Umu – The rescue of a tradition

The Umu, also known as the ancestral ‘curanto’, is an on-going tradition on Rapa Nui. The communal Umu, organized by different Island families for the various feast days of the Catholic faith, are well known, while the ancient ritual custom of preparing Umu Tahu and Umu Hatu at the beginning and closing of important events is still observed.  The Umu Tahu is held to gather good ‘vibes’ and seek help from the spirits and from the god Make-Make for the task at hand or the celebration.  On the other hand, the Umu Hatu is to show gratitude for all that has been accomplished in the ritual. Communal eating is the focal point of these ritual celebrations which are held under different names.

The Umu is common throughout Polynesia, although the form of preparing it on Rapa Nui is more akin to that of the south of Chile, where it is called “curanto”, a word of Mapuche (native American) origin. The modern theory, supported by archaeological discoveries, claims that the Polynesian navigators reached the shores of south-central Chile in the Pre-Hispanic period, carried by the current of El Niño and bringing this tradition with them. It is prepared in an underground pit lined with sculpted stones, usually of uneven number, in which a bonfire is lit. The base is covered with banana leaves to hold the first level of food which is then covered with rocks, more leaves and finally with earth. A few hours later, it’s cooked and opened. Originally, the Rapanui used seafood, chickens and rats, animals that have lived on the Island from ancient times. Today, they have introduced beef, lamb and pork, as well.  It is customarily accompanied by a traditional Poe, a local loaf cake made with taro, manioc, sweet potato or squash.

The origins of ancestral Umu are related by Rodrigo Paoa, who together with Felipe Pakarati and Cristián Madariaga, has written a book entitled “Te ‘Umu i Rapa Nui”, that is to say, ‘Cooking of food in a Rapanui underground oven’. “This as yet unpublished work has as its objective to put order in the tradition”, states Paoa.  “People get things mixed up. Some prepare celebrations for events that have nothing to do with ancestral tradition. The ancestors used this occasion to address God and ask for help from the spirits of our land. If you are going to do it as a ritual, you should know how to do it and use it properly, recovering the spiritual meaning which is the most important aspect.”

The arrival of Catholic missionaries in 1864 gave new meaning to the Umu.  Since then it has become a custom among different Island families to prepare one on the occasion of some religious feast day and share it freely among all who come, including tourists. “With these celebrations, the tradition of Umu Ava is maintained, by sharing the Mana (power) of the good luck that has been received during the year.  But in this case, it has been converted into a celebration of the saints”, states Paoa.  He explains that these Umu of religious significance are the only communal ones that still remain, with the exception of the one held each year during the Tapati cultural festival.

The first religious Umu was held for the feast of Pentecost and the next was for Easter Sunday.  According to the parish priest of the Santa Cruz de Isla de Pascua church, Father Bernardo Astudillo, in this process of cross-culturalization the figure of Father Sebastián Englert is fundamental, as the one who included this ancient ritual in the manifestations of Catholic faith. In later years, the families began to apply the ‘curanto’ to various devotional days of saints or around the figure of Jesus Christ: Corpus Christi, Pentecost, the Holy Trinity. “In this way, we form an alliance between the ancestral and the Christian, emphasizing the act of solidarity and unity. In the world of today, individualism is predominant and this ritual is the total opposite of that”, states the priest. According to Rodrigo Paoa, the giving of food freely is seen in the Bible in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

Today, massive community ‘curantos’ are held according to the religious calendar, with an average of 500 participants per feast. The families work with the parish priest, who announces the event during the Mass and urges the people to attend.  Each family prepares for their event during the entire year, raising animals and agricultural products. On the days before, they slaughter the animals and prepare the Poe.  For the feast of San Petero (St. Peter, patron saint of fishermen) which is held on the 29th of June, three community Umu are prepared in the fishing coves of Hanga Otai, Hanga Piko and La Perouse. The Port Authority of the cove at Hanga Roa Otai, Petero Avaka, who organizes one of these Umu, explains the special bond that is generated around this celebration: “We have been doing this ‘curanto’ for the last five years. We have a good time organizing it. It’s family entertainment. Now, the older ones are showing the young people how to do it and they are taking charge of this lovely festival for the Rapanui people.” His brother-in-law, Simón Teao, also participates actively, although the ‘curanto’ offered by his family is held during Holy Week in honor of Easter Sunday.  He inherited this tradition from his grandfather, Horacio, and his father, Salomón:  “I hope that my son will follow, so that it doesn’t die out.  The ‘curanto’ is life for the Island which we make with our own hands.  You have to make the fire and without the fire you are not going to eat.”