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Taken Rapanui Heritage (Easter Island) – The Island Map

Polynesian people mastered navigation to an incredibly high level and navigated unchallenged over the Pacific Ocean for many centuries. They reached remote archipelagos and islands where they settled and established highly specialized societies that adapted to the specific conditions, climate, resources and vegetation of each one of them. In an incredible achievement they reached the lonely volcanic island currently known as Rapa Nui (Easter Island) about one thousand years ago. 

Traditional history credits Hotu Matu’a as the founding father of the local society. Their descendants crafted a material culture that survives to this day fascinating the rest of humanity after its much later discovery by Westerners. Unfortunately, this fascination did not translate to good things for the Rapanui people. A little after a century after Europeans put the island on world maps, islanders were infected with diseases, shot, kidnapped, enslaved to work overseas, their land appropriated by foreign enterprises and alien religions and laws imposed on their territory. The ancient traditions of the Rapanui were all but erased. By 1877 there were only 110 islanders living there. A census taken in 1886 has kept the names of every single one of the 155 Rapanui men, women and children who were still living on the island.

Within this context and in the name of trade and exchange, sacred and utilitarian objects with deep cultural meaning were taken from the Island by numerous expeditions and found their way in time to museum collections across the world. The survivors of the Rapanui culture started to understand the strange and, sometimes, destructive fascination that foreigners had towards their cultural products and heritage. In a rapidly evolving cultural scenario and trying to reconstruct their society through old and new pillars, the islanders showed remarkable agency participating in some of these trades later on. The manufacturing of “curios” and amazingly well-crafted objects without mana, specifically for trade, allowed them to get “exotic” Western things in exchange and, at the same time, that made it possible for them to keep on the island whatever true ritual and ancient objects remained.

After the death of the last Rapanui who lived as adults in the pre-Christian era, the tradition of carving objects in the “old-style” and replicas of tools and artefacts, remained strong in spite of the restrictive Christian traditions that had been assimilated by the locals. It remained one of the best ways of gaining access to useful foreign items. Currently, the new generations of Rapa Nui, proud descendants of the tiny number of survivors of the late 19th Century, have a newfound interest in these objects that reflect their ancestors’ skill, imagination and resourcefulness. However, only a few of them have been able to travel and visit a handful of museums with high-quality objects collected in Rapa Nui before its Christianization.

Trying to identify the uses and the history of some of these objects from Rapa Nui displayed in some of the world museums’ rooms is a complicated task. The documentation of the objects collected is, in most cases, scarce and poor. Not only was the contact between the sporadic foreign expeditions and the indigenous Rapanui rather shallow and short-lived, crippled by near impossible verbal communication, but there was an overall lack of interest among the crews of foreign ships to preserve the details of their acquisition process. Likewise, collectors back home that acquired these items, some time later, did not always keep the scant data that did exist. This meant the museums that were the final link in this chain, only preserved the name of the donor or the original owner and had to reassess their Rapanui items documenting them after much later published ethnographic works.

Our project, which is a partnership between the Rapanui Pioneers Society and The Earth Museum, seeks to create maps that make visible this Taken heritage and raise questions around its future home. It walks in the shoes of other attempts to document Rapanui heritage in museums around the world, to which we humbly bow our heads. We do not (at least presently) attempt to be comprehensive in our coverage but to create learning resources that inspire debate.

Technology has made possible an opportunity to collaborate internationally in ways that connect a unique blend of knowledge, expertise, skills, perspectives and meanings. Our team is pleased to present the first of 3 maps re-connecting ‘taken’ heritage digitally back to Rapa Nui. ‘The Island Map’ is work in progress that we want to share. More will follow over the next few months, and we hope that in some small way our work contributes to conversations about the return of sacred heritage to the people in our world to which they truly belong and hold meaning.

Cristian Moreno Pakarati, Janet Owen, Natalia Pakomio Sobarzo, Roxanne Baxter

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