This post is fourth in a series about Easter Island.
Before I left for Easter Island, friends who had visited the island before warned me that the Rapanui men were unusually attractive. “Think Polynesian Fabios,” one travel writer told me.
And yes, the men, most with long flowing dark hair, tribal tattoos and well-developed arm muscles, were good-looking. Riding bareback on horses only adds to the romance.
But I enjoyed learning about the culture of the Rapanui, who have come from the brink of extinction to become a force to be reckoned with.
About 5,000 people live on Easter Island and slightly less than half – 2,200 – are Rapanui. That’s a huge increase, considering that in the 1900s, the Rapanui people were almost gone from the island. About half of the population left in 1862, when Peruvian slave traders killed or captured more than half the population. Western diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis also decimated the Rapanui.
Rebuilding a population takes time – and, um, a lot of extracurricular activities. At a dinner with Rapa Nui tourism officials, an official joked about how increasing a people from less than 250 to 2,000 in just three generations took a lot of….work.
The resurgence of population has come with increased pride in Rapanui culture. Every year at the end of January and early February, the Easter Island natives hold the Tapati Festival, which celebrates Rapanui culture and the residents’ right to vote in Chilean elections, which passed in 1963. During the festival, the Rapanui take part in sporting competitions, such as sliding down a tree on a banana tree, as well as singing and dancing.
Another Rapanui ritual that has been given new life is the Birdman competition, a complicated rite of passage in which men vie to collect the first Sooty Tern egg of the season from a nearby island. Whoever gets the first egg remains in spirtual seclusion, while the unsuccessful contestants brave the deep shark-infested waters to swim back and wait for the victor in the hillside village of Orongo. The winner is named the Tangata-Manu and rules the Rapanui for a year. Catholics shut down the Birdman back in the late 1800s, but it has been revived as a cultural tradition. The artist in the photo above carves pieces for the competition.
This type of death-defying competition seems typical of the Rapanui, who have not abandoned their fierce demeanor. During our trip, we attended a Rapanui show that highlighted culture, dance and song. Unlike other Polynesian islanders, who often use cultural performance to display graceful movement and natural beauty, the Rapanui show was downright ferocious, with lots of shouts, yells and war cries by extremely buff men wearing little more than body paint and a thong.
And that forceful demeanor has made headlines recently. Upset over what they see as the Chilean government’s violation of land sale laws, several clan of Rapanui have taken to occupying buildings that they say are on their ancestral lands. Among them: the Hanga Roa hotel, a eco-resort in the island’s only town. The hotel, which underwent extensive renovations, was supposed to reopen this month. But when I was there, the Hanga Roa hotel remained shuttered behind fences, with a flag bearing the Rapanui symbol hung in front.
Tensions between the Rapanui and the Chilean government came to a head in December. Chilean riot police descended upon the island, with the intent of rousting the Rapanui from the occupied buildings. News reports said that about 24 people were injured by rubber bullets and buckshot, and that tear gas was also used. The islanders, understandably, weren’t pleased; while I was there, a small group of protesters walked through Hanga Roa.
Chile and the Rapanui have never had a great relationship. When the country took over the island in the late 19th century, the Rapa Nui were pushed off their lands and corralled in slum-style housing in Hanga Roa. Even though the islanders won the right to vote in the 1960s, they do not consider themselves Chilean or South American, choosing to affiliate instead with their Polynesian ancestors to the far West. Our guide Gina, a Rapanui, told us that it wasn’t that the indigenous people don’t like the Chileans who have come to the island; it’s that the islanders believe that foreigners are emigrating to their home simply to make money off their native heritage.
Daily life on Easter Island isn’t about protests, of course. As one might expect being so close to the sea, fishing and water activities are a big part of Rapanui culture. Fish is also a major part of the Rapanui cuisine; I ate it almost every day during my stay.
Gina told us that almost every Rapanui child learns to surf. There are plenty of surf shops in Hanga Roa if you want to give it a try.
Overall, I found that the Rapanui we met were reticent at first, but happy to talk about their culture when they realized you were open to listening. In many ways, it’s amazing that the Rapanui still survive, given the extremes that their population has endured throughout the centuries. If you do make it to Easter Island, make sure that you spend some time with some Rapanui so you can learn about how their struggle for existence informs their prideful spirit today.
Thanks to LAN Airlines for sponsoring my trip.