Voyage to the moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Waka Tapu, and the reclaiming of cultural heritage

These giant statues embody the ancients who first voyaged to Rapa Nui. Many were toppled; all lost their coral eyes.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] On the island of Rapa Nui, perhaps better known as Easter Island, are these extraordinary stone monuments, these moai. They can function as a way of understanding the fragility of culture in the 21st century.

Dr. Wayne Ngata: [0:22] My experience of the moai — seeing them from a waka, a double-hulled traditional Māori sailing vessel — lined up on the shore, facing inland, some facing out to sea. When we did eventually arrive on shore, and were introduced through ceremony and ritual to the moai, was an amazing experience.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] You journeyed on a traditional boat to Rapa Nui and had that opportunity to see the island as it would have been seen for hundreds of years.

Dr. Ngata: [0:50] We voyaged across the sea as part of revisiting our own relationship with traditional voyaging that our ancestors would have engaged in and as part of revisiting places that we knew had genealogical links with us, Rapa Nui being one, completing one leg of the Polynesian Triangle.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] When I think about the ocean, when I think about the open sea, I see it as a barrier. But what you’re saying is that the ocean is a place of connection.

Dr. Ngata: [1:16] For us, the Pacific Ocean, we probably see as a continent with a whole lot of settlements and people.

Dr. Zucker: [1:23] The moai also function as important elements in this reclaiming of culture, of this reclaiming of heritage.

Dr. Ngata: [1:29] There are standing moai. There are moai still lying down. There are moai partly still submerged and part of the rock structure of the earth, and various stages of construction. When they are standing, they provide the opportunity for ancestors to talk and to engage with those ancestors through ritual, through ceremony.

Dr. Zucker: [1:46] That ancestral connection must seem especially precious because of all that the peoples of Rapa Nui have suffered over the years, not only the deforestation but colonialization, enslavement.

Dr. Ngata: [1:59] While we were there, as part of the ceremony, the men created a human ladder to reach the eyes of a moai, so they could place the coral eyes back into the moai and by doing that bring them back to life for a period of time. Our understanding was that they were not allowed to do that for a number of decades. It was against the colonial rule.

[2:18] That particular site that we went onto had been a restricted area for some centuries. We witnessed something which was quite poignant, quite emotional for them as well as us. They brought them back to life for a short period of time and then took the eyes out and put them back to sleep, if I can put it that way.

Dr. Zucker: [2:37] The moai had lost their eyes, and some of them had been toppled. In so much of the Pacific, traditional systems were toppled, and the idea of removing the eyes seemed such a potent symbol for that disempowering.

Dr. Ngata: [2:48] What we found out from the Rapa Nui people was that some years ago, decades ago, they sought help to support restoring the moai, and restoring those moai that were still standing, and ensuring that those that were not standing were preserved as well.

Dr. Zucker: [3:04] Rapa Nui seems to be one of the most remote places I can imagine. Yet, because of the moai, it is an extremely famous place, and one that has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

[3:16] And so, people do come from all over the world, and I know that that tourism functions both to support the economy and to help preserve these objects and this culture, but it also comes at a cost.

Dr. Ngata: [3:25] It’s a fine line, and the Rapa Nui people are balancing the obligations to their own culture and obligations to pragmatism of the time to feed themselves.

Dr. Zucker: [3:35] The moai are embodiments of ancestors, the ancestors that would have come to that island initially, that were, to my eyes, incredibly brave, reaching out to islands that perhaps they weren’t even sure existed, taking this extraordinary journey, but also a kind of extraordinary risk.

Dr. Ngata: [3:52] That’s exactly what the people of Rapa Nui told us. We were trying to align and see where the connections were with us. Rapa Nui, the colonizer’s language: Spanish.

[4:02] Mangareva, French. Ours, English. We don’t know French. We don’t know Spanish, so we all spoke Māori. We can understand each other quite clearly. If we go further east towards the Cook Islands, Tahiti, we can still understand, but the language is faster.

Dr. Zucker: [4:16] That suggests to me that there was travel, that these were not isolated cultures.

Dr. Ngata: [4:19] Yeah, we’ve always maintained that there was exchanges. We certainly know that when Māori came to Aotearoa, Māori also went back to where they came from to tell others. So there were two-way voyages, certainly in our ancestors’ time.

Dr. Zucker: [4:32] The efforts by the people of Rapa Nui to reassert their culture, to reengage with their culture, is a microcosm of efforts that are taking place across Polynesia. But I’m also thinking about the responsibility of the larger world.

[4:46] I’m thinking about the complicated role that universal museums around the world play in preserving cultures. I’m thinking about museums in France, in the United States, in the United Kingdom, that hold large collections of Pacific Island objects. They preserve them, they make them available for study, but these objects are very far from home.

[5:08] [laughs]

Dr. Ngata: [5:08] Endangered cultures are in the main minority cultures, and minority cultures require friends in dominant cultures or majority cultures. So, learning institutions — museums included — universities, schools, public institutions, have a major role in promoting that agenda of finding equitable ways to support the revitalization of those minority indigenous cultures.

[5:33] In terms of objects and artifacts and taonga that are spread throughout the world: plundered, purchased, given in the spirit of goodwill, whatever way they were exchanged, and many disconnected from their source communities.

[5:48] Māori taonga and artifacts that are spread throughout the world, particularly through Europe, UK, US. Then there’s probably a rising demand from Māori to reconnect with those particular taonga.

[6:01] Reconnect, how? Repatriation, maybe.

[6:04] Digital can only go to some extent to satisfy that source community. Would physical repatriation help support cultural revitalization?

Dr. Zucker: [6:13] The British Museum has two moai, one large moai that is much beloved in London, but it is very far away from its home. It is a really complicated issue because the museum does have a universal agenda to show works of art from cultures across the world.

[6:29] There is some real benefit to having a spectrum of cultures available that can be compared and studied, but also isolates that object from its culture.

[6:38] When we think about the sculpture not as an inanimate but as an animate figure that has a spiritual life, that becomes even more important, perhaps. Of course, there is a price to the island itself, in the loss of that object.

Dr. Ngata: [6:50] If I take the view that I think that taonga or artifacts or objects that are in museums need to speak of their own culture, of their own history through their own language, then I think that’s a challenge for an institution to enable that because it needs to speak, first and foremost, of and to its own people.

Dr. Zucker: [7:10] There are Māori curators, there are people that hold that cultural tradition and also are interested in museology.

Dr. Ngata: [7:18] The interesting thing about Māori curators, or Indigenous curators for that matter, they are loaded with expectations of Indigenous people and institutional expectations. It’s an unfair burden.

Dr. Zucker: [7:29] It sounds like the museums’ responsibility is broadening. Museums have significant work to be responsible partners in not only being places that care for and display but are much more directly responsive to the cultures that produce the objects that they hold.

[7:44] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Wayne Ngata and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Voyage to the moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)," in Smarthistory, August 10, 2017, accessed June 10, 2024,