September 25, 2023


How Art Works

Re-Instructing Rapa Nui | Artwork Historical past Instructing Sources

10 min read

by Ellen C. Caldwell
see the entire lesson plan right here

In January of 2020, simply earlier than the world could be unalterably impacted by COVID-19, I had the nice fortune of touring to Rapa Nui. Having taught artwork historical past surveys with an emphasis on Polynesian and Oceanic artwork for over a decade, I had dreamt of this journey for a very long time. 

The journey didn’t disappoint. Seeing the moai in individual was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Attending to know the small island and ahu websites (sacred platforms and burial websites upon which the moai stand or stood) over my brief time there has caught with me and sustained me over this previous yr of lockdowns and isolation. By means of images, movies, books, journals, and discussions with my college students, I’ve joyfully continued to revisit my journey to Rapa Nui, however otherwise than I might have predicted once I started planning the journey a number of years prior.

One thing that struck me earlier than I left, whereas I used to be there, and upon my return, is the very completely different means that individuals in the US (and Europe) have a tendency to take a look at and speak about Rapa Nui. We are able to begin with the truth that only a few folks (pals, household, colleagues, and the like) didn’t know the place I used to be going till I referred to as the island by its overseas identify of “Easter Island” (versus its fashionable Polynesian identify Rapa Nui). As its overseas identify signifies, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen stumbled upon Rapa Nui in 1722 on Easter Sunday. Declaring this long-inhabited island as “found” and henceforth renamed, Roggeveen’s identify has sadly caught for a lot of outsiders to Rapa Nui. (A Chilean territory since 1888, Rapa Nui can also be referred to as by its Spanish identify of the identical translation “Isla de Pascua.”)

By means of journal articles and books, I additionally gathered one other incongruity that appeared to be adopted by outsiders to Rapa Nui: it’s exhausting to come back throughout media—whether or not tv specials, documentaries, books, or articles about Rapa Nui—with out additionally encountering the phrase “thriller.” As American archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo put it, “[m]ention Easter Island to simply about anybody and ‘thriller’ instantly involves thoughts.”1 Or as Rapanui filmmaker Sergio Mata’u Rapu places it in Eating Up Easter, “[o]utsiders named our island Easter and stated our previous was a thriller, bringing thousands and thousands of holiday makers to our shores.”  

A lot of this has been popularized and perpetuated by BBC, PBS NOVA, and Nationwide Geographic specials—similar to The Lost Gods of Easter Island, Mystery of Easter Island, and Lost Empire of Easter Island—usually narrated by an over-enunciating, deep voice touting the “MYSTERIES OF THE MOAI” over a soundtrack dripping with mysterious and adventurous undertones. There’s a shock worth inherent in these specials that shift the alleged topic of the documentaries (the moai) to one thing exterior of them solely. As a substitute of specializing in the monumental carving of the volcanic tuff, the expertise of these carvers, the talent of those that moved them, and the truth that the moai depict protecting and omnipresent ancestors, the topic as an alternative shifts to unsolvable thriller and intrigue.

There may be one other speedy response to Rapa Nui that many People are inclined to have—that of unhappiness and shock about an “avoidable” environmental collapse. Popularized by American geographer and historian Jared Diamond in his 2004 ebook aptly titled Collapse: How Societies Select to Fail or Succeed, a lot of the American media frenzy surrounding Rapa Nui focuses on the environmental collapse of the island, each when it comes to its steep inhabitants decline and its disastrous scarcity of pure sources.

In 1999, Anishinaabe and Chippewa scholar Gerald Vizenor coined the time period “survivance” in his ebook Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. Vizenor articulates indigenous survivance as “an energetic sense of presence over historic absence, deracination, and oblivion.”2 Pit towards seemingly unsurmountable obstacles of genocide and violent cultural and spiritual assimilation, survivance outlines a story of resistance that celebrates a continued presence in defiance of such odds and brutal histories. As a substitute of specializing in Rapa Nui’s “thriller” and so-called “chosen” collapse, there ought to be a a lot larger celebration of the survivance of the Rapanui descendants who nonetheless reside there and proceed to take care of each the island’s lands and the moai, who’re thought-about nice ancestors.

As a result of a lethal mixture of infectious ailments introduced by Europeans, Peruvian slave merchants who kidnapped and enslaved a big inhabitants of Rapanui folks, deforestation of the island’s once-lush palm bushes, and an invasive and overpopulated rat species, information tragically exhibits that by 1872, the inhabitants of Rapa Nui had dwindled from 15,000 to 111. Nonetheless, this somber historical past speaks much more presciently to Vizenor’s idea of survivance. There may be a lot to rejoice in how knowledgeable Polynesian voyagers had been in a position not solely to navigate over 2,000 miles to search out and inhabit the island, but in addition to reside via and survive such devastation, persevering with life and their lineage to at the present time. Of the approximate 7,600 inhabitants on Rapa Nui right now, roughly half are stated to be descendants of the unique Rapanui folks.

Whereas on excursions of the assorted websites on Rapa Nui, many guests would ask our native Rapanui and Chilean guides the identical query (advert nauseum), “However how do you suppose the moai moved?” (The fascination with this query after all stems from the “thriller” narrative that the majority foreigners are enthralled with.) In my expertise, many of the Rapanui guides weren’t very interested by participating with this query (or with the American fascination with “thriller”) and as an alternative would smile and easily say, “they walked” or “my ancestors walked with them.” Made well-known to the larger world exterior of Rapa Nui, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo popularized this principle of the strolling moai by surveying the island and testing a novel principle primarily based on related oral custom of Rapanui elders and descendants. 

Hunt and Lipo’s principle of the strolling moai stands in contradiction to Diamond’s principle of collapse, which posited that the Rapanui folks had deforested their small island to be able to assemble log-rolling mechanisms for transporting the moai across the island. Diamond had not give you this canoe-ladder rolling principle himself, and certainly Jo Anne Van Tilburg, a longtime and well-respected archaeologist of Rapa Nui and director of the Easter Island Statue Mission, postulated and examined this principle in 1998. To make sure, Hunt and Lipo’s concepts have been each celebrated and contested by many well-established historians and anthropologists of Rapa Nui. 

Nonetheless, in educating Rapa Nui (particularly within the context of such post-colonial, patchwork surveys as my course “Historical past of African, Oceanic, and Native American Historical past”), I discover it extraordinarily necessary and related to share with my college students Hunt and Lipo’s “strolling moai” principle as a result of it melds oral historical past and science. There’s a time period neke neke in Rapanui that interprets to “strolling with out legs” and it’s this phrase and such oral histories that Rapanui elders and descendants recall in answering how the moai had been moved throughout huge distances with none equipment. And it’s this phrasing that impressed Hunt and Lipo’s theories. In learning the land of Rapa Nui, the angles of the hills on which the moai had been moved, the “street moai” that lay deserted on the edges of some roads from the island’s quarry Rano Raraku, and the moai themselves, Hunt and Lipo decided there have to be a motive for the oral custom saying the moai walked, and so they hypothesized that the science might again this up. (To be taught extra about this, I encourage you to learn their ebook The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Thriller of Easter Island and watch the PBS NOVA documentary Mystery of Easter Island.)

But nonetheless I digress right here, as it’s so straightforward to fall down the rabbit gap of the “thriller” narrative of how the Rapanui moved the moai. I’ve fallen sufferer to this myself, permitting excited pupil debates in regards to the “strolling moai” theories to subsume all different discussions of Rapa Nui. In the end, although, the “thriller” narrative is just not a very powerful a part of the various matters and themes we will talk about, train, and develop in our artwork historical past surveys.

After I returned from Rapa Nui, I used to be fascinated about all of this as I started placing collectively a unit for a brand new, bigger survey referred to as World Artwork and Visible Tradition (along with eager to drastically alter an current unit in my Historical past of African, Oceanic, and Native American artwork course). I’m utilizing Open Academic Sources (OER) for the course and I rely closely on SmartHistory for a lot of the readings. However at any time when I come throughout OER on Rapa Nui and the moai, it’s nearly at all times written from a colonial and Western perspective slightly than an area Polynesian one (with much of SmartHistory’s writing about Polynesian art in addition to Khan Academy’s coming straight from the British Museum which refuses to return one of the most sacred moai, referred to as Hoa Haka Nanaʻia, to Rapa Nui). 

In his documentary Eating Up Easter, Sergio Mata’u Rapu observes, “[e]ver since outsiders first noticed our moai, they’ve tried to jot down our story.” I’m not Polynesian nor Rapanui, so I can not provide the native perspective straight nor do I need to be one other outsider writing Rapa Nui’s story. I’m a cis, white artwork historian, ready of energy as an educator, and as such, I really feel that this can be very necessary to repeatedly make anti-racist selections in revisiting and revising how these histories are advised. Within the area of artwork historical past, there may be a lot work to be completed in each OER and textbook-writing. What I hope to supply listed here are some imperfect options that incorporate extra Rapanui and Polynesian views. And I’ll proceed to develop, tweak, and edit this curriculum for so long as I’m educating.

What I got here up with was a plan for educating about Rapa Nui otherwise, by piecing collectively numerous on-line sources and OER supplies, along with a few of my very own images and movies. I took themes that constantly got here up in readings, documentaries, and discussions about Rapa Nui, however I moved them in numerous instructions, integrating extra Rapanui and Polynesian views all through, and difficult constant themes with extra nuanced discussions and debates for college students to think about. 

A few of these themes embody the next shifts:

  • From Rapa Nui to “Easter Island” again to Rapa Nui: Why Names Matter;
  • From Ecocide and Collapse to Survivance;
  • From the Perils of Local weather Change to Cultural Conservation and Therapeutic; 
  • From Archaeology to Multifaceted Approaches and Integration of Oral Tradition; and
  • From Colonial Collections to Repatriation.
Benedicto Tuki and granddaughter Mikaela Pakarati stand in entrance of the misplaced moai Hoa Haka Nanaʻia on the British Museum in a scene from Te Keuhane O Te Tupuna . Photograph Courtesy of American Public Tv.



My college students watch this documentary and take into account a handful of guiding dialogue questions I give to them prior. Additionally they watch a brief clip of one of many extra typical American documentaries that goals to focus on solely “the thriller” of the island. After watching each, college students examine narration, tone, storytelling, and protagonists of every movie. I additionally assign readings that give them extra views to think about. As an illustration, after watching Te Keuhane O Te Tupuna, I ask them to discover this immersive Google Arts & Tradition web page entitled “Can You Find the Moai at the British Museum?” In viewing this web page after watching Te Keuhane O Te Tupuna’s documentation of the emotional and irritating quest to attempt to save and return the misplaced moai Hoa Haka Nanaʻia, college students instantly acknowledge that this web page is culturally insensitive and careless at greatest, and deeply offensive at worst. It’s as if the web page taunts viewers to go on a digital scavenger hunt3 for a lacking ancestor who the Rapanui are so desperately attempting to carry house.4

Screenshot of Google Arts & Tradition web page entitled “Can You Discover the Moai on the British Museum?”

I’m excited to share the lesson plan Rapa Nui: Thematic and Narrative Shifts in Curriculum with the Artwork Historical past Instructing Sources neighborhood, and I welcome your suggestions, critique, and enter. I’ve additionally included nameless pupil reflections and suggestions in regards to the new lesson plans from the Fall 2020 semester. I’m at all times trying to change and enhance my educating efforts, so I don’t declare perfection, however I do attempt to current a working enchancment, primarily based upon my very own analysis, expertise, and first-hand observations. To me, it is very important acknowledge my place of privilege and energy as a white educator, and the parallel obligation I’ve to make use of that privilege in direction of the required motion of decolonizing my educating—motion that can hopefully shift historic narratives in direction of tales that comprise larger accuracy and trigger much less hurt of their retelling.


1 Hunt and Lipo p. 1.

2 This abstract of Vizenor’s articulation of survivance comes from his edited quantity Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, 2008.

3 On the backside of the web page, viewers are in reality inspired to “dig deeper” with the full British Museum scavenger hunt.

4 Primarily based on the Google Arts & Tradition credit for this web page, it’s unclear who made this, because it states: “The story featured might in some circumstances have been created by an impartial third celebration and should not at all times characterize the views of the establishments, listed beneath, who’ve equipped the content material [British Museum and CyArk].”

Copyright © All rights reserved. | Newsphere by AF themes.