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Culture Change On Rapa Nui

Easter Island Culture Seeks To Survive

... Often called the loneliest place on earth, Easter Island [Rapa Nui] is now caught up in the swirling changes of globalization and is on the front line of a broader effort to preserve the world's endangered languages.

Every year, more languages pass into extinction. In the Chilean archipelago north of the Strait of Magellan, the last dozen or so speakers of the Kawesqar Indian language are aged. Inevitably, Kawesqar will join Kunza and Selknam on the list of Chile's dead languages.

... Chileans are currently as free to come to Easter Island as Americans are to move to Hawaii.

"The constitution of Chile is killing my culture and my identity," said Petero Edmunds, the mayor of Hanga Roa and the island's only popularly elected official. "We are a millenarian culture that existed long before Chile did. And the only way to protect that culture is by regulating migration."

It's sad to see a culture on the brink of extinction (particularly Kawesqar, although that's because I personally know more about that culture). But I'm uneasy with the idea that restricting immigration is a good solution. Part of it is the way the logic resembles the arguments against letting Latin American immigrants into the US, for fear they'll dilute our Anglo-Saxon culture (as well as similar arguments against Asian immigration to Australia and Middle Eastern immigration to Europe). One could make a case for drawing a distinction based on the issue of power. Immigrants to the US are relatively powerless. There's an objective sense in which fears of white America being swamped by Latinos are simply incorrect given any reasonable threshold of cultural survival (i.e., unless you demand complete purity). We're in a position to be enriched by immigrants without being swept away. That's not the case for Rapa Nui.

I'm not convinced that immigration restrictions would solve the problem. The idea is to reduce the cost of maintaining a culture. People are lazy in their use of mental and social resources, and tend to value culture not for its inherent worth (if it even has that), but for its utility -- its usefulness in helping them interact with others and make sense of their own situation. There's a baseline level of cultural competence that's universally cost-effective. When contact with non-Rapa Nui culture was not an option, Rapa Nui culture could be maintained on the basis of that baseline utility that any culture would have. In this sense it didn't matter that the culture was specifically Rapa Nui, just that it was a culture that was compatible with the culture of the other people and the environment that one needed to interact with.

Contact with Chileans broadened the compass of people it was possible to interact with. It raised the question of whether there was anything especially worthwhile about Rapa Nui. Either Spanish or Rapa Nui can satisfy the baseline utility of having a culture. Trade, TV, and immigration lower the costs of acquiring a new culture, while offering the benefits that come from an extended compass of social interaction. The more people pick up Spanish so as to be able to take advantage of the interaction with Chile and its products, the more the baseline utility of Rapa Nui is eroded -- if you and your neighbor both learned Spanish so you can speak to Chileans, what do you need Rapa Nui for? It's less taxing on your mental resources to just remember one language, and to speak to everyone in Spanish. And because cultures must be maintained through social interaction, there's a snowball effect from the accumulation of individual choices -- my decision to learn Spanish alters the cost-benefit structure of my friends decision contexts because Spanish now offers them slightly more. Easter Island doesn't have a large enough population vis-a-vis Chile (and certainly not vis-a-vis Latin America) to keep the balance from tilting decisively toward homogenization (in the way that the major European languages kept in balance). Economic modernization also affects the function of culture in connecting people to their environment. The specialized environmental knowledge embodied in a culture becomes less immediately useful as people partake of mass production.

One solution is for people to judge that there's something inherently worthwhile in Rapa Nui, something that Spanish can't provide. This may be a functional utility, as in the argument for maintaining a connection with one's roots -- you can't go back in time and get the ancient Easter Islanders to speak Spanish. (Of course, this assumes that it's worthwhile to be connected to one's roots, and that one's real roots are genetic and/or geographic, rather than cultural -- else why not adopt Spanish roots along with the Spanish language?) Indeed, the functional utility may lie in the very fact that it is a minority culture, and thus confers specialness on its practitioners and distances them from a majority culture that has been the source of injustices. It may also be an inherent utility, as in the argument that there's a unique worldview captured in Rapa Nui that can only be palely reflected through translation into Spanish.

The "multicultural" solution is to try to emphasize those additional values, arguing that they are great enough to make it worth maintaining a second culture. But the anti-immigration proposal represents an "isolationist" solution, a deliberate narrowing of a group's compass of social interaction so that the culture in question can be used to fulfil the baseline utility. If you shut the Chileans out (not necessarily completely, but to a degree that would go beyond immigration controls to reducing communications like TV as well as trade), then you no longer have "Spanish lets me speak to outsiders" as a reason that tips the balance in deciding whether to speak to your neighbor in Spanish or Rapa Nui. At the extreme end of this is the Amish solution, in which the socioeconomic structure and socialization of the group essentially "rig" a person to encounter prohibitively high costs if they attempt to extend their compass of interaction to outsiders and forces a choice between outsiders and insiders, rather than allowing people to straddle the border. It puts up a barrier on the slippery slope to culture change, at the cost of restricting people's opportunities for choice.


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