Easter on Easter Island, Part 1

The diverse geographical assets of the sliver-shaped country of Chile make for a place of outrageous and extravagant beauty. Warm sandy beaches, frozen tundra, rugged mountain passes, tropical plateaus, old volcanoes, generous fishing waters . . . Chile has it all!

I had been in the cities of Conception and Santiago in January. The political officials had insisted that I return in April and visit the Chilean province of Easter Island to evaluate their health care system. Anna Marie joined me on the trip, and we arrived back in Santiago on the Wednesday before Easter.

I remembered first hearing of Easter Island during my childhood as I listened to the reports of World War II on the radio. Then, Easter Island hit the news once more during the heady days of NASA’s space program. The U.S. had negotiated for the use of a sizable portion of the island in order to build a large landing strip in case any of the space machines got into trouble out in the vast, empty waters of the Pacific Ocean. The Easter Island tracking station became a household buzzword during those many space flights.

Easter Island is the world's most isolated inhabited island. It is also one of the most mystifying and mysterious places on Earth. The original settlers were Polynesian islanders who somehow paddled their canoes for weeks, maybe months, through open waters of the Pacific Ocean and discovered the island in the middle of “nowhere.” They named the island Rapa Nui and were isolated for centuries from the outside world.

The people of Rapa Nui developed their own distinctive culture, a culture perhaps best symbolized by the huge moai figures. There are hundreds of the large monolithic stone sculptures that were carved from volcanic rock and mysteriously situated along the coastline, facing the settlements with their backs toward the spirit world of the vast sea. 

The first recorded European contact with the island was on April 5 (Easter Sunday), 1722, when a Dutch navigator visited the island for a week and estimated a population of 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants. But why on earth would the skinny country of Chili have any interest in owning little Easter Island today that sits 2,500 miles from its coast—that is farther than from New York to Los Angeles—out in the middle of nowhere? As an economist, let me suggest the answer . . . follow the money!

A country’s territorial water rights extend out to three miles past its borders. By being able to claim that Easter Island is an integral part of its sovereign country, Chile’s international coastline was not three miles out from Santiago, but a convenient 2,500 plus three miles out to the west of Easter Island. That gave Chile an incredible puddle of ocean water to claim as their undisputed fishing territory. There is no doubt about it, skinny Chile needs Easter Island!

The Chilean airline only flies once a week to Easter Island, and then on to Tahiti. As guests of honor, we were personally met at the Rapa Nui airport with beautiful floral leis and eager smiles. The governor of Easter Island, Pedro Pablo Edmunds Paoz and his wife would be our hosts. We were additionally hosted by Hernan Felipe Errazuriz, a prominent attorney in Santiago, who had served as Chili’s foreign minister and also the Chilean ambassador to the United States. The third dignitary to host us was Christian Labbe Galilea, the present mayor of the city of Santiago, and his wife.

Since we were confined to the Island for at least a week, Friday and Saturday were designated as our days to explore Easter Island. Pedro Pablo Edmunds Paoz was the perfect person to be our island tour guide. He was the undisputed official of the Island. He was the keeper of the legends. He knew all the history, all the folklore, and certainly all the people. As we traveled to the legendary spots throughout the island, Pedro told us many stories and related lots of facts about the kings who first came to the island and their exploits and Polynesian culture:

  • The 820 hand carved Moai stone statues weighed from 90 to 150 tons each and all came from one rock-quarry located in the northern part of the island. Each statue represented a king, tribal leader, or very important man of island history. Legend has it that the stones were moved into place by mental and spiritual powers of levitation
  •  A Moai usually sat atop an Ahu that was a sacred formation of stacked stones close to the sea that housed the bones of the dead island ancestors.
  •  There were no bad words in the Rapa Nui language. If you wanted to say something bad to or about someone you had to borrow a Spanish, French, or English phrase.
  • Likewise, there were no words of gratitude like “thank you” in their language. If someone did something nice for you, you would simply accept it.
  • Neither was there any concept of forgiveness in the culture.
  • The only, and ultimate, sign of disapproval or displeasure when someone had crossed over the behavior line was to stick out your tongue at the offender. That meant “death to you.”
  • You didn’t just kill someone who had done wrong; you made him stop breathing, ate his flesh, and then pounded each bone into dust. Then, he could never be honored or return again.

As we drove to every historic site on the island, the governor continued sharing with us the unusual history and culture of the Easter Island people. On Friday afternoon I received one of the greatest stories I had ever heard regarding the power of information brokering.

It is not unusual for people to utilize exclusive information to manipulate other folks who do not have access to the same information. The Egyptians used to call it “the King’s secret” when he could control the information of the past to bend the outcome of a present situation. He alone possessed the information that was locked safe in the forbidding walls of his political position. He alone could rule in safety through the secret invention, destruction, or alteration of past documents or information.

  • One of the past kings of the island divided the island into territories, one territory for each tribe. The king kept complete control, and his position was safe from an uprising or from someone killing him because only the king could read the ancient language carved in wood, which told of the compete history of each tribe and individuals of the specific tribes. Each year he traveled to the different territories reciting the sacred history to the tribes. He counted on the fact that knowledge was powerful, and in holding information there was safety. The king knew that no one would even think of killing him, since to kill him would be to kill the history of the individuals and each tribe. If they killed him they would really kill themselves and their posterity. The king lived a long and happy life.

I was reminded that knowledge is power, information is power. The secreting, hoarding, or manipulating of information may simply be an act of tyranny camouflaged as public service. I was becoming intrigued by the economics and culture of Rapa Nui and Easter Island.

                                       (Easter on Easter Island to be continued)