Rapa Nui leader pays official visit to BYU-Hawaii, PCC

[Story and photo by Mike Foley: Published originally in the BYU-Hawaii online “Newsroom,” April 11, 2005

Alberto HotusIn February 2004 when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of The Quorum of the Twelve served in residence as President of the Chile Area, he became the first LDS Apostle to visit Easter Island — or Rapa Nui as its approximately 2,500 Polynesian inhabitants call their isolated homeland, which has had a small branch of members since 1981 and is currently part of the Chile Santiago North Mission.

While on Easter Island, Elder Holland invited Alberto Hotus [pictured at right], 75, president of the hereditary council of elders and a former mayor of Rapa Nui, to visit BYU-Hawaii and the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Easter Island, considered one of the most remote spots in the world, is located about halfway between Chile and Tahiti and is world-famous for its large stone statues or moai. It has been a part of Chile since 1888.

Accompanied by Elder Gonzalo Sepúlveda, Area Authority Seventy for Chile, Hotus spent a week in Laie, familiarizing himself with BYU-Hawaii and his fellow islanders at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which opened a Rapa Nui exhibit as part of its 40th anniversary in 2003. Hotus is particularly interested in helping preserve the traditional language of Rapa Nui and its philology or relationship to other Polynesian languages. During his visit, he presented the university with copies of his studies on the language and its etymology as well as a genealogy of Rapa Nui families from the time it was first populated until the current generation.

“We feel the best way to preserve the culture of the island is by the study of the language,” said Hotus, who explained he first became interested in the language and traditions of his people as a young nurse in charge of all the elderly leprosy patients on Easter Island. Later he used that knowledge to successfully lobby the Chilean government to return and restrict ownership of Rapa Nui land to the Polynesian natives.

Hotus’ visit to Hawaii, his first, and the Polynesian Cultural Center has encouraged him. “A lot of Easter Islanders had said we don’t want development to make us like Hawaii, but after visiting here and seeing all that has been done, I can also see economic and cultural progress. Much of what I see here is what we need to do. We need to economically develop, but at the same time preserve the important things of our culture.”

The stone statues, for example, which have become icons of Polynesia that are recognized worldwide, “are not gods, but they are very sacred because they are representations of our ancestral leaders.”

“Easter Island doesn’t have some of the problems of the rest of the world but those problems are arising, and need to be stopped. By visiting the campus, I can see how it can be stopped,” Hotus said. “I can see that the Church has taught the students morality and that they shouldn’t be smoking or drinking, that they observe standards which promote discipline. The quality of life for the people on the island has been improving, and it’s important to keep that going, but I can also see future possibilities by following the model you have here.”

Hotus added he was “extremely impressed with the people who put together all the villages and their canoes at the Polynesian Cultural Center. They know perfectly well what they’re doing. The university’s Hawaiian voyaging canoe, Iosepa, is also very impressive. This is a canoe that could sail across the high seas. I was a sailor in the Chilean navy. We went many places in large, metal boats, but when you compare those with the Iosepa, you’re left to marvel how our ancestors navigated the open sea, and how they brought with them the tools and supplies they needed.”

“I’ve come to understand that there’s a ‘bridge’ between the Polynesian Cultural Center and the university,” he continued, noting Center guests help provide educational funding for the student workers.

While he said Easter Islanders currently have relationships with universities in Chile, “here at BYU-Hawaii they can learn English, the international language. In addition to that, I can see that BYU-Hawaii teaches people how to be entrepreneurs. The businesses they form then become a fountain of employment opportunity for the many others who come after. That’s what we’re looking for on the island of Rapa Nui, and we think tourism is the key, just like it has been in Hawaii.”

Hotus, who attended a devotional honoring the labor missionaries who built the BYU-Hawaii campus, said that was “so very impressive. I’ve never seen so many people volunteering any place else, and other people supporting them through the giving of their tithing.”

“I’m so grateful for the privilege of coming here and getting to know you,” said Hotus, also thanking BYU-Hawaii for the three scholarships that will be extended to Easter Island students. He added when he gets back to his home, he will tell his countrymen, “I had an absolutely marvelous visit. There was so much to learn, and I’m going to sit and talk with them about the things we can learn from my visit here.”

“Even though I had difficulty with the language, I was able to spiritually understand that one of the most important things is that there’s no discrimination. You can come here from any place, from any island in the Pacific; you don’t have to be of the same faith, and the students learn well here. They learn principles, and it’s very clear that they’re supposed to take those principles and the knowledge back to the countries of their origin and help the people there. This is a wonderful, marvelous thing.”

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