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Next week, a delegation of Rapa Nui people, indigenous to Easter Island, will travel to London to meet with British Museum administrators about their request to repatriate Hoa Hakananai’a. The eight-foot, four-ton statue, whose name means “the stolen or hidden friend,” was taken from the island in 1868 by Royal Navy captain Richard Powell and then bestowed to Queen Victoria.
Hoa Hakananai’a is one of nearly 1,000 moai statues carved from volcanic rock in the history of the island, each of which has a strong spiritual and cultural value for the Rapa Nui community. The statue has been housed in the British Museum for over a century and serves as one of its most popular artifacts, but the Rapa Nui people have been actively campaigning for its return.
“We want the museum to understand that the moai are our family, not just rocks. For us [the statue] is a brother; but for them it is a souvenir or an attraction,” a member of the Easter Island development commission, Anakena Manutomatoma, told the Guardian. “Once eyes are added to the statues, an energy is breathed into the moai and they become the living embodiment of ancestors whose role is to protect us.”
“To recover Hoa Hakananai’a would be great, but with time we will be asking the other countries to return our ancestors,” Manutomatoma says. Multiple moai are on display in museums across the world.
In August, Easter Island’s Mayor Pedro Edmunds wrote an official request for the statue’s return, addressed to the museum. Then in October, Easter Island’s Ma’u Henna community, supported by the Chilean government, offered to replace Hoa Hakananai’a with a replica, crafted by thousand-year-old Rapa Nui techniques and modern technology with help from Hawaii’s Bishop Museum. “Our expert carvers will make a copy in basalt, the original stone used in the Hakananai’a moai, as an offering to Queen Elizabeth in exchange for the original,” Camilo Rapu, president of the Ma’u Henua community, told reporters in Chile.
Next week’s meeting will be the first time the British Museum has offered to confer with the Rapa Nui people since the statue was first acquired from Queen Elizabeth in 1869. The British Museum’s press office says they look forward to “discussing any future proposals [the Rapa Nui and Chilean delegates] have.”
Chile’s indigenous development agency, Conadi, will help fun the delegation’s travel to the UK to bolster the repatriation endeavor. (The Island has been a part of Chile since 1888.) Chilean law indicates moai sculptures an integral part of Easter Island’s land, rather than objects.
“The Rapa Nui people want to explain to the museum’s administrators that the moai is the living soul of the island. Hoa Hakananai’a acts as their ambassador and we want that to remain the case — but we want to exchange him for a moai that will be sculpted by craftsmen on the island so that the representative is there voluntarily. This is very important,” Felipe Ward, Chile’s minister for national property, told the Guardian.