A Quest for Independence: Who Will Rule Easter Island's Stone Heads?

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Martin Bernetti / AFP / Getty Images

Eastern Island's iconic stone statues, or moai, are located 2,300 miles (3,700 km) off the mainland Chilean coast

More than a century after the last king of Rapa Nui — a.k.a. Easter Island — was allegedly murdered, his bespectacled, octogenarian grandson has ascended to the throne. Valentino Riroroko Tuki's coronation last July, proclaimed by the indigenous Rapa Nui clans, didn't garner much, if any, global media attention. But Riroroko's regal rise, though largely symbolic, could prove critical to the Rapa Nui's struggle to wrest control of the tiny but legendary South Pacific isle from Chile. "My first obligation as king," declared Riroroko, who was a farmer and fisherman before becoming a monarch, "is to sue Chile."

In March, Riroroko and Rapa Nui leaders made good on that pledge and filed a lawsuit seeking independence from Chile. Their claim: that the South American nation has violated the 1888 treaty that let Chile annex the island, through years of abuse and neglect of the island and its 5,000 residents, two-thirds of whom are indigenous Rapa Nui. The treaty's terms remain fiercely disputed: generations of islanders have sought greater autonomy with limited success, but this time the Rapa Nui clans are hoping the royal restoration will help leverage the creation of a sovereign Rapa Nui nation. "Because the [1888] pact was signed by a king," explains Osvaldo Galvez, attorney for the Rapa Nui, "only a reigning king can dissolve it." The king, in other words, is the linchpin of the island's legal argument.

The suit was filed in Valparaíso, Chile, the same coastal city where in 1898 the Rapa Nui believe their last king, Simeón Riro Kainga, was poisoned and assassinated while on an official visit. The distance between Easter Island and the Valparaíso courtroom — some 2,300 miles (3,700 km), the span between the two U.S. coasts — seems daunting, but the islanders and their ancestors have long been accustomed to traveling unthinkable spaces. Easter Island is the world's most remote inhabited island — and how its original occupants got there is still one of history's biggest mysteries. So are its 887 enormous and mesmerizing moai statues, better known as the Stone Heads of Easter Island, which, despite the isle's isolation, help draw some 70,000 visitors a year.

The Rapa Nui's desire to have more control over that lucrative but also invasive tourist flow has been a source of escalating tension between the island and Santiago for decades. So have other issues, including what the islanders call the government's neglect of social infrastructure like hospitals, schools and electricity. Last year, the standoff boiled over when police forcibly removed members of the Hitorangi clan who were occupying a resort hotel on land they claim is indigenous and say the government illegally purchased decades ago. The startling images of bloodied Rapa Nui were denounced by the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya.

Migration from Chile has introduced other social ills, including the erosion of the native language and customs, says Erity Teave, high commissioner of the Rapa Nui parliament's division on human rights. The lawsuit, says Teave, is as much about preserving the Rapa Nui's unique culture as about correcting an alleged legacy of abuse by Chile. "Even though Chile is trying to assimilate us, I don't feel Chilean," Teave says. "Nobody can force me to stop being who I am."

Not everyone shares Teave's sentiments. One dissenter is Alberto Hotus, president of the island's Council of Elders, which was the Rapa Nui's original self-governing body until the Rapa Nui parliament split from it to pursue a more hard-line stance on issues like independence. Hotus does not consider Riroroko his king, and he calls the independence campaign pointless if not dangerous, given the island's scant resources. Easter Island and its inhabitants are entirely dependent on Chile, Hotus says, so "if Chile were to leave, we'd all die of starvation."

Despite the expectations generated by the suit, the attorney Galvez admits the Rapa Nui's case doesn't stand much of a chance within the Chilean legal framework. That's due in part to a court system designed to safeguard Chile's own territorial sovereignty. The objective, says Galvez, is to exhaust the legal options in Chile before taking their case to a more impartial international court later this year.

In the court of public opinion, however, Chileans generally sympathize with the Easter Islanders. Last month, in fact, Congress approved an amendment to the Chilean constitution that allows the government to regulate visitation to the island. Still, it says nothing about what role the Rapa Nui themselves would play in deciding acceptable limits. And while the islanders say the government is trying harder now to address some of their more urgent social needs, independence is still their goal, say Rapa Nui like Tuhira Terangi Tucki Huke, 31, a mother of two. Every day under Chilean rule, she complains, "we lose a little more because they are imposing a system that doesn't allow us to develop socially, spiritually or economically."

Typical of her younger generation, Tucki had to leave Easter Island for a number of years to pursue a university degree. She returned, feeling the strong pull of her island roots, and works in tourism, as do most residents, because there is no work there in her chosen field of environmental planning. She says she does what she can to pass on the indigenous traditions to her children — and in that regard, Riroroko's coronation was a watershed. Seeing the feathery crown placed on his head, says Tucki, was like living "a dream." But like the mystery of Easter Island's Stone Heads, a solution to the Rapa Nui's independence movement still seems remote.