Human Interest

Biggest Polynesian festival returns to Easter Island after Covid

By Rafael Arancibia

Easter Island, Chile, Feb 12 (EFE).- The Tapati festival, one of Polynesia’s most important cultural, sports and traditional festivals, returned this week in all its splendor to Easter Island after a three-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The seven days of folklore, unity, athleticism, dancing and sports competition is a Rapanui cultural tradition that has been celebrated since the mid-20th century and generally brings together other peoples from the widespread Polynesian islands along with curious tourists. At this latest edition, however, the attendees are less numerous than in the past because of various anti-Covid restrictions that are still in force on the Chilean island.

This little bit of land in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, five hours by air from continental Chile and where about 8,000 people live, isolated itself in March 2020 to prevent Covid-19 from spreading among the inhabitants, given that the island has no hospitals.

And local authorities did not open up the island to outsiders again until last August, when tourism – Easter Island’s main economic activity – returned, albeit so far only marginally.

Tapati is considered to be the biggest cultural festival in Polynesia and now is trying to get back to normal.

“It’s about getting back to our roots. There are activities that, with joy and happiness, support the passion for a culture and it’s incredible because it’s something that brings older people, middle-age people and kids, all of society, men and women in equal numbers. It’s sharing an incredible cultural experience with the world,” said the island’s mayor, Pedro Edmunds Paoa.

Edmunds, whose grandfather was one of the initiators of the original festival back in the 1950s, emphasized that apart from cultural competition and sports events, Tapati also serves to “guarantee the preservation of codes that are very important for the sustainability of the culture,” codes that are centuries old and that enabled the Rapanui people to deal with the isolation of the pandemic.

“Codes like the ‘moah,’ which is respect, and ‘oromaih,’ forgiveness and remembering those times when our ancestors killed each other and went to the extreme of cannibalism. That is alive in our history, not so long ago, just 200 years” when the island was the scene of a bloody civil war between the northern and southern clans.

It was a tribal conflict that reduced the population of 25,000 inhabitants at the time to just 111 by 1885 – 28 of them women – and almost wiped out the Rapanui culture.

“When we decided in March 2020 that the island would close itself off so as not to put our older people at risk, since they are the basis of our culture, bringing the codes to the forefront was very necessary and so we implemented the ‘tapu,’ the temporary prohibition (on travel to and from the island). It’s the time of the year in which we have that cultural resilience” and, as a result of it, “our ancestors could sustain themselves, they could survive.”

“That led us to put our economy at risk. However, being a culture that’s more than 1,000 years old and has survived for thousands of years, those codes are in our DNA, like ‘umana,’ sharing, and so society stayed united and supported itself in a kind of circular social economy,” he said.

The festival kicked off last Saturday and concludes this weekend after seven intense days during which two women have exhibited both their beauty and their intellectual abilities and manual dexterity as they have been vying for the Polynesia crown.

Traditional dances, recitation of poems and ancestral tales in the Rapanuia language, tattooing and competitions of strength and ability like the Akavenga, a race in which the participants carry a bunch of bananas that weighs about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) are the tests that the participants must overcome.

“You work a full year to be able to get to this festival. The same family sews each outfit worn when they do the dances. Imagine, it’s more than 300 outfits, it’s work that takes about 10 months. And there are also ancestral sports and cultural competitions,” Veri Teave, the organizer of the festival, told EFE.

This “gets the whole community involved and gets everyone soaked in our culture. It’s not only Rapanui people, but the whole community who lives here,” she said.

From eight flights and 2,400 visitors arriving each day before the pandemic, now just three weekly flights come to Easter Island, with priority for local residents of an island seeking to rethink how it can avoid changing too much and how to preserve its magical essence.

EFE ra-jm/bp

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