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Reclaiming Mana. Repatriation in Rapa Nui

  • Author(s): Arthur, Jacinta
  • Advisor(s): Shorter, David D.
  • et al.

This dissertation presents an intersubjective ethnography of repatriation in Rapa Nui. The central problem addressed in this study arises by recognizing that the debates around repatriation and the “reburial issue” are grounded in an epistemological friction. Throughout this dissertation I contend that Rapanui understandings of ivi tupuna or ancestral remains conflict dramatically with the widespread understanding held by non-indigenous, both scientists and beyond. As this study demonstrates, the Rapanui people have their own ontology, according to which they perceive being and beings in the world very differently than those of us influenced by Western worldviews. They understand the ancestors and other beings they co-exist with as persons. For the Rapanui, ivi tupuna have thus an ontological status: they are the ancestors, with whom they relate by haka ara, genealogy. As persons, they are capable of sharing their distinctive knowledges and mana with other beings, humans included. This genealogical and epistemological relation connects the living and the dead with their history, land, and knowledges. Scholars have very often ignored this distinctive ontology promoting a scholarly tradition that objectifies Rapanui systems of knowing and relating. In doing so, they dehumanize relations between a people and their heritage. The repatriation debate eloquently demonstrates the dramatic consequences of this epistemological conflict. First, repatriation activists have been particularly eloquent in asserting the destructive consequences of Western misinterpretation and appropriation of indigenous ancestors and knowledges. Second, the repatriation of the ancestors and ceremonial materials have helped indigenous communities around the globe maintain and revitalize their traditional systems of knowing and relating, re-connecting peoples with their histories and self-knowledges. Third, the repatriation movement has urged a new paradigm for the careful dealing of indigenous ancestors and living materials, rethinking the scientific endeavor and opening a space for a new generation of collaboration based on greater understanding and respect. This conflict between ontological and objectifying views expands to the broader field of indigenous studies, the repatriation lens working here as a microcosm revealing its grave consequences to indigenous peoples and their cultures.

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