters of Rapa Nui who benefited from government programmes in the ’70s). The largest of these gatherings was to be seen outside the local municipal government headquarters, where the island’s centrally-appointed governor -then Mr Pedro Pablo Paoa- presided over the day to day admin of Rapa Nui.
The how’s and why’s of this protest, its immediate and longer term causes and possible outcomes,
are the subject of an upcoming talk that I will be giving at El Colegio de México. Suffice to say that this clearly was part of a complex, multilayered and certainly contested process of cultural revival and assertion. In essence, it harkens back to the not so distant past when indigenous Rapa Nui were recognised as human beings and legitimate Chilean citizens (around 1967), and eventually offered small plots of land as part of a government-sponsored land reform programme.
The short of this is that neither land reform, nor uncontrolled migration from the continent, nor the bleak educational, health and labour prospects faced by Rapa Nui then and now have been enough to make the island’s inhabitants feel particularly well about their troubled and historically problematic Chilean citizenship.(Edit: herewith a recent, very informative, newspapaer article in Spanish regarding the latest tensions and twists in this tale, which involved the Rapa Nui blocking the island’s airport and quite vocally repeating a call for independence from Chile)
For me, this became an opportunity to carry out the beginnings of fieldwork and of a longer term research project in which I hope to explore the intricacies of Rapa Nui survival and cultural revival, and, more recently, of identity claims and counterclaims. Most importantly, I hope to bring to this a Latin American perspective. I hope my credentials as an Oceanist and a close observer of relations between the State and indigenous peoples in Latin America will allow me to offer new insights into just what is going on.
There are currently a handful of good books, articles and monographs regarding the anthropology of Rapa Nui. Most of them were produced over the past seventy years, and include Alfred Métraux, Thor Heyerdahl and of course P. Sebastian Englert. More recently, my friend and colleague Grant McCall has produced some fine analyses of Rapa Nui lifeways and realities. Time will tell whether this germ of a research project can take shape and eventually offer new insights into this fascinating place. For now, I am content with calling attention not only to the
overhyped “ecocidal” theory of Rapa Nui’s history (a thorough, informative and specialist reply to Diamond’s writings about the island can be found in the chapter by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in the book Questioning Collapse; also, see the SM review of said tome for a great summary of the arguments), but to the existence of its lively, perceptive and increasingly self-confident people.
A people who are very much alive, and thriving, and whose relationship to those old stones incorporates far more than the tourist brochures and pretty pictures generally indicate.