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.

2nd International Workshop on Ecology and Time Systems in Australasia And the Americas

Posted in China, General Anthro, Oceania on February 6, 2011 by salul

Clockwise from left: Fred Damon, Wang Mingming, Matthew Prebbles, Henry Chan, Ana Díaz, Yang Qingmei

The 2nd International Workshop on Ecology and Time Systems in Australasia And the Americas: New Approaches to Value Systems and Calendrical Transformations across the Pacific Rim was held on the campus of Beijing University between January 12 and January 14 of this year. The first Workshop was held on the campus of the University of Virginia in early 2009.

The idea behind the conference is that anthropological approaches to the cultural construction of time need to be enriched by a comparative perspective that heightens the uniqueness of specific cultures, and, importantly, which is sensitive to radically different ways of experiencing and representing temporality.  The group considered and compared calendars and other ways of organizing temporality in China, Borneo, Bali, several places in what anthropologists call Melanesia, and the complex time systems found in traditional Mesoamerican and Andean societies.

Slide from M. Prebbles presentation

The social systems studied in the Workshop are defined by their location around the broader Pacific Ocean region, relatively recent or more distant flows of cultural history across this area, and by the similarities or differences in their respective productive systems (rice, maize, tubers) and ecological settings. China’s cultural history, for example, parallels that of the cultures that occupy Southeast Asia and others extending into Melanesia and Polynesia.

The historical flow here probably started from southeastern China upwards of 6000 years ago, so these places have common routes.  And while Southeast Asia extending to Eastern Indonesia maintained contact with China over this time span, these cultures developed various different time systems. The Workshop addressed the question of how we account for these differences. Arguably the different ways these areas relate to the monsoonal winds and what is now called ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) play a role in the respective organizations of temporality.

Participating scholars, listed here, came from the United States, Mexico, Australia, Malyasia and China. For the final publication we expect contributions from people from England, France and Italy who participated in the 1st Workshop at UVa.

Person Institution
Helmer Aslaksen Mathematics Dept, National U of Singapore
Henry Chan Manager,
Environmental Impact Assessment and Social Initiatives,Sarawak Forestry Corporation, MALAYSIA
Fred Damon Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Ana Díaz Mexican National Anthropology Museum
J. Stephen Lansing Department of Anthropology, U of Arizona, Santa Fe Institute/Sr Research Fellow, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Xueting Liu MA in anthropology at Beida; graduate student
Carlos Mondragón El Colegio De México
Matthew Prebble Archaeological  Post-Doc Research Fellow, School of Culture, History & Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU
Mingming Wang Peking University, and CMU Beijing
Qingmei Yang Postdoctoral fellow at Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

The Workshop was supported by the National Science Foundation (USA), the University of Virginia, El Colegio de México, the China Center for Sociological and Development Studies, and The Chinese Review of Anthropology.

From left: Mondragón, Prebbles, Díaz, Lansing, Damon, Aslaksen.

Spare a thought for the Torres Islands

Posted in Torres Islands on February 2, 2011 by salul

Cyclone Yasi this past weekend, shortly after having passed directly over the Torres group, North Vanuatu. Click to enlarge.


Photo: NASA (MODIS instrument on EOS satellites)

And here is another image, taken about a half a day after the one above, in which the storm is clearly on its way to becoming a monster.

(Belated note: for some reason I originally wrote the name down as cyclone Yunis…I don’t know what was going through my head…)

Review: “South Pacific” documentary (BBC, 2009)

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), Melanesia, Oceania, Rapa Nui, Torres Islands, Vanuatu on January 1, 2011 by salul

A little under two years ago, in early 2008, I arrived in the Torres Islands for a return fieldwork visit. I soon discovered that I had narrowly missed a film crew from the Beeb who had left two weeks previously. As I understood it, they had spent most of their time on the small islet of Metoma, under the care of Jean Pierre Laloyer, the senior member and head of the family who lives on and claims ancestral possession of Metoma (As is the case in many of these instances, this is a recent development and disputed by a few people in the Torres; but it seems secure since nobody else has been able to muster enough ‘counter’ proof of possession to seriously challenge the Laloyer claim. I digress a bit, but “uncle Jean” came to mind because the series producers cast him in the role of timeless, untroubled inhabitant of a small slice of paradise).

The object of the BBC film crew’s interest in Metoma was to obtain high quality footage of the notorious Birgus latro (coconut crab), for which this tiny islet has become well known in Vanuatu, given the relatively good health and large numbers that characterise its isolated population. This association is recent, partly a result of Jean Pierre having placed a ban on crab hunting several years ago. But I digress.

My friend David Hunt holding up a Birgus latro on Tegua Island (2010)

The resulting footage, as observed in the first episode of the BBC’s recent documentary series “South Pacific” is really magnificent. Certainly, it is unique – and I say this having observed Birgus and pursued research related to it for over a decade. The footage is, in this respect, very much in line with the  astounding quality most of the other clips of Pacific Islands’ wildlife which constitute the centrepiece of this series. Prominent examples include the astonishing panoramic of tens of thousands of migrating emperor pinguins on Macquarie Island, in the extreme southern reaches of New Zealand’s Southern Oceanic possessions; the shoot of graceful Galapagos Islands’ penguins and sea lions; a saltwater crocodile off the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal; and the extremely shy dingiso in the forested highlands of Papua New Guinea. There’s more, but my intention is not to offer a comprehensive list, but an overall commentary.

If we are to judge it on the basis of its intending to be primarily a wildlife documentary, I think that this series is very successful on several counts, one of which is the tenacity and technical expertise with which the production team pursued their prey. Moreover, it scores high marks for focusing the audience’s attention, throughout at least two episodes, on the particularities of biogeography and the gradually declining biodiversity of Pacific Islands as one moves from West (New Guinea) to East (Island Melanesia; Central Polynesia), North East (Hawai’i) and eventually South-West (Aotearoa) across the Ocean. Amazing footage aside, the clear and informative manner in which the faunal and floral population of the Pacific Islands played out over tens of thousands of years has not, to the best of my awareness, been explained with such care in a documentary series of this kind before. The fact that my own research focuses on anthropological ecology but that even I learned a few new facts from this series is really the best tribute I can pay to the way in which the producers successfully portrayed the historical ecology of the Pacific here. Finally, there is also the matter of the really nice musical score, and various tracks employed throughout, some of which I understand to be from contemporary Maori groups. All of this makes for a really satisfying experience.

Having said that, it is perhaps a slightly worrying sign of how much more demanding the industry and cynical we (the viewing public) have become over the past three or four decades that the most serious wildlife documentary teams worldwide (and the beeb is up there with NG, Discovery and others) now find it absolutely indispensable to go to enormous, sometimes excessive, lengths to try to produce “new”, hence attractive footage in order to fulfill the overblown expectations of a ho-hum public and an industry that is obsessed with ratings and record-breaking firsts.

In this regard, while I think that it is to the credit of the Beeb people that they added a section titled “South Pacific Diaries” at the end of each episode that explains the logistical obstacles that their various photographers and staff had to overcome to obtain this or that particular piece of outstanding footage, it is also slightly annoying how they seem to feel they had to inflate

The Selva River in Vanua Lava. Here be salties (in the recent past).

the challenges involved in these procedures in order to provoke an (even greater?) sense of awe in their viewers.

For example, what are we to think when the particular photographer who was chasing after saltwater crocodiles in the Solomons seems to push the claim that the very presence of these creatures as far East as the Solomons is almost the stuff of legend? Well, actually, it isn’t. That should be clear simply from viewing the horrendous effects of the attacks of these creatures on local villagers. But, most importantly, the presence of these creatures has been confirmed for many years even further East, in Vanua Lava (Banks Islands) for example, where a couple of crocs terrorised the local population in the 1980s, and even as far afield as Fiji. (See here for a recent article explaining the manner in which these creatures appear to displace themselves across the vast distances between archipalagi in the South West Pacific.)

The issue here is that one is often left with the feeling that some wildlife photographers and support staff seem to feel the need to make exaggerated claims upon processes that imply entering places that are really not all that dangerous or inaccessible – depending, of course, on what exactly it is you intend to do there. It is therefore incumbent on the particular intention of those entering that can make it all seem so much more complicated – from the simple fact of having to lug tonnes of equipment to the far reaches of the planet, for starters. So while I would not for a moment dispute the various logistical difficulties through which these teams sometimes have put themselves in order to bring us their amazing footage, I do find it irritating that there is a tendency to trump up the exotic and the dangerous in the whole process, as though they were supermen entering dangerous, inhuman conditions in otherwise uninhabitable and unwelcome sites.

My point is this: that kind of hyperbole doesn’t usually stand up to the fact that many of the contexts into which they are getting themselves happen to have sustained local populations for thousands of years. Not to mention ever greater numbers of passing visitors -from thrill-seeking backpackers to civil servants to missionaries- whose very presence and everyday experiences tend to cast the overblown representations of the hardy Western camerapeople in a rather less than flattering light.

And I’m sorry if I seem curmudgeonly here, but for years I have observed how various different sorts of passersby to areas like North Vanuatu or the South East Solomons really come to inhabit their make-believe worlds of adventure, excitement and difficulty even while they’re in the very presence of people with far less kit and certainly a less inflated sense of themselves who happen to call those faraway places “home”. I am reminded of an especially unpleasant photographer for the French division of National Geographic who, as he passed through North Vanuatu on his way to Vanikoro with the aid of a massive crew of scientists and French marines aboard a rather hypermodern navy frigate out of Nouméa, attempted to convince me that they were to be the “first white people” who were to disembark and spend a few nights on Vanikoro and other remote and dangerous places…like the Torres Islands.

Not so alien, after all.

When I reminded him that permanent contact with Europeans had been established in both regions since the mid-nineteenth century and that I myself had been residing for over a year in the Torres he simply ignored me. (This, by the way, mirrors my experience with many other foreigners arriving in the Torres; the presence of a white man among the savages just really seems to generate a sense of total disinterest, and most of them cope with it by ignoring it away rather than facing up to the fact that they are not so “remote” or amazing as they would like to think). To their credit, this guy’s support staff suppressed some cynical smiles and threw a wink my way, but I was not impressed. Months later, I ran into an image of just this same photographer affecting an extremely manly and “explorateur”-like pose as he stood in the middle of a nasty-looking swamp in Vanikoro, within the pages of the NG magazine dedicated to that particular expedition’s results. I have no patience for these displays. But I digress (again).

So apart from my genuine admiration for the wildlife shoots, and my particular annoyance with the reproduction of exotic stereotypes, what else did I make of the “South Pacific” documentary?

Well, at the risk of cementing my reputation as a hypercritical curmudgeon, I will say that I have two other significant quibbles regarding the manner in which the producers chose to represent the Pacific Islands in this particular series. Both are related not to wildlife -arguably the strong point, indeed the main point, of the show- but to the societies of some of the places in which they filmed. I am thinking especially of the first and fifth episodes, the only ones in which human cultures are specifically addressed. The other episodes, as I recall, only mention human history and actions tangentially, in ways that make much more sense within a documentary series that is meant to be dedicated to non-human environmental phenomena and creatures, and not to “culture” or history per se.

The first episode, “Ocean of Islands”, includes bits of footage and trivia on populations in South Raga and Tanna (Vanuatu), as well as Anuta Island in the SE Solomons. Sadly, as far as Vanuatu is concerned, they seem to have gone for the easy catch of the same old exotic images of Vanuatu that virtually every other visitor, tour guide and photographer go – paying enormous amounts of money in order to obtain original footage of the inevitable Pentecost “land dive” (Naghol) and the Tannese Toka dance. As for the land dive, I must respectfully declare my vision of it as a hyped up event which, although based on the revival of a genuine seasonal agricultural ritual, long ago morphed into a particularly tiring form of tourist-oriented theatre accessible mainly to non-locals -wealthy tourists and foreign film crews come to mind- willing to part with hundreds of dollars for the right to record or snap pictures of the event. Think this is a bit harsh? Come on, a cursory search easily proves my point (e.g. the NG’s most recent version of the event, which, although happily sanitised for the broader reading and viewing public, was actually fraught with problems given the excessive monetary demands of locals on the reporters and photographers, and their unseemly reactions to said demands – as several of us learned at the time).

Even though the angles and slow motion of the high-definition footage obtained by the BBC of Raga land divers is, once again, an impressive and likely “first-ever” stunt, it really serves no relevant point regarding the place of local cultural practices and

The entry signpost for the Vatthe Conservation Area, in Big Bay (Santo), in 2004; an early and important local initiative in environmental management in Vanuatu.

knowledge in relation to Pacific Islands’ wildlife. Seems to me it would have been infinitely more interesting to present some of the many rather less folkloric but environmentally significant actions that are being taken in local communities across Island Melanesia to revive traditional environmental knowledges and marine resource management -several examples from Malakula and Santo come to mind. Sadly, both the depiction of the Raga land divers and the Tannese Toka dancers fixates on images of semi-naked (hence firmly premodern) islanders seemingly absorbed in timeless, if colourful, ritual acts.

The film crew did slightly better when it came to presenting life on Anuta. Both the footage and the manner in which they represent local environmental knowledge in action is rather more interesting, even though once again they lay it on a bit when it comes to highlighting how “isolated” and tiny this place is. Hint: so are most other islands in Remote Oceania, but then that’s one of the reasons that Polynesian migrations and inter-island links are so fascinating. They are anything BUT isolated. They did themselves no favour when they then bizarrely decided to contrast the “ecocidal” Rapa Nui with the rather more “eco-friendly” Anutans, a comparison that is a bit strained, considering that in episode five (“Strange Islands”) they again represent Easter Island as a desolate and ecologically damaged place, but then go on to nuance the tired “Collapse” version of Rapa Nui history with some of the newer thinking on the ecological changes that transformed that island’s landscape as a

Rapa Nui dance troupe in Hanga Roa (Aug. 2010). Not quite the extinct, ecocidal primitives.

result of human contact, between 800 and 600 years ago (think Terry Hunt et al regarding the Polynesian rat and its appetite for the nut of the extinct Jubaea palm). Nevertheless, it seems that the fact that they had Rick Feinberg on as a consultant for their stint on Anuta was important in helping to improve their overall representation of the place and its people.

For all its exaggeration of the isolation and tiny dimensions of Anuta, the documentary team’s depiction actually does come across as more culturally sensitive and informative…again, in relation to the principal theme of this series, which is meant to be the environment and animals of the Pacific Islands. Moral of this particular story? It pays to get a hold a good anthropologist as adviser!

In sum, I would enthusiastically recommend this series for the sheer ambition and quality of its footage, and because it does manage to accurately and informatively convey a set of relevant data and images regarding the history and present state of important aspects of the Pacific Islands’ geography, wildlife and environments. It does so in ways which I had not come across before in other documentaries about the region (I was, BTW, especially pleased and impressed with their depiction of the Palolo worm, a process for which I was contacted early in the show’s production, back in late ’07 or early ’08, but in which I eventually had no direct hand). However, the series gets rather lower marks regarding the strange, almost capricious, and generally fragmented and inaccurate ways in which local cultural practices and contexts are inserted.

NOTE (inserted 3-06-11): The theme music for the series is taken from the rendering of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by the late great Iz Kamakawiwo’ole, a legend of contemporary Hawaiian music.

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.

Forget Fletcher Christian

Posted in Oceania, Pacific History on December 1, 2010 by salul

Let this stand as my extended quote for the month of November 2010 (probably going to be pressed and online for the early minutes of December, but whatever).

From my recent reading of Greg Dening’s truly excellent historical analysis regarding the extremely well-known mutiny on HMAV Bounty.

The history of the mutiny on the Bounty has always been primarily concerned with its Eurocentric romance. There is another unromantic story that needs to be told, how the Bounty cut a swath of death through native lives. The six ‘blacks’ [Polynesians] on Pitcairn were only the last to be killed. There were another hundered and twenty or more on Tubuai [Austral Islands], a dozen or so at Tahiti, even one man shot dead in the Cook islands by McCoy as the native triumphantly displayed a jacket given him by Christian. Who will say that more than 139 lives were less important than the five Bounty lives taken by natives at Pitcairn and Thompson’s at Tahiti, Norton’s at Tofua [Tonga archipelago]?

And then follows the real clincher in this particular extract:

Tahitian woman fishing at the beach, by Robert Tatin d'Avesnières (1959)

That 86 percent of the founding male population of Pitcairn should be individually murdered is reason enough for focusing a narrative on the episodes of mayhem. That John Adams [sole survivor on Pitcairn] should be surrounded, in 1800, by twenty-three children [and nine Tahitian women] is a reminder, however, that in death there was living and that most of that living turned around the native women. The Island was as much in their minds and bodies as in the men’s. […] Who precisely the women were or how they managed their lives is almost impossible to describe. Only one of them is known to us in any detail. She was ‘Jenny’ or Teehuteatuanoa. […] Independent and strong, she urged the women, at one point, to return to Tahiti and even built a boat to that purpose. She finally persuaded a whaling captain to take her away from Pitcairn. A desperate voyage via Chile and the Marquesas saw her back in Tahiti.

Teehuteatuanoa’s story is virtually the only source of our knowledge of the Bounty‘s trip from Tahiti to Pitcairn.

Dening (1992: 321-322)

Representing the Pacific in Mexico: la Sala del Pacífico del Museo Nacional de las Culturas

Posted in Mesoamerica, Museum-related stuff, Oceania on November 18, 2010 by salul

This post has been some time coming. But better late than never.

Map of linguistic diversity across the Pacific.

On Wednesday 6th October 2010, I and my fellow curator Oscar Aguirre Mandujano took part in the long-delayed opening of the new Hall of the Pacific (or Pacific Hall; Sala del Pacífico) at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas (MNC) in downtown Mexico City.

The hall in question consists of a permanent exhibit whose main purpose is to bring together key objects from the museum’s Asian, Oceanic and American collections in an attempt to represent the cultural diversity of the Pacific Rim and Islands for a local Spanish-speaking public.

Given that many of the objects in these collections – especially those belonging to First Nations (NW Pacific Coast) peoples, Javanese and Pacific Islands’ societies – were originally brought to the MNC under the supervision of Miguel Covarrubias (from the 1930s to the 1950s), the authorities at INAH asked us to try to incorporate Covarrubias’s vision of Pacific peoples and material culture within the overall concept of the Pacific Hall.

Mounting the exhibit

Hence, as curators we were confronted with the rapid design of a Pacific Hall which attempts to represent various things at once, not all of them mutually compatible or easily juxtaposed. (The entire project was designed, from scratch, in under six months, given that it was typically thrown together at the last minute by INAH; once again proving that their timeframes are rarely conducive to the proper execution of a major exhibition space such as this one…o tempora, o mores).

  • First, it is intended to be the principal museum space dedicated to the representation of the Pacific (understood in its widest sense, i.e., the Pacific Rim and Islands) in Mexico. The fact that it is housed at the MNC serves to remind the public that said museum is the single most important repository for the arts of Asia and the Pacific in Mexico.
  • Second, following the express, and not entirely coherent, desire of the current INAH authorities, it attempts to evoke the vision of the Pacific that Covarrubias developed during the 1930s and 1940s. This vision, as far as we have been able to discern, was inspired on at least three sources: first, a vague sort of cultural diffusionism regarding the purported ancestral and aesthetic unity of the cultures of the Pacific Rim and Islands; second, Covarrubias’s close study of early 2oth century Pacific collections at various prominent European and American institutions, most prominently the Field Museum in Chicago; and, third, his misplaced belief in the fact that the natural target of cultural and political interest for the Post-War United States was to be the Pacific, rather than Europe.
  • Third, it is also meant to offer a coherent vision of the cultural diversity of the myriad societies that inhabit the littoral (coastal) and insular geographies that make up the Pacific Rim and Islands.

Introductory panel, Sala del Pacifico.

This third theme brings the Pacific Hall in line with the MNC’s current interest in presenting itself as the primary museological space for the representation of global cultural diversity in Mexico.

Given that I regard this interest with a healthy dose of skepticism, it requires some explanation.

In sum, the MNC’s interest in cultural diversity arises from the bureaucratic introduction of this concept during the Fox presidency (2000-2006), and more recently of its continuity under the Calderón administration, into the mainstream educational and public outreach narratives of the Mexican government. This, especially in relation to federally funded programmes relating to the representation and revaluation of Indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Under these narratives, Mexico was officially declared a “multicultural” country, and it was therefore incumbent on its educational and cultural authorities to

MNC staff and INAH conservation specialist, with Aboriginal Australian art, during the selection process. Credit: C. Mondragon

demonstrate that they -and by extension all “we” Mexicans- are sensitive to the diversity of cultures around the world. That the concept of multiculturalism has been handled with a great deal of frivolity as a politically correct (but legally and morally non-binding) way of recognizing the existence and importance of the previously marginalised and discriminated Indigenous population of our country has been the object of much scholarly debate. But it was meant to be a fundamental part of the Pacific Hall’s contents and narrative, so we did not have much choice in the matter.

As the gentle reader will have surmised, I am none too impressed by the shallow, because unproblematic and self-complacent, interpretation of cultural diversity

Oscar Aguirre Mandujano, co-curator, during the final selection process for the Pacific Hall at the MNC. Credit: C. Mondragón

stemming from the official government rhetoric described above; nor by its reproduction in musea such as the MNC. Nevertheless, it is true that when I accepted the curatorial commission for the Pacific Hall I had to try to compromise between my skepticism and the unique opportunity to work from the inside, as it were, in order to produce a more ambitious, conceptually sophisticated and educational exhibit which just might bring a slightly more nuanced and open-ended notion of cultural diversity to the broader public.

Part of the strategy which Oscar and I decided to employ in order to generate useful themes for comparison across Pacific Rim and Islands’ cultures was the

Gomon (Kanak house post)

inclusion of two “subtexts”, which we inserted within various of the panels and labels of the exhibit in such a way as to invite the reading public to think on certain problems without compromising the overall thematic concerns of the INAH authorities.

The themes in question were, on one hand, the effect on local aesthetic values of regional production systems, namely, tubers for the Pacific Islands, rice for the Asian littoral, and maize for the Americas, and, on the other, the widespread presence of shamanistic rituals and beliefs across the Americas and parts of mainland Asia.

I believe that the introduction of texts relating to production systems worked fairly well and allows the public to realise that what they are observing are not simply the abstracted result of intangible creativity, but a set of objects which are intimately linked up with all sorts of other contexts and values, many of which are rooted in the local ecologies and basic productive activities of the peoples represented herein.

Yup'ik masks (Alaska).

As for the subtext on shamanism, Oscar managed to pull off some really nifty labels and a panel dedicated to orality, ritual and cosmology. Unfortunately, his main panel on shamanism is hidden away in the upper right-hand corner of the platform dedicated to Arctic societies.

But never mind. In the end, I do believe our job was well done, given the absurd limitations (temporal, conceptual and bureaucratic) under which we had to work, and I am happy to lay out some of the images, ideas and contradictions behind the Pacific Hall in this space. For what it’s worth.

Kwakwaka'wakw mask (First Nations, Canadian Pacific littoral)