Niso Tuki Tepano

In the past, it was a custom to raise children from another family, for various reasons: not being able to have one’s own children, not being able to raise one’s own child or simply because a family wanted to have more children, as was the case for Niso Tuki: “I didn’t live with my biological parents, Eduardo Tuki-Hey and Magdalena Tepano-Ika, but with my adopted parents, Alejo Rapu and Filomena Pua-Pakomio, who only had two sons (Joaquín and Martín), but who wanted another one. When I was born, they asked my mother to give me to them to be their son. She didn’t want to, but my father obliged her to give me up. The women had to respect the men. Those in charge in the family were the fathers and then the eldest son because they represented the families within the clan; the girls, when they got married, became part of another family.

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“It wasn’t until I was 16 years old that I found out that I had 12 more siblings. I was shocked and never went back to the Rapu house, but went to live with the Tukis. The odd thing was that no one said anything… that’s the way they are here. From that day, I had another type of education. The Rapus had taught me the traditions and knowledge of fishing, but my new family were all artists and craftsmen. My brother, Benedicto, told stories of our ancestors that he had heard from our grandfather, Leon Tuki. I paid close attention, remembering and comparing with the stories that I had previously learned. Unfortunately, I never wrote them down.

“My memories from my childhood are of a lot of work. We would go out very early to the fields where we would plow the soil with oxen. It was work all day long. We raised chickens and there was a paddock for the cows, which we milked and made fresh cheese. I was the one who had to go to the houses of the Navy to deliver milk, eggs and cheese. The milk was kept in wine bottles, since we didn’t have anything else at the time. We drank tea or water from tin cans which we we kept from the preserved fruit from the continent. Our daily diet was ‘mote’ (sprouted barley) and cooked taro. The soil was fertile so we planted corn, sweet potatoes and watermelons.”

From 1909 to 1952, the Chilean government leased Easter Island to the British sheep company, Williamson & Balfour, which raised sheep to export the wool and also raised pigs to export the lard. Niso recalls that when the Chilean Navy took charge of the Island in 1953, the custom of giving four sheep per month to each employee continued. “The workers never lacked for meat. Some Islanders who weren’t regular employees didn’t receive this ration and they had to plant corn to sell to the Navy for feeding the pigs; with that they could buy what they needed. Once a year, after the shearing, a naval ship would come to take the bales of wool and the lard to the continent, and at the same time brought the supply of flour, rice, sugar, candles, matches, etc. Even so, the food didn’t last for the whole year. When the flour ran out, our mothers would use the sacks to make clothes for us. We didn’t have shoes, but went around barefooted. Sometimes, Caritas Chile (a Catholic church charity) would send shoes and pencils, but obviously there was never enough for all. If you went to swim in the sea and took off your shoes, you might not find them when you came back.“

One of the main problems that the Island had to face since the annexation to Chile in 1888 until 1950 was leprosy which arrived from Tahiti. Niso recalls that when he was a child, he would visit some of the Rapu relatives who had the disease. “The Navy office was where the Banco del Estado is today and they controlled that no one could leave the Island. I remember that in 1969 I went with Elias Rapu to do military service at Playa Ancha (Valparaiso). One captain made us take X-rays, probably for the leprosy, and since we didn’t show any signs, we could enlist.

“It was other times and education was very different. For example, today everyone turns on the faucet and water comes out. Before, we had to go down into the cave at Ana Vai Teka, crawling in with an empty 3-liter tin, the type that Caritas used to send cheese to the Island. We had to slither through the cave until we could find a pond of water, then fill the tin and return. Woe to the one who spilled water on the way out; they scolded you and, as punishment, you had to go back in. In the 60s, I started school, but, of course, only after finishing the chores on the farm. In 1962, when I was 11, I went with my adopted parents and their son Joaquín to Valparaiso to study in Liceo N° 4 in front of the Van Buren hospital. Four years later, we returned to the Island when the Mataveri airport was under construction by the Longui company, which arrived with 60 construction workers. They were helped by the ‘gringos’ (North Americans) with gas for their machines. It was a period of great changes.”

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The ‘gringos’ to whom Niso Tuki refers were military men from the USA who, thanks to an agreement between the Chilean Air Force and the US Air Force under the government of Jorge Alessandri, had installed a satellite tracking station on Easter Island in 1965, bringing in more than 100 single men to do the work and to interact with the local population. At that time, the Island held about 1200 native Rapanui and some 143 continental Chileans. Thus it was that, from 1966 onward, with the arrival of civil administration during the government of President Eduardo Frei-Montalva, the Island began more connected to the outside world through improvcements in communications, permanent air service and the arrival of large numbers of Chilean governmental bureaucrats, as well as foreign and Chilean tourists.

Niso remembers: “The ECA also arrived to sell groceries, cigarettes, everything. Once the airport was ready, all the owners of properties which were alongside ceded a part for the road, except one, Rafael Roe, whose descendants – after selling off most of their land to others – are now trying to reclaim the road. The young people today are terrible. They aren’t interested in traditions or in the common good. They sell their land, they aren’t interested in who they are, they don’t want to learn their language, their genealogy, their history or even what place names mean. They’ve even lost respect for their koros, the elders. The people of the Island today are all makupuna, grandchildren who just want to make money off of the inheritance that was left to us by our tupunas, our ancestors.” Niso stresses that the ancestors were wise people, respectful of their hierarchies and of nature: “Our tupunas, the first navigators who arrived with Hotu Matua, were scientists. Tu’u Koiho had knowledge of astronomy, of the ocean currents, of the winds. He was accompanied by Nuku Kehu, an architect, Heiromo, an agronomist and Paparona, who brought with him the knowledge of the writing of Rongo-Rongo.” According to the stories that Niso heard from his elders, this was written in high relief when dealing with astronomical and in low relief for matters relating to survival. The manner of reading was through touch, so that they could be read even in the dark. “They also had knowledge of the spirits, for example, people today think that Make Make is a god, but no, he’s a spirit.” Niso tells his version of an old legend: “A woman named Haua was at Hanga Nui to get water in a gourd. The current started carrying the gourd away and she went in to rescue it. When she went in the sea, a shark came near to her and swallowed her whole, only to spit her out again on Motu Motiro Hiva (Salas y Gomez Island). She climbed up the rocks and saw that there was no house and no plants, just birds. In the meanwhile, the shark was circling the island until he came out on the rocks transformed into a man. The old woman Haua asked his name and he responded Make-Make. This was the first time in the history of Rapa Nui that Make-Make appeared. He was also called Atua Hiva.“

Niso Tuki, after living for 10 years in Vaitea where he took care of the cattle of his nephew, Felipe Tuki-Tepano, returned to Hanga Roa to help a relative, Daniel Tepano, in one of the first hostels for tourists. In 1980 he married Maria Paté-Pont with whom he has 4 children. After 37 years of marriage, Maria are grateful: “Niso is a very good husband. He had never raised a hand to me, as many others here do to their wives. He is also an excellent father. He never was demanding with the children and would say to me: ‘Let them be. I don’t want them to suffer as I suffered.’”

Since 1988, Niso has worked with the Kia Koe tour operator, driving tour buses. He has also been very active with the Ka Haka Hoki Mai Te Mana Tupuna organization in seeking the repatriation and reburial of Ivi Tupuna, the bones of the ancestors: “For us the Moai (statues) over the Ahu (platforms) mean nothing without their Pukao (headdresses), their Mata (eyes) and their Ivi Tupuna.”

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