11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Ann M. Altman
- Published on Amazon.com
This review of Haun's excellent book appeared in the Journal "Pacific Affairs" (2009) and is written by one of the world's experts on Easter Island, Professor Terry Hunt of the University of Hawai'i
Beverley Haun's Inventing Easter Island' provides a timely and
perceptively critical analysis of the Euro-American colonial
narratives--"shaped truths"--constructed to make sense, at least for
outsiders, of the nature of this famous island. These "shaped truths"
engendered in colonial encounters live on in modern thinking, both
popular and academic, yet as critical examination and modern research
reveal, many are little more than myths. Haun takes a decidedly
postmodern perspective; one she describes among other adjectives as
"postcolonial." Her goals include deconstructing historical and
contemporary narratives for Easter Island (Rapa Nui), developing a new
postcolonial consciousness, and shaping a hopeful future (23) that
returns the island's narrative of history and identity to the Native
As Haun recounts in her introduction, Rapa Nui has both a dynamic,
sometimes enigmatic pre-contact history, and an incredibly tragic,
downright cruel colonial history. Today some scholars conflate the
so-called mystery of the Rapanui's pre-contact monumentality with the
island's catastrophic post-contact history of disease, slave-trading,
theft and imprisonment. Thus, today we endure the narrative of an
island people who destroyed their environment, and as a consequence,
destroyed themselves. Haun's analysis will shed critical light on such
contemporary, indeed politicized narratives, including some
perpetuated by academic writers with little if any basis in
archaeological or historical evidence.
Haun analyzes "forces at play" that shaped the European cultural
context of their experience with people of the Pacific and elsewhere
in their global imperial pursuits. Her analysis, like Anne Salmond's
Two Worlds (Viking, 1991) detailing European-Maori interactions,
places Europeans in an essential critical, historical and ethnographic
Chronicling the first European encounters, Haun offers a detailed
account of Dutch journals. There are two salient points: the Dutch
narrative initiates a dividing process, between the people and their
island, or between the Rapanui descendents and their history. For
example, Roggeveen, it seems, downplayed the impressiveness of the
moai (monumental statues); to acknowledge such accomplishments would
threaten Eurocentric notions of superiority. Haun writes that this
process continues today. I concur. Second, she notes a disturbing
selective use of elements in early texts in contemporary accounts,
where scholars cite what supports their views, and omit what does not.
The Spanish arrived in 1770 with a mandate to claim new lands for the
Empire. Haun illustrates these colonial interests in Spanish notions
of "domesticating" islanders with conversion to Christianity, yielding
a pliable native workforce and land for productive exploitation,
anticipating the South American slave raids of Rapa Nui. The Spanish
visit brought significant impacts, including perhaps devastating
epidemic Old World diseases for which the Rapanui had no natural
immunity. Perhaps this catastrophe set the stage for the dismal
impressions formed by the English (in 1774) and the French (in 1786)
who arrived following the Spanish, and with different intentions. Haun
is among only a handful of scholars who recognizes how this likely
chronicle of events, including disease and depopulation, helped to
shape and distort historical impressions.
Finally, Haun outlines how eighteenth-century imagery and "shaped
truths" persist in popular and academic narratives for Rapa Nui today.
Representations in popular culture and impressions of modern tourists
reproduce the "mystery" and effective separation of today's Rapanui
descendents from their moai-making ancestors. And from the early
impressions coupled with some contemporary field research come the
myths of people who committed "ecological suicide." In recent popular
accounts such as Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to
Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005) and Ronald Wright's A Short History of
Progress (Anansi, 2005), the Rapanui, as Haun writes, "have been
resuscitated only to become representatives of the rest of the earth's
population heading into self-destruction" (254). Indeed, much of the
doomsday metaphor of "ecocide" rests on flimsy interpretations of
selected archaeological, palaeo-ecological, or oral historical
Beverley Haun provides a useful critique at an important juncture in
our understanding of what happened on this Polynesian island. She
correctly points out that "it is the very instability of the invented
Easter Island that allows it to be transformed into different versions
to suit the zeitgeist of the time" (254). As an archaeologist working
on Rapa Nui, I would add that her critique can be extended to much of
the narrative constructed for prehistory as well. It has been shaped
by some of the same historical threads she identifies, particularly as
the early impressions are pushed back in time to loosely interpret the
sometimes mute stones of archaeology. Yet, in contrast to the ultimate
relativism of some postmodern arguments (where all knowledge is
subjective), I envision a competing scientific narrative that now
challenges the colonial invention of Easter Island. In its place
"postcolonial knowledge" can be constructed on the critical approach
and empirical standards that embody scientific research. Bad "science"
does not negate the value of science in the pursuit of knowledge, but
instead demands critical reassessments. Empirical standards for
archaeological (and sometimes historical) questions also offer the
potential to build "postcolonial" knowledge and bring empowerment to
Rapanui people in reclaiming their history.
TERRY L. HUNT
University of Hawai'i Manoa, Honolulu, USA
7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
In reviewing "Inventing 'Easter Island'" I found myself caught on the horns of a dilemma because, on the one hand (horn?) this is an interesting, scholarly work of profound implications that should inspire much discussion about what Easter Island was once, what it has become, and what it may evolve into one day. But within the book's erudite language and well-intentioned message there is an undeniable bias that punctures the equilibrium of its objectivity. This is evident from the very beginning when Haun, in her preface, justly takes to task a Canadian photographer who not too long ago committed unpardonable sins on the island by re-arranging rocks and disturbing potentially archaeologically significant sites in order to create "landscape art". This abomination was compounded by the fact that the photographer smuggled film off the island and some of his images were published in a Canadian magazine whose editors obviously have no dignity nor shame in glorifying how the photographer sneered at the "primitive" nature of the Easter Islanders who rightly objected to this desecration. And it is here that we begin to apprehend Haun's equation of what this Canadian did with what she calls the "Euro-American culture" that has by her reckoning re-invented the Easter Island cultural milieu and not necessarily in a positive way.
But is it entirely fair to equate what this photographer did with what early European explorers did? Are these two types of parties equally liable? Despite Haun's "resistance to the historical accounts", I say no. If the histories tell us anything, if social and cultural evolution has any validity, it is that for the most part we HAVE learned from the past, we ARE different. Some of us are, anyway. James Cook comes to mind. And in one particular way what this photographer did was worse than what many of the European explorers did BECAUSE HE KNEW BETTER; he had the product of centuries of knowledge about this island at his disposal and yet he admitted to coldly, deliberately ignoring both sensitivities and the law. We may thus rightfully ask if the first Europeans knew better, a question we do not have to ask of this Canadian photographer. Nor can we ignore the possibility that what we know of the past is the result of records made not always by the responsible parties but by their underlings or from faulty memories recalled years after the events -- and that this may reflect, but may not establish with certainty, a consequential discrimination, intended or otherwise, that was part of the inspiration for global exploration (and, yes, conquest) that sanctioned reprehensible acts without impunity.
In keeping with this, Haun tells us that "All texts are unstable constructions. All 'information' about the island is a version filtered through the perceptions and evaluations of the writers". Yet if this is accepted, then we would seem to have no choice but to interpret all accounts -- including Haun's -- as potentially suspect and therefore those that describe peaceful cooperation and those that involve exploitation and abuse may be no different from each other. But surely this doesn't always have to be so, any more than it is true when Haun cites Jorges de Cuchilleros who says that "we're complicit" in the evil actions of others by virtue of our recognition of them, even if they are culturally sanctioned. Just as recognition is not the same as participation, we should be capable of differentiating between those accounts which seek to describe and those which seek to justify.
I do not mean to exculpate those who committed bestial atrocities against the islanders but I believe I have sufficient historical perspective to know that some people are stupid and malignant and others are intelligent and benevolent and that we must not forget the context in which events occur in our interpretation of them. This is one reason I take exception to Haun referring to the "violence of renaming" of the island, because it was neither violent nor is it necessarily an injustice that "Easter Island" as a name would be imposed as part of the "invention" of this tiny triangular world lost in the Pacific. Let us not forget, as Haun herself points out, that the islanders themselves may not even have HAD a name for their own island and that the name that is so often used proudly today ("Rapa Nui") wasn't adopted until possibly a millennium after the first settlers arrived -- and even this name wasn't a creation of the islanders but was given to them by Tahitian sailors.
At the same time, it's not that anyone is requiring Haun to be "fair" or "balanced" in expressing her opinions. She's entitled to them and there is no shortage of thought behind them. But her conclusions subsequently inspired MY reactive opinion that it is not the scientist's task to assign culpability or to exonerate when explaining behavior and its outcomes. Is it likely that the Easter Islanders contributed to their demise? Yes. This is what humans do. Is it likely that the Easter Islanders were SOLELY responsible? Hardly. There are a great many factors in a whole constellation of factors that may have contributed to the island's cultural and environmental collapse -- and so it is not always necessary to lay the blame entirely at anyone's feet or interpret anyone's actions in ethical terms at all. But it is undeniable that at least two camps have developed, one led largely by Jared Diamond (borrowing heavily but probably interpreting erroneously the intentions of Paul Bahn & John Flenley, and perhaps John Dransfield) and another led by a diverse group including Terry Hunt & Carl Lipo, Benny Peiser, and Paul Rainbird (to name a few) who seem desirous of not only disproving Diamond, Bahn & Flenley, and Dransfield but in "freeing" the Easter Islanders from the "guilt" of knowing they were chopping down the last tree but did it anyway. I do not believe that anyone of sensitivity or intelligence is suggesting the islanders were "stupid" in their actions but then, having said this, I am forced to ask if we modern humans should be seen as stupid for what we are doing to our planet and I am thus constrained to wonder why we are may be employing a double standard. Unless it functions in the same way where we must distinguish between what the Canadian photographer did and what the "Euro-Americans" did on the island we call Easter.
Into this roiling cauldron of ideas Haun has thrown herself with verve. Her prose is excellent, her research evidently thorough and directed. Thus I appreciate the sophistication with which Haun's book is written and I can't deny her passion even if it occasionally interferes with her objectivity. It seems strange, for example, that she criticizes Hodges's artistic interpretations of the island for "erasing the Rapanui from the scene of their own cultural production" (which is by Haun's own admission inaccurate since there ARE islanders present in the engravings and paintings) and further chastises him for taking liberties with the weather as it's depicted in one of his most famous paintings because it's not historically accurate "as reported in the journals" -- journals that she might have us question as to their veracity. I'd say it's dangerous enough to question the creative license an artist might employ even when you KNOW the artist's intentions -- but there is no shortage of irony in the fact that Haun uses this famous painting on the cover of her own book. Or maybe this is to make a point?
And if it is irony that one should observe in "Inventing 'Easter Island'", there is no better example than the title itself, for the phrase is particularly apt not just because of its implications within this book's message but because of the whole context of ideas it conjures, neatly in keeping with what Jacquetta Hawkes once said about another place where the stonework of an ancient culture has dazzled and perplexed us for centuries: "Every generation gets the Stonehenge it deserves". The same can, I think, be said about Easter Island. When the islanders weren't "thieves" or "savages" or possibly cannibals they were fodder for slavery or, sadly, unwilling vectors for disease. Today the Easter Islanders seem to be suffering from an identity crisis brought on by immigrants from Chile or ideas from Hollywood, and even they cannot agree on whether they should follow in the footsteps of Tikopia or Las Vegas. Haun cites the late Clemente Hereveri as having said science is in conflict with the ethnic world while at the same time he asked that the indigenous Rapanui be able to preserve their past by the transmission of knowledge -- and yet this is one of the things science does. Are these conflicts really the result of outside influence with ulterior motives or a misunderstanding of what science really represents -- an aspect of the Human Condition ever seeking to define itself out of increasing necessity or ravenous curiosity?
In point of fact, the "invention" that Haun would very nearly have us believe as a pejorative phenomenon is really a function of the wonderful resourcefulness of the Easter Islanders, for they have weathered (literally and figuratively) a storm of human and environmental disasters and have not only survived but repeatedly re-invented themselves in order to endure. "Invention" here is the glory of the Easter Islanders. If there is any "invention" it is not an imposition from without but a profound evolution from within.
In the end, beyond the factual information, the bias still cannot be ignored but this does not make the book flawed, nor do I discourage anyone from buying or reading it. But make no mistake: If you place yourself in the camp that bleeds for the Easter Islanders, ancient or modern, this book preaches to the choir. If you place yourself in the camp that wants to differentiate between the past and the present and believe that there is a difference in how these are not only interpreted but manifested even today (after all, the Rapanui, as Haun says, have a "right to define their past as well as their future on their own terms"), what you may get out of this book becomes a matter of being forced to question whether the same bias the author complains about is inherent because of the interpretation she brings to the discussion or because of objective effects in the real world potentially open to our inspection and thinking. Regardless of which camp the politics of this book inspires one to adhere to, it can justly be said that it continues to support an important dialogue that may eventually produce a better understanding (or perhaps a better "invention" of Easter Island.
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[Note: The writer of this review is a member of the Board of Directors of the Easter Island Foundtaion and the author of the "Complete Guide to Easter Island".]