Illustrious Citizens of Rapa Nui

Illustrious Citizens of Rapa Nui

Illustrious Citizens of Rapa Nui

41 Years Dedicated to the Rapanui Language

Recently designated “Illustrious Citizens of Rapa Nui” by the Municipality of Isla de Pascua, the American couple, Robert Weber and Nancy Thiesen Weber, both linguists of the NGO SIL International,
have dedicated their lives to the new generation of the Rapanui people through enormous contributions to the rescue of the ancestral language.

Responding to long-held aspirations, in 1975 during the military government, Chile approved the teaching of the Rapanui language in the local schools from first to sixth grade. The Ministry of Education and the Catholic University of Valparaiso, concerned about the lack of teachers and texts for this purpose, contacted the SIL, Summer Institute of Linguistics, a consultant for UNESCO and the United Nations. The purpose of this non-profit organization, sponsored by evangelical Protestant
Christian groups, is to compile and disseminate documentation on little known languages, often non-written, with the goal of translating the Bible into those languages.

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At that time, Robert Weber and his wife, Nancy
Thiesen, lived in Peru, together with their missionary parents. Nancy Weber relates…”We both grew up in the Amazonas region of Peru. Robert’s father was a jungle pilot, my mother was a nurse and I was a secretary. So we learned to live within native cultures and to serve ethnic minorities.” In 1976, when they were 28 years old, with three small children, they decided to accept the challenge of Easter Island and signed a contract for 3 years, which was later renewed and eventually became indefinite. “We first moved to Quilpué (continental Chile) and would come on visits to the Island, but that wasn’t sufficient, so we decided
to come to live here”, comments Nancy Weber. “The Island was totally different from today. There were very few houses, many of which were only half finished, and the roads were muddy tracks. Our first task was to learn the language.

“Until 1984, we shared a house with a Rapanui family and Georgina Paoa made room for us in the school. There we met many of the teachers, such as Luis Gomez-Macke, Emilia and Carmen Cardinali, Isabél Garcés, who was the wife of Alvaro Atán, and Marian Peronard-Thierry. In those days, 77% of the
students at the Island’s school were native speakers of Rapanui, but they couldn’t read or write their language. The teachers Mario Tuki and Juan Marambio had begun classes of Rapanui based
on the books of Father Sebastian Englert. To strengthen the language, we had to do something to help the entire community and so we began literary workshops with colleagues from Peru and from the Catholic University. The workshops were held over a period of three months, every week day during 5 hours a day. The Islanders were so enthusiastic that
they didn’t want to stop. They told stories and the only person who tried to write them all down fast
was Felipe Pakarati, in spite of being blind. Then Eusebio Tuki learned to type his stories on a typewriter.”

After many months of study on the local language,
including an analysis of phonetic structure, the researchers began to test several tentative systems of writing. Based on the general opinion of the people, they took the decision to use an alphabet that would be easy to learn. Robert Weber comments that the first step was to make a primer, a basic spelling book. “Then, with Carmen Cardinali, we set up a trial text for first grade, which we ended up using for all the classes through to sixth grade. So the children learned to read. We realized that, with this, the self-esteem of the students rose surprisingly, which led them to do better in all of their classes. In 1989, we were able to finish Biblia Rapa the text books for all the grades from first to sixth. The students were now required to read, write and understand basic grammar. We also made four workbooks for teaching Rapanui as a second
language for the teachers. There were students who weren’t fluent in Rapanui and who had to be taught words and phrases bit by bit.”

In the nineties, with the increasing arrival of continentals and the increase of mixed marriages, the profile of the school had changed; According to the couple of linguists, the number of native speakers in the Rapa Nui language had dropped sharply to 25%. It was a fact, the Rapa Nui parents preferred their children to learn Spanish because they thought it would give them a better future.

The Indigenous Law of 1993 authorizes the creation of plans and programs for an intercultural bilingual education in the national context. The culture of Rapa Nui to date had been limited to teaching dances, music and crafts. In this context, the Virginia Haoa Immersion Program emerged, which was implemented three years later. In these programs, books and study materials made by the Weber couple were used on the basis of their literary workshops. A few years later, Rapa Nui teachers created the Academy of the Language, beginning the revitalization of the Rapa Nui language.

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With the recent publication of the New Testament in the Rapanui language, the couple of linguists has fulfilled their objective and returns to their country of origin. “The translation project of the bible demanded a joint work with outstanding people and teachers rapa nui during 23 or 24 years” … affirms Roberto Weber. “Now we are finishing the reissue of the new study texts and the technical works on grammatical subjects of the language that will be later uploaded to the internet.

In the USA we will finish the Spanish-speaking dictionary to send it to the island. Nancy Thiesen de Weber sighs: “It’s hard to leave the island. In spite of being unique the rapa nui and how difficult it was to work with them, we love them. Many times we wanted to throw in the towel, but here we are. Our children grew up and studied in Rapa Nui. Now we return to the central valley of California, the land of my parents, where today our children and grandchildren live. We take nothing and we feel almost like indigent immigrants. We will arrive right at the marriage of our eldest daughter, Iorana Rapa Nui. “On the day of their departure, the couple received notification of residence by unanimous vote of the Easter Island Development Commission.

Bible Rapa Nui

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