DESPITE PRESSURES OF MODERNITY, THE INHABITANTS OF RAPA NUI PRESERVE ANCIENT TRADITIONS IN AN ANNUAL FESTIVAL CELEBRATING THEIR HYBRID CULTURE
THOUSANDS OF MILES FROM the nearest stadium, far from the realm of professional sports, bronzed, young athletes test their skills and stamina in one of the world's most unusual races. Imagine, if you will, barefoot runners draping a stalk of bananas around their necks before circling a crater lake, where they paddle individual boats and swim supported by a bundle of reeds. Then picture the venue: the caldera of a volcano from whose flank massive stone heads look on impassively, and you know that this competition could occur in only one place: Papa Nui, a.k.a. Easter Island.
Rapa Nui's idiosyncratic triathlon is only one of many colorful events that take place during the celebration of Tapati, a festival held every year at this time, toward the end of January and the beginning of February. Though visitors are welcome to watch, the islanders maintain that they organize the activities as a celebration of their own unique culture: "We don't do it for the tourists. We do it for ourselves."
Tapati--"week" in the local language--began in 1969 as a grass-roots effort to recapture what remained of the islanders' traditional culture. The Rapa Nui were losing the threads that connected them with their ancestors, the people who had developed a remarkable civilization far from all other centers of population. To nurture their sense of cultural identity, they decided to reestablish their tenuous ties to the past with a demonstration of pride in ancient traditions.
But "ancient," in Rapa Nui history, can be difficult to determine. Even more than other indigenous groups, the people face formidable obstacles in reclaiming their past. Their collective memory had been shattered in the 1800s when slave raids and epidemics reduced a population of thousands to a sad remnant of only 111 people. During the 1900s the numbers rebounded, but the old culture was moribund. Nor could the Rapa Nui rely on a generally accepted account by outsiders of the island's history before the time of European contact. Such basic questions as where the original settlers came from and when they arrived are still a matter of debate among scholars. Even more wildly divergent are the explanations concocted by non-scholars; the tantalizing mystique of this forty-five-square-mile outdoor museum inspires uncanny interpretations. Archaeologist Georgia Lee, a specialist on Easter Island and a founding member of the Easter Island Foundation, has compiled whole categories of bizarre theories from authors who posit Egyptian statue builders, lost continents, or extraterrestrial invaders.
Undaunted by questions of authenticity, the islanders created a carnival-like fiesta with singing and dancing and competitions, culminating in the crowning of a queen. But Tapati is no mere beauty contest. Queen contestants win points by demonstrating their mastery of Rapa Nui traditions, such as song and dance, body painting (takona), recitations in the native language (vananga Rapanui), and kai kai--the formation of intricate string designs that accompany chants. Family members and supporters also amass points for their queen candidate by competing in races and games of skill. Some events, like the madcap horse races, clearly had their origins in the days after European contact. But others, like elements of the triathlon, reach back into prehistory.
Their swimming prowess has impressed onlookers ever since Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggeveen became the first westerner to record an encounter with the islanders. "Surpassingly good swimmers," he noted in Iris log, after complaining that "they took the seamen's hats and caps from off their heads, and sprang overboard with the spoil." On Easter Sunday, 1722, following the custom of the times, Roggeveen bestowed on the island the name that westerners still recognize. …