The rebirth of ancestral medicine

The Rapanui community of today is in the process of reclaiming many different aspects of their social and political life.  One of them is the rebirth of ancestral medicine.

Currently on the Island is an old field hospital, built in the 1970s, which was originally destined by the Americans for the war in Vietnam.  Under the Chilean government of General Pinochet, it was bought to serve the Islanders.  But with growing immigration, the modest staff of professionals and the limited amount of technical equipment haven’t been  able to keep pace with the basic needs of the almost 5,000 inhabitants, much less the thousands of tourists who every year arrive to visit the Island.

By the end of this year, it is expected that a new, modern building will be inaugurated to fulfill the requirements of the population.  One of the innovations that will be considered within the official implementation is the Special Program for Native Peoples Health, which consists in offering modern Western medicine complemented by the ancestral Rapanui medicine.  The objective is give the hospital in Hanga Roa a multi-cultural identity, generating programs to recover ancient health practices which were based on plants and therapy within programs for environmental protection.

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This project of cultural integration began in 2007 when the “Committee of Original People”, or “Mesa Pueblo Papa Ra’au”, of the Hanga Roa Hospital was formed.  It is made up of the director of the hospital, Iván Sepúlveda-Cid, the social worker and general coordinator of the program, Yolanda Nahoe, and the Rapanui specialists Carmen Nahoe, Lory Paoa, Felicita Tepano, Pedro Hito, Berta Hey, Ruth Ika, Adriana Atamu, Pamela Hucke, Elsa Paté, Cristina Walter and Graciela Huke. Graciela Huke is the oldest “Taote” (doctor) of the Island and even today continues to prepare her medicinal plants.  Over the last four years, these specialists, heirs of the medicinal knowledge of their ancestors, have treated patients with varied pains and illnesses : colds, allergies, stomach problems, aches in the bones, wounds, stress and post-partum assistance are among the most common
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For each syndrome, there is a specific treatment or therapy.  Elsa Paté tells that one of her principal functions is to assist at child-birth in the hospital and apply therapy with hot rocks. “After the baby is born, I visit the mothers.  First, I build a fire, then I put on the rocks to heat, after which I wrap them in fig leaves and place them around the mother’s stomach.  The rocks serve to absorb all the air inside the woman, so that within three months her body returns to its previous form.”   Elisa Hermosilla, who was diagnosed by a psychiatrist with congenital depression, tells us now that : “I carried this sickness for many years and never was very good about following treatments.  Last year when I came to see the doctor, he asked if I would like to try Harmonization Therapy with Carmen Nahoe.  I accepted and found that there was a positive change.  I used to sleep very badly and when I applied this therapy, I was able to sleep relaxed.”
In addition to therapy with hot rocks and phytotherapy, or therapy based on medicinal plants, there is also treatment based on full body massage, called Tauromi, together with harmonization and mud treatments.  “Since we were little, we were nourished in all this knowledge.  I remember that as a small child my grandmother taught me the names and told me of the benefits and properties of each plant; she was convinced that when I grew up I would be a Taote” says Pamela Hucke.  On the other hand, Elsa Paté tells us that … my maternal great-grandmother was a midwife and my paternal great-grandmother was one of the first women to work with the Matua Puaa.  The Matua Pua´a is today a central and sacred element of the Island’s botanical pharmacopeia.  It is found principally in the crater of the volcano Rano Kau, which is considered as the place most highly charged with Mana, or spiritual force.  The search for the plant within the volcano is surrounded by a series of restrictions and precautions.  The ritual calls for the person to go alone at dawn, following fasting of food and of sexual activity, without speaking to anyone whom she might encounter on the way and only thinking of the objective of the search.  On this trip, she is not allowed to eat any of the fruit to be found in Rano Kau.  It is a path of sacrifices which an Islander must not break for a mere personal desire.  There is no doubt about the cultural importance of this remedy.

Visitors interested in this natural medicine can request an appointment in the Medical Orientation and Statistics Section (SOME) at the Hanga Roa Hospital, where they will make a diagnosis and apply a treatment with a follow-up evaluation at no cost.

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