Archive for the Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales Category

Update on Climate Change and Traditional Knowledge conference

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), General Anthro, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Oceania, Torres Islands, Vanuatu on July 9, 2011 by salul

Some more detailed info regarding our upcoming presentation for the IPMPCC conference.

Seasonal environmental practices and climate fluctuations in Melanesia.

An assessment of small island societies in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

Frederick H. DAMON[1]



a paper to be presented within the context of the workshop:

Indigenous Peoples, Marginalized Populations and Climate Change: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Traditional Knowledge*

19 – 21 July 2011,

Mexico City, Mexico

I. Introduction

II. Changing Scenes in eastern Papua New Guinea

  1. Background to Milne Bay Province, PNG
  2. Sea level changes
  3. Crossing times. The new confusions…

III. Torres Islands

  1. The physical environment and traditional knowledge
  2. Regular (annual) climatic fluctuations
  3. Longer term fluctuations (quakes, and the 7 and 14-17 year cycles; and ENSO)

Climate change impact and adaptation

[1] Department of Social Anthropology, University of Virginia, USA

[2] Centro de Estudios de Asia y África, El Colegio de México, MEXICO

* Organized by the United Nations University (UNU), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Spring Readings (March-April 2011)

Posted in General Anthro, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Tibet on April 26, 2011 by salul

I have sometimes been asked (on and off blog) about what I read. I recently found that reading about other colleagues’ current readings can be interesting, and even motivated me to look into a couple of books I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. So without more ado, here are five readings that I am currently going through or have just recently finished (within the past week):

Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World, London, Reaktion Books, 2005.

This is part of my current readings regarding Rapa Nui, in preparation for a follow up trip this Summer (Austral Winter) and an initial paper that I am working on regarding contemporary indigenous struggles on the island. Also part of a broader look at Eastern Polynesian history, of which I have been relatively ignorant until recently. I confess that I had initially had my doubts about the author, when I first encountered Fischer’s work via his History of the Pacific Islands, I wasn’t sure what to make of him. The History is a competent summary, but didn’t really seem to add much and fell short of the kind of innovative historical writing I have come to associate with Oceanic scholars in recent years. However, I was really impressed with his history of Rapa Nui. It is, I dare say, the most comprehensive summary of the unfolding of Rapa Nui events and periods that I have come across in a format that is readable by a general public. His sources are highly interdisciplinary, he is evidently very well acquainted with the place, people AND language (this last one matters to me). Five starts, all round.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Melbourne, Vintage, 1988.

This classic, if slightly dated, historical narrative of the convict years in Australia (1788-1868) had been waiting on my bedside table for far too long. It is now one of my secondary readings, the sort I pick up when I go out for a coffee or am simply sitting around the living room. Much to be criticised in terms of analytical depth, but I am essentially going through this as a primer on facts and processes with which I continue to be only faintly familiar (Aussie history is not my forte, period). But it is also a part of a broader, serious list of readings that I am attempting to get through in preparation for the drafting of a two-volume general history of Oceania in Spanish that I have begun to design with a coauthor (more on that later).

Eickelman and Piscatori (eds.), Muslim Travellers. Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination, Berkeley, UC Press, 1990

I’ve just finished going through this book as part of a much larger set of readings that I had to go through in relation to a collective volume, which I am editing with another two colleagues, regarding the anthropology of pilgrimage. The manuscript was submitted today (yay!), and I am now collapsing after the exhausting work of last minute editorial work. The book itself contains 14 chapters by various authors regarding pilgrimage, or associated phenomena, in different world regions, including China (2 chapters dedicated to that), Tibet (2 chapters to that), Africa (another 2 chapters), North America (5 chapters, including Mexico and USA), Korea, South Asia and the Pacific. I have singled out this particular volume from among a VERY large list which included stuff by Makhan Jha and of course Toni Huber and a bunch of other Middle Easter/South Asian/Himalayan/Tibetanist authors whose stuff I went through, because I think it is one of the few attempts at serious comparative discussion that takes pilgrimage seriously on local terms, rather than attempt to impose it as a universalistic (if wholly Judaeo-Christian) category. Consequently, it provides some important insights from which the specialist work of later scholars has been able to build up.

Books I have just begun to read:

Greg Dening, Islands and Beaches. Discourse on a Silent Land: Marquesas (1774-1880), UH Press, 1980. (hopelessly out-of-print…thank heavens for abebooks)

I just got this today, after some long searching on the net. Am all ready and eager to dive into it. I realise Dening has come in for criticism from important Oceanic historians (including by good friend Bronnie Douglas), however you gotta love his style. This will be my second, much more in-depth, reading of Islands and Beaches, and I am all looking forward to it.


J.M.G. Le Clézio, Raga. Approche du continent invisible, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2006.

I picked this up in Paris last month. I had not paid much attention to Le Clézio back in 2008 when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, even though at least a couple of his novels were set in and inspired by his Mexican sojourn. However, since he also seems to have been messing around with Vanuatu, seems like its time to see what this is all about. Am hoping I can concentrate long enough to write up a quick review for this blog in the coming weeks.

And that just about does it. During this past Easter weekend I also tried to get up to date with my LRB readings…but I’m still hopelessly three months behind.

Note (added 28 April 2011): This list doesn’t include the numerous seminar readings for this term, which currently focus on the modern history of Island South East Asia (yes, that’s not a typo; I never got used to writing it Southeast Asia anyway). And I also forgot to mention my current bedside reading, which is David Mitchell’s truly astonishing Cloud Atlas.

Updated link(s) relating to Rapa Nui controversy

Posted in General Anthro, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Oceania, Rapa Nui on February 10, 2011 by salul

From a very useful list that can be found on this page, along with a recent MA thesis from a Chilean student at the U. of Wellington who previously worked with the Governor of Easter Island.

Actually, the whole website set up by Indigenous Peoples’ Issues and Resources offers many potentially good sources in relation to  conflicts involving indigenous peoples the world over.

Recent unrest on Rapa Nui: a commentary

Posted in Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Oceania, Rapa Nui, Uncategorized on December 7, 2010 by salul

Sign calling for independence. In background, a camp set up by protesters on the lawn of the municipal government building (August 2010). Credit C. Mondragon

At the start of the 21st century there are just over 3,000 Rapa Nui people living on the island…a majority of them do not feel they are Chilean. […] They also do not consider themselves to be “indigenous people”, because they do not accept comparisons with [Amerindian minorities such as] the Mapuche or Aymara. They identify themselves as Polynesians: another race, another culture, other customs. […] They are and consider themselves to be unique.

Translated excerpt from the book Rapa Nui: Náufragos del Planeta, Malú Sierra

(2003, p. 118)


Mano dura con estos delincuentes!!!  Isla de Pascua es Chilena!!!  no de un par de indios flojos que quieren todo Gratis y se niegan a trabajar.

What these delinquents require is an iron fist! Easter Island is Chilean! [It doesn’t belong] to a couple of lazy indians who refuse to work and want everything for Free.

(Online comment by a Chilean reader regarding the unrest on Rapa Nui)


“Yes, they want their ancestral lands back. So that they can then turn around and sell them!”

From a conversation I had with a Chilean public servant on Hanga Roa in August 2010.


I am writing this as a rapid first impression of recent events on Rapa Nui, which touch on issues that I hope to address in a research project that I intend pursue next year on the subject of contemporary Rapa Nui* struggles and identity issues.

In brief, a few days ago several international news outlets (e.g. the beeb) reported that there had been clashes on Easter Island between “Chilean police” and local protesters in the context of an ongoing land dispute over what the Chilean government defines as “fiscal” or federal property – meaning both plots of land and the government infrastructure on it. Local Chilean newspapers offered a few additional details (see here and here for online articles from the national daily La Tercera which offer some additional context in terms of specific sites and a very brief summary of local demands.) In the main, the impression that these news will have offered to the average

Wounded Rapa Nui protester. Image taken from La Tercera newspaper.

international audience will have been that there is some sort of land dispute on Easter Island that was dealt with through the use of force; the interpretation of this use of force was cast in slightly negative terms in the international media, but in generally positive terms by national Chilean media. In both cases, however, the context in which these events developed has been left in relative ambiguity.

I am therefore motivated to offer some commentary regarding these events, with a view to unpacking some of the very local, hence largely unreported, complexities behind them. This seems pertinent, among other things, because, as is usually the case in tensions arising from processes of recognition or indigenous struggles among minority groups, much of what passes for public opinion (in this case in Chile) seems to repeat a simplified set of prejudices and misunderstandings relating to the intentions and ulterior motives of the protesters in question, and, by extension, of Rapa Nui people in general.

Follwoing are a few summary points that are worth considering:

  • The current dispute is not simply a “land disupte”. It encompasses a number of key demands in respect of the way in which a majority of Rapa Nui (i.e. not just the protesters who occupied government buildings and plots of land) want their island to be administered. These demands include,
  • The introduction of a legal migratory procedure, internal to Chile, which would place specific controls over the numbers of outsiders – mostly mainland Chilean citizens – who would be allowed to come to Easter Island with the intention of settling down for long periods or even permanently. This demand is not new, it has been around since the late 1980s, and is motivated by ongoing anxiety over three principal problems, first, large numbers of continental Chileans who have moved to Rapa Nui over the past thirty years, second, the limited local resources available for infrastructural and population growth on Easter Island, especially in relation to clean water, and third, on the fact that immigrant outsiders tend to possess greater educational and labour skills, as well as financial means, and are therefore generally better placed to establish themselves as economically successful residents – to the detriment of locals, who often end up leasing their lands to outsiders but see little benefit in other sectors of the island economy.
  • There is a wide and diverse range of Rapa Nui opinion regarding the local administration of the island. In general, there appear to be a significant majority of locals who are unhappy with current arrangements, which consist of Isla de Pascua being treated as simply another municipality of the Vth Chilean region, which has its provincial capital in Valparaíso. On the moderate, even pro-Chilean government side of Rapa Nui opinion (mostly espoused by locals who have benefited from being civil servants), there is a desire for Easter Island to be given a greater degree of autonomy. This demand was formally addressed in 2007, when the Chilean parliament passed a bill that redefined Isla de Pascua as a “special administrative territory”. However, there has been no concrete follow up or consequence to this measure. Hence the demand is still on the table. On the more extreme side of local opinion, there is a vocal minority who advocate full independence. From what I gathered during my visit, as well as from various written sources, it appears that most Rapa Nui would like to see concrete steps toward greater autonomy, but not full-on independence. Many seem to fear that independence would relegate them to the status of a completely isolated, economic backwater.
  • And, finally, the issue of land, which is by far the most contentious and therefore the most obvious of the various demands. This issue is also mired in some controversy, and does not easily fall within any simple category of “land dispute.” So the rest of this post is directed at the history and context of the current claims and tensions.

As best as I have so far been able to determine, there were three key moments in the history of Easter Island that set the stage for the current unrest over land.

Satellite image of Rapa Nui.

The first was the official act of inscription (Federal registry) of what the Chilean government defined as “fiscal” (Federally owned) land on the island. This took place in 1933 and was carried out under Article 590 of the Código Civil (Chilean legal system), which declared that “all lands within the national territory that have no owner are considered “fiscal” land.” At the time, the Rapa Nui had been confined to a tiny reserve of land on what is now Hanga Roa and were not considered citizens of the Chilean Republic. In truth, they weren’t considered anything, and had no legal rights or entitlements. Hence the Chilean government effectively expropriated the entire 18,000 hectares of land on Rapa Nui.

Hanga Roa. Credit C. Mondragon

Much later, in the mid-1970s, the Pinochet regime attempted to reinstate a semblance of public order in what had clearly been a messy process in order to bring Easter Island into the national municipal system and carried out a limited form of land reform. Under this scheme, some Rapa Nui (who had finally been declared citizens with full rights and entitlements in 1967) were given land title to small plots, mostly corresponding to the land in which they had been residing in and around Hanga Roa. At the same time, 40% of the 18,000 hectares on Rapa Nui were declared a National Park and placed under the direct administration of the Conaf (National Park Service).

In principle, then (and this is one of the issues that are repeated over and over in the Chilean media and pointed to by Chileans as “proof” of the lazy “handout” mentality of the islanders), the Rapa Nui have already been given land title and there should be no more controversy surrounding this issue.

The problem, though, seems to lie in the fact that land title was allocated to individual owners, many of whom subsequently sold, subdivided, leased or otherwise alienated what, from a local perspective, are clan-owned lands. This, at least, is part of what I perceive is behind the current unrest, because most of the protesters who took over government buildings over the past few months are generally Rapa Nui in their 30s and 40s, therefore sons and daughters of those who received land title in the 1970s, and who are now effectively officially dispossessed indigenous residents on their own island.

This partly explains why they chose to occupy government buildings and infrastructure

Rapa Nui child outside his home; the size and overall appearance of the house is the norm on the island. Credit C. Mondragon

belonging to various nationally salient institutions, such as the Rotary Club or the banks. The basic claim they are making is that these buildings are sitting on top of land that was leased or otherwise alienated by a generation of Rapa Nui who did not think of the broader clan interest or in future generations. Moreover, the 1970s land reform process only benefited some of the 36 Rapa Nui clans on the island. In other words, it appears for several reasons to have been incomplete.

To a certain extent, it seems that the local provincial government in Valparaíso has understood this issue more or less as I have laid it out here. This is whey they, in turn, have sent successive negotiating parties to Rapa Nui to try to sort out what they refer to as a “second” land reform process, or also as the “proper completion” of the original land reform.

However, the problem goes beyond simply compensating or distributing land title to those who are protesting. To my mind, the protests have served as a sort of lightning rod around which all of the above claims, and several others, coalesce. It would take a further review of recent Rapa Nui history, especially in terms of how successive post-Pinochet administrations have dealt with Easter Island, to thoroughly explain the divisions within and among Rapa Nui, and the overall mistrust of government agents. In general, this mistrusts emanates from the sluggish, almost uninterested way in which previous provincial and national government agents have dealt with local grievances.

But more generally, it is my contention that these grievances are less to do with specific reforms to specific laws – be they migratory, economic, educational or territorial – and more to do with the fact that with the economic growth and international prominence achieved by Rapa Nui over the past three decades has come a growing sense of belonging and cultural identity among the islanders, which bears little relation to their condition of privileged Chilean citizens and much

Image credit C. Mondragon

more to do with their Oceanic roots.

In this respect, I believe that the current unrest will not easily be resolved by a few government concessions; currently, the sort of land reform that the provincial representatives have been talking about appears to be Byzantine, insofar as it is designed to not leave the government looking like it is caving in to the demands of a few greedy “Indians”. More likely, the unrest will continue to the extent that it is related to all of the previously explained demands and historical processes, but especially to the fact that Rapa Nui consider themselves, first and foremost, to be Polynesians, not Chileans or and Indigenous American minority.

To this extent, the Chilean government is unlikely to have gained anything by forcefully following the letter of the law and expelling “illegal occupants” through the actions of the National police (Carabineros).

More likely, to judge by the most recent reactions from even moderate Rapa Nui to the latest events, they have lost legitimacy at the same time as they generated a sense of communal solidarity among most islanders, who perceive the government as having been unnecessarily aggressive and heavy-handed in respect of an issue which has consistently been ignored, shelved or subjected to extremely sluggish provincial procedures and which could and should have been dealt with in a more efficient, dignified and respectful manner.

In sum, it is clear that the Rapa Nui are a far more united community when it comes to confronting aggressive actions from “outsiders” (usually government agents), and have reacted rather negatively to recent events. No surprise there…to anyone who considers matters of identity to be relevant. But then, the Chilean government has not precisely had a very successful history of sensitivity to the various Indigenous peoples who happen to fall under its territorial and political jurisdiction.

A map of Oceanic peoples, including Rapa Nui (Te Pito o te Henua), placed by Rapa Nui protesters in front of the municipal government house, Hanga Roa (Aug. 2010). Credit C. Mondragon

*Note the use of the ethnonym rapa nui, which is the official and widespread term by which indigenous islanders refer to themselves; note also that it differs from pascuense, which is generic for a person from the island, but but most often refers to non-indigenous residents of Easter Island, many of whom are simply called “contis”, for continentales, but can also be referred to pejoratively, in the Rapa Nui (Polynesian) language, as tire, “intruder” or “invader”, and mauku, “thief”. It is relevant to point out that tire may well relate to an ancestral form of the term for “stranger”, which was previously not an insult but a common form of referring to other Polynesians in the context of inter-island processes of conquest and ritualised domination. See Greg Dening’s masterful analysis of the role of Stranger (People of the Sea) and Local (People of the Land) in relation to how this opposition played out in Eastern Polynesia and especially Hawai’i, in pre-European times.

Looking back on 1491 (the book)

Posted in General Anthro, Mesoamerica, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales on November 16, 2010 by salul

This can be read as a late reaction to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann, a book that was originally published in 2005 (hc) and 2006 (pb) but which I have only just recently read.*

So this is not intended as a review so much as a brief set of thoughts regarding some of Mann’s principal themes, such as ecological history and anthropogenic landscapes. I am also interested in the different ways in which the book might be perceived by different audiences.

These issues function as markers of an important shift in anthropological approaches to the environment. As with most paradigm shifts, this one has been gradually taking shape, taking its inspiration from the interdisciplinary intersection between human geography, ecology, biology, archaeology and anthropology. It is not my intention to summarise Mann’s arguments here (some early reviews of the book which adequately sum up its main points can be found here and here).

This intersection can be traced back through a recent scholarly genealogy that coalesced around several common threads throughout the 1990s, and would include, among others, the (mostly collective) tomes by Crumley (1994), Soulé & Lease (1995), Krech (1999), Whitmore & Turner (2001), Gunderson and Holling (2002), Selin (2003), Balée & Erickson (2005), Walker & Salt (2006), and, more recently, the critical riposte to Jared Diamond by McAnany & Yoffee et al (2010).

The multistranded conversation and debates that have animated these and various other authors concentrates on viewing the environment as a dynamic, complex phenomenon that has consistently, and decisively, been influenced by human activity since at least 12,000 BP. Among other things,  these studies concentrate on the fact that the circumambient world is something far more complex than established (anthropological) approaches to the social construction, or representation, of space and place. Hence the inclusion of historical ecology as a key component of this analytical perspective.

Importantly, a great deal of interest within this ongoing discussion has concentrated on the so-called New World Tropics (or Neotropics). And that is where Mann’s synthesis of the anthropogenic history of continental American ecologies comes in.

My various reactions to Mann’s book can be synthesised thus:

On one hand, I found that it succeeds remarkably well in attempting to offer a useful overview of the state of historical ecology across the Amerindian world for a non-specialist readership. His tripartite thematic structure, emphasising Pre-Columbian demographics, social complexity and anthropogenic landscapes, hits the nail on the head. In this sense, I was pleased to discover that 1491 has been translated into Spanish and will soon be available to Iberoamerican readers. While many details of Mann’s presentation – and a few glaring omissions – can be argued over, the primary goal of turning mainstream (Anglo-American as much as Latin American) views of Amerindian history on its head is nicely resolved.

While many of Mann’s main points go over literature and materials with which I had previously had varying degrees of familiarity, I was especially interested in his descriptions of fire as a critical component of Pre-Columbian human transformations across the North American landscape. This is mostly because human-induced and controlled fire is a well rehearsed topic in relation to the historical (I mean LONG term historical) development of Meganesian ecologies, particularly in regard to the Aboriginal management of the extremely meagre environments of the Australian continent. However, the argument that fire also played a part in the human management of North American landscapes was not known to me, and is well addressed here.

Beyond specific materials and issues, reading 1491 prompted me to think about the different ways in which Pre-Columbian history has been popularised and assimilated in Anglo and Latin America. At one point in his narration, Mann is sensitive to these differences of perspective, which speaks to the attention with which he has observed and interacted with Latin American scholars and people throughout his travels and research.

More to the point, I find it interesting that while the book has mostly been received as an important tool for teaching future Anglo American students about the fascinating diversity and historical depth of the hundreds of Amerindian societies that inhabited the Americas before Columbus, I hope that once the Spanish edition finds its way to the broader Spanish-speaking public it will also help our various regional schools of archeological, anthropological and historical inquiry to begin to think beyond the usual nationalistic boundaries within which Indigenous American history has tended to be circumscribed. This is not just about extending current horizons beyond the rather stale navel-gazing that has characterised Mexican anthropological and archaeological research for the past few decades. It is also about motivating local scholars to think about the value of comparative analysis, especially when coupled with serious attempts at ecological history.

Speaking for myself, I have already been able to draw on the extremely rich bibliography that Mann offers in order to pursue useful comparisons across a number of topics which are familiar from Melanesian and Pacific contexts. These include:

  1. fire in the human management of landscapes,
  2. the relativisation of the otherwise unproductive dichotomy between nomadic (hence small scale and simple) and sedentary (large scale and complex) societies. Mann accomplishes this not only through an enticing description of the fluid nature of 15th century Algonkian communities, but also through his focus on the exchange systems that allowed the coastal inhabitants of Peru’s Norte Chico littoral (5,000 BP) to build up sophisticated urban structures on the basis of fishing and cotton production, that is to say, in the absence of the agricultural and political frameworks that have normally been seen as indispensable to the rise of early city-states, and,
  3. the extremely important discussion regarding the possibility that it was the recent (post-contact) introduction of steel axes that radically transformed shifting cultivation (“slash-and-burn” agriculture, arboriculture and horticulture), turning it into the predominant method of food production for tropical forest societies**

To sum up, I found Mann’s overview to be stimulating and meticulous, if a bit clunky at times, in terms of structure and narrative. Perhaps my only remaining comment is that, in preparing this post, I have found surprisingly few scholarly comments or reviews of 1491. Perhaps my institutional search engine is filtering stuff, perhaps I simply arrived late to the academic reactions to this book. But considering that it continues to appear in many a prominent bookstore, I would have expected it to have generated much more interest, even if we specialists could turn to it and say “well, yeah, I already knew that…sort of”. But hopefully this is just a result of my insufficient searching. Whatever the case may be, I am looking forward to further discussion and reaction of some of these themes as the book makes its way across continents, languages and readerships.

*The “lateness” of my comment is in respect of the book’s original publication date, and is mostly due to the fact that I normally avoid airport kiosk-type bestsellers like the plague, and when it originally hit the stands this book had every appearance of being just that. I was, however, pleasantly proven wrong in this case, as I recently realised when I took it with me as travel fodder.

**Cfr. Carneiro, R.L. (1979), “Tree Felling with the Stone Axe: An Experiment Carried Out Among the Yanomamö Indians of Southern Venezuela”, in L.E. Sponsel, ed., Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World. Tucson: University of Arizona Press,  46-52; Denevan, W.M. (1992), “Stone vs. Metal Axes: The Ambiguity of Shifting Cultivation in Prehistoric Amazonia”, Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society, 20: 153-165.

Rapa Nui. Not just a bunch of old stones

Posted in General Anthro, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Oceania, Rapa Nui, Travel Writing on November 3, 2010 by salul

Moai at Aku Tongariki. Credit: Carlos Mondragón 2010


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).

Argentine-Rapa Nui couple, Claudio Enright & María Angélica Pakomio Pakarati, on the terrace of their fusion restaurant.

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.

Rapa Nui traditional dance troupe at a local fundraising event. Credit C. Mondragón

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

Naturaleza muerta sin cultura. Credit: C. Mondragón

“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.

The librarian at the Biblioteca Pública Rongorongo. Credit: C. Mondragón

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,

Gregorio, a Rapa Nui participant in the recent protests over land reform. Credit: C. Mondragón

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)

Downtown Hanga Roa. Credit: C. Mondragón

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

A photogenic landscape...but something's missing. Credit: Carlos Mondragón 2010

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.

Seminario sobre Rapa Nui en el CEAA

Posted in Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Oceania, Rapa Nui, Travel Writing on October 24, 2010 by salul


El Centro de Estudios de Asia y África (CEAA)

se complace en invitar  al seminario de staff

Rapa Nui: Reivindicaciones políticas y culturales

recientes en un enclave polinesio de América Latina

Dr. Carlos Mondragón

El Colegio de México

Martes, 9 de noviembre de 2010

16:30 Hrs., Salón 5518

El Colegio de México