saving Rapa Nui

Easter Island

Keeping a Culture Afloat

* A revival of the Rapa Nui tongue is energizing the small community of Easter Island natives, whose heritage is at risk of being overrun.


EASTER ISLAND -- Evelyn Hucke wants her son to speak in the language of the king who settled this remote island more than a millennium ago, the same Polynesian tongue spoken by the people who carved the totemic statues that rise above the powder-blue waters of the South Pacific.


Hucke, 30, grew up speaking that language, known as Rapa Nui. But as she walks the streets of Hanga Roa, Easter Island's only town, she hears the Polynesian-faced children chattering and arguing in Spanish, the language of the island's current rulers, the Chileans.


Every day is a linguistic battle for Hucke as she fights the cartoons beamed in from South America, and the Spanish repartee at the grocery store and in the island's only schoolyard.


"Ko ai a Hotu Matu'a?" she asks her 7-year-old. Obediently, he answers in the same language: "He was the first king who came here."


Often called the loneliest place on Earth, Easter Island is now caught up in the swirling changes of globalization and is on the front line of a broader effort to preserve the world's endangered languages.


Every year, more languages pass into extinction. In the Chilean archipelago north of the Strait of Magellan, the last dozen or so speakers of the Kawesqar Indian language are aged. Inevitably, Kawesqar will join Kunza and Selknam on the list of Chile's dead languages.


Only an end to "Chileanization," local leaders here say, can rescue Rapa Nui -- the term applies to the language, the 2,000 people who speak it and the island itself. Rapa Nui leaders want political autonomy from Chile or independence so they can control the migration of Spanish-speaking "Continentals" to the island.


Saving Rapa Nui has become an obsession for a handful of people here, including a pair of California linguists who've spent nearly three decades helping create a Rapa Nui literature and a former medical worker who became a schoolteacher and launched the island's first Rapa Nui "immersion" program.


"You realize something of your people is being lost, the spirit of our people," says Virginia Haoa, who runs the immersion classes for students from kindergarten through fourth grade.


For Haoa and others, saving Rapa Nui means saving Easter Island's uniqueness -- "our culture, our cosmology, our way of being," Haoa says. If Rapa Nui dies, so will a living connection to ancestors who built an exotic, mysterious civilization on an island just a few miles wide in a vast, otherwise empty stretch of the Pacific, 2,300 miles from the South American mainland.


For now, there are still Easter Islanders who can tell you, in Rapa Nui, stories that have been passed down for generations about Hotu Matu'a, who, around AD 400, arrived with seven explorers from the land called Hiva to settle this place. You can still talk to people whose grandfathers were part of the Birdman cult that raised one of the last of the island's 800 famed, imposing moai statues. It was later shipped off to the British Museum in London.


"What we've kept alive [of our culture] has been entirely on our own initiative," says Alfonso Rapu, 61, who, in the 1960s, led one of the most important protests against Chilean rule, escaping an arrest warrant by hiding in the island's caves.


Intermarriage with Chilean Continentals, he says, might soon do away with many of the 39 surnames associated with the island's tribes.


Chile has ruled the island since one of its admirals arrived here in 1888, signing a treaty with its last king, who residents believe was later poisoned in the Chilean city of Valparaiso.


Until recently, geographic isolation kept alive the Rapa Nui language -- a rhythmic tongue with few hard consonants -- despite the small number of people speaking it.


But these days, the peak of tourist season brings four daily flights from Santiago, Chile's capital. Taxi drivers who've relocated from Santiago cruise up and down Atamu Tekena Avenue in Hanga Roa, in search of fares.


"Word has gotten out in Chile that you can make dollars easy on Easter Island," explains Hucke, a member of the self-appointed "Rapa Nui parliament," which is pushing to have the island's status placed on the agenda of a United Nations committee on colonization. "They come to try their luck. They aren't interested when we tell them our culture is being destroyed."


Of the 3,000 or so residents here, about a third are transplants from the Chilean mainland. Last year, Easter Island had its first armed robbery -- committed by a youth from the mainland.


"It's not that we are against the people coming from the continent," says Enrique Pakarati Ika, the island's Chilean-appointed governor. "The people of Rapa Nui are very hospitable, and many times they invite Continental people to come."


In the process, however, Hanga Roa risks becoming just another Chilean town.


Chileans are currently as free to come to Easter Island as Americans are to move to Hawaii.


"The Constitution of Chile is killing my culture and my identity," says Petero Edmunds, the mayor of Hanga Roa and the island's only popularly elected official. "We are a millenarian culture that existed long before Chile did. And the only way to protect that culture is by regulating migration."


Edmunds and other leaders head to Santiago several times a year to negotiate autonomy with the authorities. Islanders hope to eventually achieve a status similar to their oceanic neighbors in French Polynesia, which was granted self-rule in 1984.


"We are Polynesians," says activist Mario Tuki Hey, expressing an opinion shared by most anthropologists. "It's only an accident that makes us part of Chile."


There is a growing consensus on the mainland that Easter Island deserves a different status than other isolated corners of the Chilean state.


"There is unanimity in the idea that certain places, like an island located in the middle of the Pacific, should receive special treatment," said Sen. Jaime Orpis, a member of the conservative Independent Democratic Union who was part of a Chilean Senate commission that visited the island in September. "They should have autonomy."


Sen. Carlos Ominami of the Socialist Party said such a status would probably be based on that of the Galapagos Islands, which are allowed to control migration from Ecuador and charge a visitor's fee to raise money for development.


The Easter Island negotiations have dragged on for at least a year. For the time being, the island remains simply another administrative subdivision of the city of Valparaiso, Chile's main Pacific port.


"We are as far from Valparaiso as Los Angeles is from Miami," Edmunds says. "It does not make sense that I have to call Valparaiso to get the money to fill a pothole or to have a Chilean bureaucrat tell me in what language I should educate my children."


In fact, the island's school established its Rapa Nui immersion program four years ago in defiance of Chile's education laws, which mandate instruction primarily in Spanish. The educators and linguists behind the program say Rapa Nui was in such desperate straits, they couldn't afford to wait any longer.


"For anyone under 25, Rapa Nui is not their primary language," says Nancy Weber, a linguist who has worked on the island with her husband, Robert, since the mid-1970s.


Back then, things were different. "When we came, probably the greatest percentage of Rapa Nui children spoke Rapa Nui as their primary language," she says.


Television arrived on Easter Island about the same time the Webers did. In those days, the linguists had great fun listening to the island's schoolchildren talk -- in Rapa Nui -- about the strange and exotic happenings on shows such as "Daniel Boone." The beaver-capped explorers and tomahawk-wielding Indians on the series were speaking dubbed Spanish, and the children weren't entirely sure what they were saying or doing.


"None of them agreed with each other about what they had seen on TV the night before," Robert says. "And none of their stories seemed to match the 'Daniel Boone' I had seen."


At the same time, the Webers set out to create Rapa Nui texts, inviting local residents to writing workshops and publishing mimeographed anthologies of poetry and family narratives. If Rapa Nui was to be taught in school, they felt, it needed a literature -- writing that reflected its cultural reality.


"People were moved to tears when they produced their first books," Nancy recalls.


Rapa Nui, it seemed, was on the rebound.


But as time passed, Rapa Nui began to slip behind Spanish, especially after Chilean TV expanded to a daylong schedule. By 1997, a sociolinguistic survey of the school found that no exclusive Rapa Nui speakers were left and that only a handful of students were "coordinate bilingual," or equally fluent in Spanish and Rapa Nui.


In public places, Rapa Nui is being replaced by Chilean-accented Spanish laced with Rapa Nui structure, the Webers say. For example, Rapa Nui uses frequent "reduplication" of sounds. So you might hear an Easter Islander greet someone with "Hola, hola" in Spanish.


"Eventually, Rapa Nui will be lost," Robert says. "If Rapa Nui were on the mainland, it would have disappeared long ago. If we're really honest, all we're doing is delaying the inevitable."


If true, it will happen despite the long history of resistance and perseverance of the Rapa Nui people. Against long odds, Easter Islanders have kept their language alive through their tragic encounters with the outside world.


The Chileans are only the most recent in a long line of Europeans and South Americans to control the island. For centuries, colonialists and slavers decimated the population.


The small group of elders who could read Easter Island's rongo rongo writing system -- preserved in 28 carved wooden tablets -- all died as slaves in 19th century Peru. By the time the Chileans arrived, the Rapa Nui people numbered fewer than 200.


In the 20th century, Chile ruled the island with a mixture of paternalism and benign neglect. Older residents remember an island without electricity or running water, run by Chilean naval officers "as if the island were a ship and we were all sailors."


Chilean educators encouraged the parents of Easter Island's "best and brightest" to send their children to mainland boarding schools.


Haoa, the Rapa Nui teacher, was sent off to Chile when she was 9. She suffered an unbearable loneliness for months on end, rarely hearing a word of her native language. "The nuns told my parents I was too smart, that it would be a waste to let me stay on the island," she says.


As an adult with a Chilean university degree, she returned to the island to work at the local clinic -- until the day her oldest daughter started kindergarten at Easter Island's elementary school.


"I had always spoken to her in Rapa Nui because I knew when she grew up there would be pressure to speak in Spanish," Haoa remembers. After that first day of kindergarten, Haoa discovered that Rapa Nui was being treated "like an alien language" in her daughter's class, which was conducted entirely in Spanish.


Soon Haoa was volunteering to organize Rapa Nui workshops at the school. Eventually, she became a full-time teacher there. "It was urgent that we have our children speaking our language," she says.


Because Rapa Nui has no equivalents for modern words like "computer," Haoa and other teachers have coined new terms. A computer, for example, is a makimi roro uira, which literally means "brilliant mind machine."


Creating new words helps encourage invention and creativity in a language, an essential part of keeping it alive.


"We've proved that it's possible to teach science in Rapa Nui," Haoa says. But more important, she adds, "we're preparing our children for the outside world by giving them a stronger sense of who they are and where they come from."


Mauricio Valdebenito, a Chilean and a cabdriver, is among the parents whose children will start the Rapa Nui immersion program soon, when the next kindergarten class begins. His wife is Rapa Nui, but she and their 5-year-old daughter speak mostly Spanish at home.


"To me, all learning is a good thing. The more the better," Valdebenito says. "I wouldn't mind hearing her speak it more. It's part of her culture."


Haoa tries to spread the same message outside the classroom. On her kitchen door there is a sign asking visitors to speak in Rapa Nui. "Hare vanaga i te reio henua," it says. "In this house we speak the voice of the people."


Haoa believes she's making progress. The other day, she was walking across the playground when she heard something she hadn't heard for many years, a sound that transported her to her own childhood.


A group of small children were arguing in Rapa Nui.


"They were starting to scream, but they weren't hurting each other," she says.


So for a moment or two, all she did was listen.

Men work to build a stage for a ceremonial performance on Easter Island