Respecting the ‘Moai’ – Part 2

EP. 7 / Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Respecting the ‘Moai’

The Tapati Festival consists of numerous dancing and singing competitions, including traditional athletic events: running, swimming, canoeing, horse racing, and the island triathlon. In this competition between two family clans, each family selects a young man and woman who will vie for the annual title of King and Queen of Rapa Nui. Now only ceremonial, in the generations past this was how the Rapa Nui selected their leaders, those who were the strongest, the most knowledgeable and best practitioners of their culture and traditional ways.

The Tapati Festival is now well underway and today I’ve come to observe one of the most grueling athletic events where young men race through the town of Hanga Roa with a yolk of bananas weighted around their necks. Valeria’s son Kava is one of the competitors and for him these events are not ultimately about raw athleticism but a living expression of his people’s history and culture.

When the people touch the Moai, I feel bad. The Moai is my face, it’s the face for my mom, the face for my grand-dad, the face of my great-great-grandpa.

Men’s race and opening night of Tapati.

As a legal part of Chile, it’s no surprise that Chileans comprise the largest share of new immigrants and tourists on Rapa Nui. However, most Indigenous Rapa Nui have little in common with Chileans beyond the citizenship and Spanish language they share. While the dollars Chile brings to Rapa Nui are vital to the local economy, almost all of it is generated from the growing pool of international tourists seeking an up close experience with Rapa Nui’s famous Moai. However, little of the revenue generated by Chile’s Rapa Nui National park flows through to the Indigenous Rapa Nui.

Chilean tourists at the National Park.

The debate over Chile’s National Park revenues is at the center of Rapa Nui’s growing autonomy and independence movement. Today, the Rapa Nui people are pressuring Chile for a greater say over the access and amount of people that can visit the Island, and a means to ensure the preservation and sanctity of their ancestral treasures.
(Note: as of November 2017, outgoing Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet came to Rapa Nui to officially hand over joint administration of the National Park for a period of 50 years however, Rapa Nui are still pressuring the Chilean government for full autonomy and control over the park and its archeological treasures).

There are different kinds of tourists. There are the tourists that want to take pictures, there’s the achaeologist, the photographer, the historian. But then there’s the tourist that comes here just because it’s popular.

To learn more about the impact of tourism on the Island, the Rapa Nui and their heritage sites, Valeria wants me to meet Sonia Haoa, an acclaimed archeologist and the Islands coordinator of national monuments. Thereafter, I’m going to spend a day alongside Valeria as she tours a group of Chilean tourists around some of the Islands most important archeological sites. Like everyone who visits Rapa Nui, I want to understand the mystery behind the Moai so Valeria is going to take us to the one place on the Island where all the Moai were carved. Despite the several tons each statue weighs, Valeria is going to explain how her ancestors were capable of erecting the Moai and ‘walking’ them overland for several kilometers across the Island.

The Moai statues Rapa Nui - one of the world's most famous archeological sites

With the Indigenous Rapa Nui wanting a greater say on access to their Island, their archeological sites and ultimately self-determination, their independence movement has been gaining momentum, specifically over the last decade. The ‘Honui’ is Rapa Nui’s traditional local government that is comprised of Elders from each of the Islands family clans. Erity Teave is the sitting President of the group, an independence advocate who works closely with the self-appointed Rapa Nuil Parliament. Together, both groups are pushing for greater autonomy over their Island’s resources toward the ultimate goal of reclaiming their Island from Chile.

We learn that for our preservation we have to renew our culture – every year, every day. I am proud of our competitors’ commitment but I’m sad. I see more people come every year and they don’t respect us.

As the Tapati Festival approaches its climax, the main stage dancing competition marks one of the pinnacles of the entire event. This is the moment that Valeria and her family clan have been working towards for months so she’s bringing me backstage to see how her family is preparing for the big event. Tonight they will be performing elaborate dances in a competition that will test their knowledge of history, culture and traditions in front of the Tapati Festival’s largest audience. Sadly, this is also my last night on Rapa Nui and I’m thankful to Valeria, her sons Kava and Kainoa and the entire Pakarati family for opening their world to Native Planet.

The Rapa Nui people are still here. It’s a culture that is still alive. The language is still spoken, the songs are still sung, the dances are still here. It’s not something about the past it’s something that is here, right now.

Last night of the Tapati Festival.

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