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Easter Island culture seeks to survive

Polynesians guard language, customs

EASTER ISLAND, Chile -- 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, the Spanish repartee at the grocery store and in the island's only schoolyard.

"Ko ai a Hotu Matu'a?" she asked her 7-year-old. Obediently, he answered 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 have 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," said 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 said. 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," said 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 said, 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 flights weekly from Santiago, Chile's capital. Taxi drivers who have 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," said 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."

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," said 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," said 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 from 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 Senator 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."

Senator 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 visitors' 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 said. "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."

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